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Why Learn Welsh?

Learning Welsh is a popular activity these days. The exact number of people learning Welsh, at school, in evening classes or at home, is hard to estimate accurately, but it is certainly in six figures. As for how many speak it already, according to the last census, taken in 1991, some 508,098 people in Wales consider themselves to be Welsh-speakers, although the total number of people who have some degree of fluency is said to be nearer a million. It’s said that as many as 20,000 people in London can speak Welsh.

But why does anyone study this out-of-the-way little language, when it’s never essential for communication? After all there are no adult monoglot Welsh speakers nowadays. Welsh (or something like it) was once spoken over a large area of what is now the UK, but is now confined to a small corner of the British Isles, and the numbers of native speakers have declined steadily for many decades. Everyone in Wales speaks English fluently and the few Welsh speakers in Argentina are more at home in Spanish these days.

So Welsh is never needed for practical reasons. It’s just a sentimental gesture or an intellectual game for language enthusiasts. Isn’t it?

In fact there are many good reasons for learning Welsh, some of them quite hard-headed.

Practical Reasons

Today, anyone living anywhere in Wales is better off for knowing Welsh. Many jobs demand it; many others would rate it as an advantage. Even in English-speaking areas, the public sector is committed to offering services in either language, as of right, and although there is no legal obligation on private businesses to do the same, there is often a commercial obligation. And of course Welsh is an official language of the new Welsh Assembly.

A survey of adults learning Welsh in the 1960s placed ‘Business and Profession’ at the bottom of the top ten reasons for learning Welsh, after ‘Political and social reasons’ and ‘Worship’. How times have changed! According to the tongue-in-cheek Xenphobe’s Guide to Welsh,

Although only about a fifth of the population of Wales can speak Welsh, the Welsh language is enjoying something of a revival. More and more adults are learning it, some to rediscover their cultural roots, others, it is said, to understand the soaps on Welsh-language television. It is now axiomatic (at least among English speakers) that to get a job in television you need to be a Welsh speaker, and that if you are a Welsh speaker you will get a job in television. As they did a hundred years before, the young people of the hill farms of the north and west are heading south [and east] to find work – but this time in the media, not in the mines.

Welsh is also important for those interested in other aspects of Wales. You wouldn’t get far in studying Welsh history, or tracing your ancestors, without some access to the language. Even travelling around the country as a tourist, it’s useful to know how the various placenames are pronounced, if only so they understand what you’re saying, and most people are interested to find out a little about the language. (See PHRASEBOOKS, WELSH NAMES.) It’s one of the things that make Wales an interesting place to visit. If finding out that Hafod y Gog means ‘the summer pastures of the cuckoo’ doesn’t brighten your day even a little, you have no poetry in your soul. Which brings us to what, with no disrespect at all, we might call sentimental reasons for learning Welsh.

Sentimental Reasons

The reason you might think of first, especially if you live in a non-Welsh-speaking part of the country or outside Wales altogether, is an emotional or sentimental one. Nothing wrong with that. These days, many of us are searching for our identity. We feel a need to counteract the tendency of the modern world to globalisation and cultural homogeneity. Perhaps, as a Cymro di-Gymraeg (non-Welsh-speaking Welsh person) you see the language as an important part of affirming your Welsh identity. Perhaps your family spoke Welsh in the past and you would like to revive that tradition; perhaps you have friends or relatives who speak Welsh and you would like to be able to communicate better with them. Anyone growing up in Wales today can hardly avoid learning some of the the language, and it’s not uncommon for English-speaking grandparents to find that their grandchildren are almost more at home in what is, to them, a foreign language. And you don’t want them passing remarks about you behind your back! So perhaps even the sentimental reasons are practical in a way.

(It’s important, of course, to bear in mind that Welsh is a real, living language spoken by real people for everyday purposes, not just some romantic myth. If, as an outsider, you treat the language too much as a sort of fantasy role-play game, you can come across as disrespectful. Don’t assume Welsh speakers are there just to help you learn Welsh! But as long as your motives are sincere, you will be readily accepted by the Welsh-speaking Welsh, especially younger people, who are more familiar with the concept of people wanting to learn the language – which wouldn’t be the case with all minority languages.)

Intellectual Reasons

Conversely, the appeal of Welsh to some people is precisely that they have no particular reason, either practical or emotional, to learn the language. If you like languages for their own sake, and some people even “collect” them, you must sometimes have wondered what it would be like to learn a completely irrelevant language, just for the hell of it. Something different from whatever languages you’ve come into contact with in your everyday life, something a bit novel, a bit of an intellectual challenge. Depending on where you live, your chances of meeting a real live Welsh speaker and getting the chance to use your Welsh on them may be very small; but what a wonderful coincidence if it ever did happen! And these Welsh do get around, as the Hungarian-American author Pamela Petro shows in her book Travels in an Old Tongue.

Welsh seems perfectly suited to this purpose. As a member of the Celtic family it’s significantly different from the mainstream European languages, and has many interesting features not found in other language groups – as well as the (in)famous “LL” sound of course! But, as an Indo-European language, it’s not so different as to be daunting. It certainly has the reputation of being a very hard language to learn, but many learners will tell you this idea is exaggerated. Above all, unlike English, and also unlike some of the other Celtic languages, it has a wonderfully straightforward alphabet, almost 100% regular. You soon learn how to pronounce a word you’ve never seen before, and you have a pretty good idea how a word is spelt when you’ve never seen it written down.

Your Reasons?

Paul Beatty writes: “I have always wanted to get a grip on the poetry. I enjoy the drama on the TV when the [winning] bard [at the Eisteddfod] is announced – just what is all the fuss about? . . . And my middle name is Owen.”

Jean Reynolds mailed to say: “I do not (alas!) have a drop of Welsh in me. But I like to think that learning the language makes me a little bit Welsh in a metaphorical or spiritual way. Anyone who loves beauty would want to feel connected to this beautiful country with its gracious people and spectacular mountain scenery. Another reason (please don’t laugh): I fell in love – at a distance – with Richard Burton when I was in college. If the Welsh language was important to him, it was important to me.” She notes that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote an essay about reasons for studying Welsh, among which were the sheer beauty of the words, and ends with the following quotation: “Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance” [Dave Barry].

To Mark Dewey, “it just seems like the right thing to do”. More specifically, he makes the following points:

  • It’s a cultural experience. Learning languages (I’d say, especially Celtic languages) adds to the soul. It gives one character. It’s a distinguishing characteristic; something people will likely remember. I’m from Idaho, in the USA, and people cock their heads every time I tell them of my interest in Celtic languages; they must think I’m odd.
  • We all need to memorize in order to keep our minds fresh and well; so why not memorize in Welsh?
  • People are excited about it. They even teach it in schools; it’s reviving! It feels good to be a part of something coming back with this kind of momentum and enthusiasm. We all want a taste of enthusiasm, don’t we?
  • Celtic music is a great motivator for learning Celtic languages.
  • Welsh is attractive. At least, I think so. If a girl knew Welsh, that would more than quadruple her points for me – no matter her other characteristics. Welsh sounds awsome. Now if she could sing in Welsh . . .wouldn’t that be the ideal now? Alas, at the present, I only dream of such a person.

For ‘Pierre’, that dream has become reality: “My reasons. . . I’m French, and I’m in love with a Welsh girl. For her, I’d like to be able to speak in this language.”

Richard Nosworthy has posted some interesting interviews with different people about their reasons for learning Welsh on his pages at http://journalism.cf.ac.uk/Projects/sjorn/.

There’s a good article by David Buttery on learning Welsh at http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/review/360429.html.

Some more reasons for learning Welsh can be found at Clwb Malu Cachu’s review of Sandi Thomas’ book You Don’t Speak Welsh at http://www.clwbmalucachu.co.uk/features/sandi_thomas_interview.htm. See also the ELWa (Education and Learning Wales) website at http://www.elwa.org.uk/elwa.asp?pp=1450&pl=Welsh&pid=683&lf=English&pageid=1449, where you can also download some information on courses.

Well, why not?

There has never been a better time to be learning Welsh. Even ten years ago, there was nothing like the variety of books and learning resources that are available today. And of course the Internet has made it far easier to be in touch with Wales and Welsh wherever you are in the world.

If you are completely new to Welsh and considering taking it up, you will need certain basic tools, especially if you are outside Wales and have no direct contact with speakers of the language. This site is an attempt to provide useful advice and details of how to obtain these materials. If you’d like to cut to the chase, rather than wade through acres of text debating the strengths and weaknesses of dozens of different books, here’s a potted summary to getting started as a learner.

References

Richards, John Winterson (1994, 1999) The Xenophobe’s® Guide to the Welsh. London: Oval Books, ISBN 1-902825-46-2, 3.99 p/b.

Williams, Ina Tudno (1965) Oedolion yn Dysgu Cymraeg (Astudiaeth o Gymhellion): Adults Learning Welsh (A Study in Motivation). Aberystwyth: Faculty of Education, University College of Wales, Pamphlet No. 13.


© 1999–2003 Harry Campbell
Last updated: March 2003

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