Karen is a linguist and translator from the south of England. She’s already shared her tips on how to become a successful translator with us here at Howtogetfluent and I’m delighted that she’s agreed to be interviewed again to tell us how she passed the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)’s Upper Intermediate (B2) exam in Welsh. Below, she shares not only her tips but tells us how she got into Welsh in the first place. You’ll see the importance of taking the initiative to make sure that your learning goals happen and how exams can be a useful tool for that. You’ll see how Karen manaaged to create speaking opportunities even when learning Welsh outside Wales….and discover some of the attitude issues (on both sides) that can frustrate learners of minoritised languages. Let the conversation begin!
Dr P: What attracted you to learning Welsh?
KR: I was actually born in Newport as my English parents lived in the area for 10 years, but we moved away when I was five. When asked, I’ll always say I’m English by blood but officially Welsh by place of birth, and I’m very proud of my bilingual birth certificate. Whenever I go west over the Severn Bridge from England to Wales, there is always a part of me that smiles because I’m ‘going home’. I’ve also always had a fascination with Celtic culture, and with languages in general, so it also seems like a natural choice. It just took a long time to get it going, though.
Dr P: How did you get started learning?
KR: I tried learning on and off over the years, but when I was a teenager, there were very few resources around, and definitely no internet.
About 7 years ago, I found that the local college was offering a taster session. I went and was hooked. The teacher was originally from Wales but of the generation who had Welsh-speaking parents who had discouraged him from learning. He’d mastered the language as an adult and, after retiring as the college drama teacher, decided to teach Welsh in the evenings.
After the taster session I did the “Mynediad” (access level) course at the college for a year. Then my teacher relocated back to Wales and the courses stopped. However, all of his students decided to get together one night a week to continue learning together.
It was from someone in this group that I heard about the summer school at Coleg Gwent in Pontypool, not far from where I was born. The first year I went I signed up for my actual level (“Sylfaen” – foundation – I) but the teacher was ill on the first day so we were put together with those in the next level.
My brain hurt from a day entirely in Welsh, but I could already feel the progress and loved the buzz, so I stayed in that class. The boost to my confidence was enormous and I continued to do the summer school for the next four years, going to the group in Basingstoke once a week.
Dr P: Has your approach to learning the language evolved over time?
KR: After four years, I felt like I was up to speed with the rest of the group in Basingstoke, but it was a bit rudderless in terms of learning because there was no teacher. I therefore signed up with Coleg Gwent for a weekly lesson with one of their tutors and I carried on with “Uwch” (Upper/Advanced/B2) over the next couple of years.
We follow the course book and talk for an hour. Discussing the homework from the previous week forms the first part of the lesson. Sometimes I do listening exercises. Now, after my “Uwch” exam and having finished the official course, we usually have an article to discuss which can lead to a few interesting tangents. But that doesn’t matter. I’m using the language.
I have never used the SaySomethingInWelsh courses, because their method does not suit my style. However, I regularly read the forum discussions, and I am a founding member of their group in Winchester, which has been going for over two years now. We meet at least once a month, and although there are only two of us core members (both learners), we manage to keep the conversation going for a couple of hours.
DrP: What would you say are the most challenging aspects of learning Welsh?
KR: At one point, lack of resources and classes would have been an issue, but with the internet and growing market for learning Welsh, this isn’t a problem at all any longer.
As for the language itself, mutations and the “verb-subject-object” rather than “subject-verb-object” sentence order might cause problems. But, compared with some other languages, I don’t see many ‘difficulties’.
For example, one stumbling block with me when having a go at Japanese was the writing system, as I learn predominantly by reading.
Dr P: Welsh is a minority language. Has that social reality made learning it a different experience from learning German or Russian?
This is probably the most significant challange as far as I’m concerened! When I go to Wales, there is not an automatic switch to naturally expecting to speak the language. I am aware that it might bring out different reactions and I’m a bit reluctant (especially as I usually go to a region of Wales where Welsh-speakers really are a minority).
There still seems to be a real divide in people’s heads: you’re either a Welsh mother-tongue speaker, a non-Welsh speaker, or a learner. Never just someone who speaks Welsh, no matter what your background. I’m afraid this has affects my attitude sometimes, by osmosis!
This labelling as a learner can be an obstacle, because people are never confident and are always apologising (both learners because their not first-language speakers and first-language speakers because they have not learned formally and will often not be aware of the grammar rules that learners are …!).
I don’t say I’m a learner of Russian or German or Hungarian or whatever. I say I speak Russian. I accept that I’m never going to be fully native. But this acceptance seems to be missing with respect to Welsh.
Dr P: Can you share some concrete examples of the “attitude problem”, if I can call it that?
KR: I think it comes out in some of the B2 class discussions I’ve taken part in during the Pontypool weekend courses.
One time we were discussing a new series of Y Gwyll. That’as a Welsh TV detective series based around Aberystwyth. It’s been a great success; touted as a Welsh spin on Scandi-noir. One member of our group thought it was fantastic that an English version (with a spattering of Welsh, called ‘Hinterland’) was produced at the same time as the Welsh one as that meant it could be sold to other countries. I said I thought it was, in fact, a bad thing. It is down-playing the existence of Welsh! Most Danes are fluent in English, but they didn’t feel the need to produce Borgen or any of the other programmes in English to sell them abroad. Unfortunately I don’t think this concept was grasped. It’s as if Danish is seen as a ‘proper’ language but Welsh is incapable of standing on its own outside of the UK.
There are several versions of Welsh in terms of formality, and spoken Welsh can differ an enormous amount compared to formal written Welsh. I’ve heard several complaints about the amount of grammar and ‘useless’ things being taught in the “Uwch” classes (this is B1-B2 level) because that’s not how people say it in every day life.
No, it isn’t. But then my housemate at university who came from near Liverpool used to say things like ‘we’ve drove’ instead of ‘we’ve driven’ all the time, and it did drive me mad. She’d never write it that way though. You’re taught formal English in school for a reason, and not only half of the language, so why not learn formal Welsh for the same reasons?
If you’re learning Japanese, you wouldn’t dream of not learning the forms of politeness and formality, so why not do so in Welsh? And what if you want to read in Welsh? That’s not all written in spoken Welsh. If you truly want to learn and live the language, then you need to understand all aspects of it. Treating it as a purely spoken form is, once again, downplaying it and not treating it as a ‘proper’ language.
Dr P: Overall, would you say learning Welsh is more difficult than learning German or Russian?
Not really, but then I’ve learned a couple of languages before, so I’ve refined my technique, and I find learning languages interesting, so things like mutations appeal to me, rather than being off-putting.
Dr P: As I started to learn Welsh I felt more and more drawn into support for the language revival movement in Wales. Have you felt this pull too or do you feel more neutral about the language?
KR: I’ve always been interested in the culture of any language I learn, as I think it is part of the experience. I’m interested in what makes people tick anyway. I wouldn’t say I’m very political but, since there is a political tinge to the status of the Welsh language, I’m naturally aware of it and have formed my opinions on it (as you can tell from my answer above). It is definitely interesting viewing the situation as a Welsh learner who lives outside Wales. One of my best friends is Basque and I also find it interesting to compare the status of the two languages.
Dr P: How do you use your Welsh?
KR: I go to the SaySomethingInWelsh group at least once a month and have made a good friend out of that. I have another friend here in Basingstoke who grew up on Anglesey. We always text in Welsh and sometimes we talk in Welsh (although it can be difficult to re-programme you brain when you are used to speaking to someone in English for years already). She’s just had a baby and is very enthusiastic about teaching her Welsh, and I’ve been enlisted to help …
My main hobby is reading. I devour the written word in all my languages and Welsh is no exception. I have a subscription to magazines and a pile of learner- and first language books here to work through.
I’ve also had a conversation in Welsh with my bank. When I signed a direct debit for my magazine subscription in Welsh and gave my address in England, they wanted to check it wasn’t a fraud. The lady on the other end of the line was lovely and very encouraging, and I was over the moon at having been able to explain the situation in Welsh! (Yes, I am officially a nerd.)
Dr P: Why did you decide to do the B2 exam?
KR: I sat the WJEC B2 Welsh exam in 2017. I’d not previously taken any exams in Welsh, partly because I had no need and partly because I wasn’t confident enough.
However, my teacher was very encouraging and I decided to accept the challenge to push myself.
I also decided that it was important to show my support for the language.
The college receives funding not only for each student who has lessons (my Sklye sessions are subsidised), but also for the exam (I didn’t have to pay to sit it!). By sitting the exam, I’m helping the college receive funding to ensure that teaching continues in the future because the demand is recognised.
I wasn’t taking the exam for a job or because I live in Wales and I think that the more it is seen that there is an interest in the language outside of the country, the better. More people take the lower level exams and I also wanted to show that the language is being used at a higher level as well.
Dr P: How far in advance of the exam did you start to prepare for it in the narrow sense and how much work would you say you put in each week?
KR: In a sense, for a few years, because I was following the “Uwch” course. But but, after dithering, I only registered at the last minute.
One of the speaking tests involves discussing a book or a film, so I picked one from the GCSE (school exams for 16 year-olds) reading list because I found revision notes online. I then took a week off work to concentrate on reading the book and preparing my 10 minute chat.
This may sound a bit extreme, but I knew a week of focus would be a big boost in general, and that I would not have chance to finish the book in time otherwise. This part had to be a conversation with another Welsh speaker (not the course tutor), submitted as a recording, so I took the opportunity to record my conversation with another tutor at the college on one of my weekend trips.
Other than that, I went through all the past papers available on the website, although they changed the format slightly the year I sat it and I now think they have removed all the old past papers.
Dr P: Are there any materials you would recommend to help prepare for the Welsh B2 exam?
KR: The “Uwch” course book is designed specifically for the paper. I think there are lots of new online resources available through the Dysgu Cymraeg/Learn Welsh website.
Other than that, exposure to the language. Extensive input!
Lingo Newydd magazine by Golwg is an excellent resource for learners, and there are many readers available too. I also listen to BBC Radio Cymru (especially the news as I’ve often already heard it in English earlier in the day and so already know some of what they are likely to be talking about). I watch the Welsh television channel, S4C. These days I make less and less use of the subtitles (which are often available in English or Welsh). There is a programme for learners on Sunday mornings.
Dr P: Would do anything differently if you had to do the exam a second time?
KR: Start earlier and do more! Although I’m more than happy with my result.
Dr P: What’s your favourite Welsh word?
KR: I’m not sure I have a favourite word, but I do love how one of my tutors pronounces the ‘wl’ in words like meddwl.
Dr P: What next for your Welsh?
KR: As much as I have enjoyed the summer school and weekend courses, I want to move away from formal teaching into using my Welsh to do things. For example, I’d love to go on a course about some other subject, but in Welsh. I also now watch things on S4C that I would normally watch on English TV, and I have several books I want to read. In short: I think Welsh is now part of my life and I want this to continue.