This is the story of how I got fluent in Welsh. It’s the third post in my new “Dr Popkins Method?” series of articles. There posts are very much my personal history. General conclusions are for a later stage….but I’m sure you’ll already see instructive parallels – or contrasts – with your own experience.
If you prefer video, you can scroll straight to the bottom for the link to the companion vlog about my experiences learning French and Welsh. This post follows the same plan, but has a bit more detail (and only covers Welsh, I’ve covered French in a previous post). I’ve also linked the of my recent “Quick Tip Tuesday” vlogs that are right on topic, including two shot in Aberystwyth.
I got the idea for the Dr Popkins Method series in a retreat in Tenerife. There, some of my fellow language learners and teachers, bloggers and vloggers challenged me to help you better by sharing more my language learning journey.
In the French post, I explained one of the spurs for taking that language a lot further than I’d managed to get in high school. I had to sit a major exam on a French text at the end of my first term as a history undergraduate at Oxford.
The dreaded “preliminary” set of exams meant that the first term was very stressful for us historians. After that, though I had a lot more free time. In my relatively relaxed second term, I knew I wanted to start another language.
After French, which language?
The question was, which one?
I can remember several trips to the language section of Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford. Now it’s a shrivelled rump of its former self. Then it was an inspiring place, similar to today’s glorious language section in Foyles bookstore in London. I kept getting drawn to the Welsh shelf, or part shelf (there wasn’t much in stock for Welsh).
I bought T J Rhys Jones’ Teach Yourself Living Welsh.
Even as I bought the book, I remember thinking “What’s the point? Speaking Welsh as a native English speaker will just be a game. Apart from some young children, everyone in Wales speaks English!”.
The deal was done, though. Money was tight, I wasn’t going to buy a book and then let it gather dust.
I’ve blogged about reasons to learn Welsh before, but some of these only became real to me as I started to discover the land and culture later on.
As I started, I couldn’t remember the sound of the language (I probably hadn’t heard it for about eight years since one of my childhood holidays to Swansea in southern Wales).
It was, rather, the exotic written form of the language attracted me – all ys, ws, double ffs and dds and circumflex accents (the “to bach” – or little roof – as it’s called informally in Welsh).
Something much more powerful was in play, as well: my own identity and family history.
A few years before my dad was born, his family had moved from near Swansea (in southern Wales) up to Yorkshire. My paternal grandfather (whom I never knew) was a first language Welsh speaker.
He didn’t teach my dad Welsh, unfortunately.
All the same, my dad was aware of his Welsh heritage and when I was little, he explained that this was why I’d been given the Welsh name of Gareth. My surname is also found in Wales more than England.
Besides the name, there were other, small influences on me from Wales.
When he was at school, Dad had made a box in woodwork lessons with a Welsh flag on the top and I was always fascinated with this when I was little.
Then, when I was seven, by coincidence, some close family friends from Yorkshire relocated to Swansea. For several years we went down to there at Easter or Whitsun to visit them. This was a very long and exciting car journey for a seven or eight year-old.
The visits were also always a chance to revive contact with some of my dad’s surviving relatives in the area. Several times I heard some of one of his distant cousin’s children speaking Welsh together, children who were about ten years old, like me. I also occasionally heard Welsh being spoken in the shops in Swansea and there was some Welsh on road signs and other signage on public buildings.
So, the family connection won out and it just felt right to choose Welsh as my second foreign language, despite it not being the most obviously “useful” language to somebody who didn’t live in Wales.
Figuring out self-study, from scratch
This was the first time that I’d started a new language on my own.
I followed the same approach that seemed to be working with French – concentrating on the key structures and most frequent or otherwise useful vocab.
This time, though I was using a textbook to provide the framework.
I working though the book methodically and thought it was a good course.
I discovered that the language had some similarities with French (such as noun gender, adjectives after the noun and a quite complex system of verb conjugations).
It also had fascinating differences. For example, the verb-subject-object sentence structure (most European languages are subject-verb-object) and its use of the “mutation” system typical of the Celtic family of languages (which involves the beginnings of words changing in certain circumstances, rather than the endings I’d seen morphing in French and German).
A big hindrance to my learning was that there was no obvious way for me to hear the language in Oxford.
I didn’t know any Welsh speakers there. There was a university Welsh students society but that was aimed at native (or at least fluent) speakers. I wrote to the organiser. He never replied.
Unlike the volume that later replaced it, the Teach Yourself book didn’t come with a cassette tape.
There was a daytime-only Welsh radio channel, BBC Radio Cymru, set up begrudgingly by the British state in 1979, only about, erm, fifty-five years after they started sounding off in English. There was also a Welsh TV channel, set up (even more begrudgingly) in 1981. But you couldn’t pick either up either in Oxford in analogue, pre-satellite TV, pre-internet days.
Despite the lack of audio, I tried to study Welsh regularly, maybe half an hour a day, and made flash cards of vocab and phrases from the book.
By the end of the first year, I’d worked through about half of the book….but still wasn’t getting any listening practice and had not done any speaking at all. It was a far from ideal situation.
A summer school in Bangor
To remedy this, I decided to do three-week, full-time summer course in the language at the University College of North Wales in Bangor during the long summer vacation at the end of my first year at university.
At nineteen, I was the youngest of the group (by some distance). The teaching was good and I learnt a lot. I got to hear and speak a lot of the language and we did some trips to interesting places round about.
Still, it was only three weeks and, when I left, I was far from fluent. All the same, I left Bangor fired up to take the language further, though I knew this would be a medium-term project.
I decided, with great reluctance, to set work on the language aside during my second and third year to focus on my history degree. This paid off, as my degree result was good enough to get funding to go on to do post-graduate work in Russian history.
A gap year in Wales to learn Welsh
Before I did that, I decided to take what is now called a “gap year” but we then called a took a “year out” (how come the English language keeps changing around me…? Stop it! 😉 ).
This time, the aim was to learn the language thoroughly.
The stakes were high, at least in my own head.
My fellow students had left to start careers and earn real money.
If I failed to get fluent in Welsh, I’d have wasted a year and missed the boat for the rest of my life (at least, that’s maybe how it looked when I was 21).
I stated with a full-time, two-months summer course in Lampeter in the west of Wales. This course was something of an institution, famous at the time as the only course of its kind. It had been inspired by the Ulpan model used to revive Hebrew in Israel and the founder, Chris Rees (who had himself learned Welsh), taught me for part of the time.
The mythology was that you came out after eight weeks thinking and dreaming in Welsh. That wasn’t quite true, but I could certainly have real conversations by the end (sufficient not to have to turn to English). As you’d imagine, it was a very intensive educational – and social – experience.
In September, I moved straight form Lampeter to Aberystwyth and lodged with a Welsh-speaking family for about nine months.
Why Aber? I tell the story in this Quick Tip Tuesday vlog, filmed earlier this year from Aber’s Traith y De (South Beach):
My year in Aber had its frustrations, the main one being that I never found work where I could use the language and had to take a job as an office clerk working all day through the medium of English for a very low wage.
Overall, though, the year was a success on my own terms. By the end, I really was pretty fluent in Welsh.
During those Aberystwyth months, I did a lot of self-study. I built on the basis from the my initial study and the Lampeter course by continuing work on my vocab.
I got huge amounts of input. This was radio, television and attending church and chapel (yes, both) on a Sunday. It was also starting to read native-level novels in Welsh (I read five or six during that year).
Best of all, I was speaking with my host family in Welsh all the time.
Leaving Wales, but taking Welsh with me
By summer 1989 it was time to leave Wales. I was fluent, so that was a “result”. But that certainly wasn’t the end of the story.
During my time back in Oxford I was now able to become an active member of the university’s Welsh-speaking society.
In subsequent years, when I moved to Germany, then Russia and Finland, I continued to develop my Welsh, mainly by reading.
I also started being interviewed on Welsh radio over the phone and became something of a pundit on all the exciting developments in Russia, beginning with the failed coup in August 1991 and continuing with other unfolding events during my research year in Russia (1991-2) and beyond.
A dream job using Welsh
By summer 1995, I was living (though German) in Heidelberg and finished writing up my Oxford doctorate. By a stroke of luck, I landed a job teaching Russian history through the medium of Welsh at the federal University of Wales’ college in Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University).
So, in January 1996, seven and a half year’s after I’d first arrived in Aber as a Welsh learner (and had failed to find work using the language), I had a dream job back in the same place: teaching undergraduates about Russian and Soviet history through the medium of Welsh.
I was using the language for nearly all my teaching and at least half the time with colleagues and the university administration. I also continued to make occasional appearances on Welsh media and write the odd magazine article or review in the language. I really built a good network of friends and acquaintances in trough Welsh too. That worked much better than during my first time in the town (because the university job plugged me into networks and simply because I was there much longer).
In an added twist, in late 1996, my parents retired from Yorkshire to the west of Wales, which further strengthened the ties with Wales.
I stayed in Aberystywth until 2000, when I made the difficult decision to leave the academic world for law school. My plan was to get involved in the law in a Russian context.
I moved back to Yorkshire for a year to take the Post Graduate Diploma in Law and then, via a year in Oxford doing the Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, to a two-year solicitor training contrat (practical apprenticeship) with a large international commercial law firm in London.
Running a Welsh bookshop in Swansea
I was next back in Wales for nine months in 2009, at the end of five-year period practising English law in Moscow advising on international finance deals. Following my mum’s early death from ovarian cancer that year, I’d decided to take a break back in Wales.
This time I worked part-time running Siop Ty Tawe, the Welsh language bookshop in Swansea, while the owner was on maternity leave.
During that year I also did a course to teach Welsh to adults. I’ve gone on to teach occasionally at the day schools put on at the London Welsh Centre.
A natural part of my life
I’ve now been a fluent Welsh speaker for well over half my life.
Although only five years or so of that have been spent in Wales, at various stages in my life since my “year out”, the language has been a constant presence.
I’ve gone on to make friends through Welsh in Freiburg, Heidelberg, Moscow, Oxford, London….the Basque Country and Catalonia……as well, of course, as in Wales itself.
I rented a place with a Welsh speaker when I was back in Oxford at law school and for the first two years after I bought my own house here in London, I rented out two of my rooms to a Welsh-speaking friend and his wife.
While there are always things I could do to improve my skills in the language, fluency in Welsh has long simply been a given that I take for granted.
I read the language daily on news sites and blogs, follow Welsh culture, listen to it very often and use it in emails and on social media, and Whatsapp with friends. In August, I often visit the annual Eisteddfod cultural festival.
I never describe myself as Welsh, as that’s not where I’m from.
But for the last thirty years, I’ve certainly been proud to know that I’m Welsh-speaking. That I got what I wanted was thanks to determined decisions and planning, good methods and the help and encouragement of many different people.
Does this chime with your language learning experience so far….or is your story quite different? If you’re just about to start, will you be looking to emulate what I did or do you plan a different approach? Let me know in the comments below 🙂
Here’s the video and look out for the next post in the “Dr Popkins Method?” series…All about how I learned Russian.