“Is Welsh hard to learn?” If you’re about to start learning Welsh it pays to know what you’re taking on! You’re in the right place, so read on. Read on, too, if you’re some way in to your Welsh journey and feeling frustrated.
First, let’s get some perspective.
It stands to reason that no language is so difficult that it’s beyond the capabilities of the average (or for that matter under-average) human brain.
But some languages are easier than others.
A lot depends on where you’re starting from.
If you’re already fluent in Cornish or Breton, you’ll find learning their close relative Welsh much easier than you will if you’re a Japanese monoglot, reading this article through Google translate.
As we’ll see, if you’re a native English speaker, you too have some real advantages with Welsh.
One is that the cultural gulf between British English and Welsh speakers is small (Welsh speakers have a second culture, but all Welsh adults are fluent in English and most live parts of their daily life through English and consume a lot of Anglo-American culture).
All that said, the major determinant of success in language learning, however “difficult” it is, is how much time you spend using effective methods to study and practice.
That’s what we’re all about on this site and if you want to find out more about methods that work, get my free training (Email Club signup box at the bottom of this post).
If you’re retired, you’ll probably be able to make more rapid progress than if you’re only able to put in half an hour three times a week.
Something else that really helps is lots of opportunity to use the language.
Motivation is also really important in determining how you experience learning the language. Are you clear on your reasons for learning Welsh? Have you got a positive attitude, what I call the fluency mindset?
Before we go any further: if you’re keen to find out more about Welsh, my good friend and fellow Welsh-learner Kerstin Cable explores in her “Dabbler’s Guide to Welsh”. It’s a great value taster of what to expect if you dive in to Welsh. Check out her info and enrolment page through my affiliate partner link, here: Kerstin’s “Dabbler’s Guide”.
An objective view of the relative difficulty of foreign languages
The Foreign Services Institute (the US State Department’s agency for training US diplomats) ranks languages by difficulty.
The Foreign Services Institute uses five categories and give “hours needed” estimates for each. The time estimates need to be treated with extreme care (they relate to classroom hours only, for a start). What interests us here, though, are simply the categories of “difficulty”. The variables are linguistic and cultural distance from English.
Category I (languages similar to English) require 575-600 hours of study (or 23-24 weeks full- time). These are European Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc) and the Germanic ones (Danish, Swedish, Dutch/Afrikaans Norwegian – not German).
Category II requires 750 hours (30 weeks) and is just for German.
Them come Categories III (900 hours/36 weeks, e.g. Swahili, Indonesian) and IV (1100/44 weeks e.g. Russian, Greek, Finnish). Finally, Category V (2200 hours/88 weeks: Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Korean).
The FSI list only covers languages that the Americans needed to teach their diplomats. Welsh, sadly, isn’t one (yet 😉 ).
So, it falls to me to attempt my own “FSI”-style classification at the end of this post. I’ll base it on my own experience studying languages in all five categories. Spoiler: Welsh, you’ll be relieved to learn, is nowhere near Category V.
How difficult is Welsh pronunciation?
For native English speakers, most Welsh sounds are familiar. I’m talking about SOUNDS here, not how they’re represented on paper. We’ll look at how Welsh is written in the next section).
There are several sounds that may need a little practice.
The sound represented by “ll” is not found in any other European language. Put the tongue in the “l” position and hiss. Or, for the poor man’s version, say “thl”, “ch” (as in Scottish loch or German Bach).
For “rh” (start trilling the let a strong emission of breath (like in “h”) take over.
The rolled Welsh “r” is trilled like in Spanish, which makes it difficult for some.
Welsh has more “nasal” sounds than English. “Ng” occurs in English (e.g ” sing”) but not at the beginning of words.There’s a lot that’s similar in Welsh and English pronunciation.
Vowels can be long or short: e.gs in English of this are cat/father, book/groove. In Welsh: tan (until, short “a”), tân (long “a”, “fire”)
Welsh, like English, has a number of “combined” vowels (diphthongs or triphthongs) such as “oe” like the English “oi” in “oil”. There’s only one not found in English: “ew” (short eh and quick oo) as in “Dewch i mewn” (come in).
S is always like “s” in “sing” not the “z”-type sound in “cars”.
Syllable stress is easy in Welsh. It’s usually on the last syllable but one. There’s nothing like the nightmare mobile stress of Russian which can change the sound of a vowel (and the meaning of the word) or the “secondary” stress in many English words.
Neither are there bear traps such as the way stress can change a noun into a verb in English (commune, commune; export, export etc).
Is Welsh spelling hard to learn?
One of the things that attracted me to Welsh was the look of written language, all those double ls, fs and ds…and long words that didn’t seem to have many vowels in them.
The language certainly looks impenetrable.
It turns out, though, that the Welsh spelling system is much simpler than English. Welsh letters represent sounds in a simple, logical and consistent way.
It’s a matter of learning some of differences between how Welsh and English use the Latin letter symbols.
Here are one or two things to watch out for:
The Welsh use “w” for the sound English writes with “u”, as in “cwm” (valley – “cum”)
“Y” is usually a vowel (the one typically represented by “u” or “i” in English) as in “cyn” (before – “kin”).
“Ff” is used where English prefers “f” and “f” is English “v” as in Fforest Fach (a place name, literally Little Forest – “Forest vach”).
The circumflex accent adds to the exotic appearance of Welsh. It is used to indicate where a vowel is long when the normal spelling rules would lead you to expect a short vowel.
The basic rules as to whether a vowel is long and short is one of the tricker things you need to focus on at the beginning.
There are two other trickier aspects to Welsh spelling.
First, “y” represents three sounds: the short or long “i” (English bit/beat) and the “shwa” sound at the beginning of English “alone”.
It’s common in Welsh as this is the pronunciation of the word “y” (the).
Second, “r” and “n” are sometimes doubled.
There are rules, but it could be simpler.
Some natives, spoiled rotten by their otherwise super-simple spelling system, do complain.
Learners! You have have no right to, just remember you could be learning French or – heaven forbid – English!
How does Welsh sentence structure differ from English?
Welsh word order is different from English
English is a common or garden “subject verb object language” (SVO). Welsh and the other Celtic languages belong to the select group of “verb subject object tongues” (VSO).
A great feature of Welsh that we don’t have in English is the ability to rearrange sentence structure for emphasis.
Take a sentence like “He was laughing”/”Roedd e’n chwerthin”.
In English, if you want to stress “laughing” to imply, say, “He was laughing, would you believe it?” or “He was laughing not crying”, all you can do is add some stress: “He was laughing“. That’s actually something that’s quite difficult for non-native English speakers to learn.
In Welsh, you can often move the part of the sentence that should be the main focus to the front:
“Chwerthin oedd e”. This is literally “Laughing he was”.
You’ll actually sometimes hear non-Welsh speaking Welsh people saying things like that in English (thanks to the underlying influence of Welsh speech patterns on their variety of English).
The other big difference is that Welsh usually puts the adjective after the noun, just like in French. Y ci mawr = the big dog with “ci” meaning dog and “mawr” meaning big.
The Welsh verb system. Simple or complex, the choice is (often) yours
When it comes to the verb system, Welsh is very similar in complexity to the Latin languages such as French, Spanish or Portuguese.
The verbs have “inflected” forms, that’s to say, they have a stem to which you often have to add endings.
In Welsh, the endings usually indicate the tense (time of the state or action) and whether the actor is (me, you, he or she, us we or them).
The inflected tenses are plus perfect tense, imperfect, past, present, future, conditional.
There’s an informal second person (ti) (= thou) and a formal one (chi – you/y’all) in regular use, just like in many other European languages.
Here’s the good news: in spoken Welsh only the imperfect, past and future are used with any regularity.
More good news: Welsh doesn’t have the serried ranks of irregular verbs you’ll find in the Latin languages or the “strong” past forms that learners of German or English have to memorise.
There are only four really common irregular verbs: dod (to come), mynd (to go), cael (to get/have) and gwneud (to do).
These verbs are also unusual in that they are among a small group of verbs which use the inflected “future” form for the present tense.
The others in this select group are “to be” and two compounds of to be that follow the “to be” ending pattern: gwybod – to know about something; adnabod – to know a place, person, a word.
In other words, you have just five irregular verbs to learn: mynd, dod, cael, gwneud and bod.
Once you’ve got bod in the present, future, imperfect, simple past and conditional, you can use it to create these tenses with all other verbs.
All you do is hang the dictionary form of the other the main verb onto the conjugated from of bod with a hook (the particle “yn” or “-‘yn” after a vowel).
This is very like how the English continuous tenses are formed, except that our “yn” is “-ing” and hangs on the end of the verb) (be + VERB + ing).
So, “dwi’n bwyta” is literally ‘am i “ing” eat’ for “I am eating” (can also mean I eat) or “mae hi’n dod” – ‘is she “-ing” come’ for “she is coming” (can also means she comes). Notice that in this example we’ve used “dod”, one of the six irregular verbs. Yes, even the five irregular verbs can be used with the simple system.
Another easy aspect of Welsh verbs is that most tense usage mirrors English very closely.
One final piece of good news: Welsh doesn’t have the complex participle forms you find in, say, Russian or Finnish.
How different is Welsh vocabulary from English?
English vocabulary, to put it crudely, is a mash up of Romance and Germanic influences. Thus if you know English well and want to learn German, Dutch, Catalan, French or whatever, you’ll find a lot of words that are very similar to English words.
English has borrowed very few words from Welsh, so you won’t have this head start.
Most of the highest-frequency words in are “unguessable” for somebody new to the language (unless they already speak another Celtic tongue).
Things do get easier once you’ve got a basic vocab of common words, though.
That’s because there are groups of related concepts with a common core: “llyfr” (book), “llyfrgell” (library), “llyfryddiaeth” (bibliography).
English sometimes builds up vocabulary like this too, but often English draws on German root for some words and on a a Latin/French one for others, as in this example (book = Germaninc), library = Latin).
Welsh often forms compound words in a very logical way with the help of native prefixes which, once you’ve cracked the code, are easier to understand than the Latin ones that English prefers.
For example, “rhwng” is the preposition “between”. From this it’s easy for an intermediate learner to work out and remember “rhyngwladol” for international. It’s compound of two very common words you’ll learn as a beginner: rhwng + gwlad (country) = international/ “betweencountry”).
Another example is “rhyngweithredol”, meaning interactive. That’s “rhwng” again, with “gweithredol” meaning active, from the common word “gwaith” – work).
Welsh also very good at coining new words. Just as in German or Russian, a whole new set were made up as literal translations from the Latin in the Enlightenment (whereas English just stuck with Latin or French forms).
There are a whole host of words that didn’t exist in Welsh (or in English either) when I started learning in the mid 1980s: “rhyngrwyd” (inter + net), “gwefan” (web + place = website), “hunlun” (self + picture = selfie).
Just like every other language Welsh has some “untranslatable” words such as “hiraeth” (the mysterious yearning, often for your home patch).
There a two vocab get-out-of jail free cards in the hand of the Welsh learner, one small one and one big.
First, the small one: loan words from familiar languages.
Did you know that when the Romans ruled southern Britain, the natives spoke Brythonic, the language out of which modern Welsh has developed? The word Britain itself is a mangled Anglo-Saxon attempt to pronounce the Welsh “Prydain”.
The Welsh borrowed quite a lot of Latin vocab from their Roman masters.
As a result, if you know Latin (or French, Spanish, Romanian etc) you’ll be able to spot quite a few loan words. Example are “pont” (pontem, bridge) “eglwys” (eclēsia, église, church) or “ffenestr” (fenestra, fenêtre).
There are quite a few English loan words in Welsh, too.
Some of these English words have been in Welsh for centuries and have changed quite a bit, moulded into Welsh over time but others will be immediately clear once you’ve learned the spelling system.
The big ace up the Welsh-learner’s sleeve is that all Welsh speakers are bilingual in English. Well, nearly all. Many small children in Wales don’t speak English. Also, in the Welsh communities in the Welsh communities in Patagonia, it’s Welsh and Spanish).
So, if you’re stuck for a word, just say it in English. Welsh speakers often do this themselves if they’re talking about things they’ve mainly come across through the medium of English.
Another thing you’ll hear natives doing – and you can learn to do yourself – is a spot of on the fly Welshification.
For example, lots of traditional Welsh verbs end in -o or -io. Adding -o or -io is the most common way to coin Welsh verbs from English ones.
So, if you’re stuck for the Welsh verb, just add -io to the end (just as in German you add an -en).
For example, if you can’t remember trwsio (to repair) say repairo.
You don’t hear it for the really common verbs: you won’t hear natives saying that they can’t sayo a word or heario it (yet), though you might hear repeat-o instead of ail-adrodd (to repeat).
Welsh nouns are either “masculine” or “feminine”
Welsh splits nouns into two genders: masculine and feminine. In Spanish, Italian or Russian, it’s usually possible to tell the gender by the last letter of a noun. In Welsh, like German or French, that’s unfortunately not the case.
However, as with German and French, gender allocation is not completely random.
Plus, unlike German, Icelandic or Russian, you don’t have a third gender (neuter).
Try and learn the gender as you learn the noun.
If in doubt, guess masculine.
You’ve a 60% chance of being right.
Welsh has many different ways of forming the plural of nouns
There are many ways to form the plural in Welsh, more than in any of the thirteen other languages I’ve studied.
The most common way to form a plural in Welsh is to add “-au” or “-iau” to a noun.
Other plural endings include: “-on”/”-ion” (meddyg/meddygon – doctor/s); “-i” (llwyn/llwyni – bush/es); “-ydd” (pont/pontydd – bridge/s); “-oedd” (mis/misoedd – month/s); “-od” (cath/cathod – cat/s); “-iaid” (cwsmer/cwsmeriaid – customer/s).
Sometimes you get a vowel change: bardd/beirdd (poet/s), llygad/llygaid (eye/s), ffon/ffyn (stick/s) or a vowel change and an ending: ci/cwn (dog/s).
An interesting (and relatively unusual) feature of Welsh is that sometimes it’s the singular that takes an ending. Often, this is because the basic concept involves a degree of plurality: gwallt (hair, straw – usually though of as a “mass”) and one gwelltyn. Similar are, for example plant (children), moch/mochyn (pigs, one pig) and coed/coeden (trees/one tree).
Try and learn the plural as you learn the noun. You’ll find that there are some patterns and you’ll start to develop a “feel” as to what’s right.
Welsh is rich in idioms, native and borrowed
Welsh, like every language is rich not only in individual words but in colourful idioms. This will take practice but can delight and enrich you.
Meanwhile, as a beginner, you’ll be glad to know that Welsh has also taken on many English idioms over the centuries, just as English has taken many idioms from other languages.
The process is accelerating now, given universal bilingualism and the widespread use of English in the workplace and mass-culture.
That may be something to lament if you dig the difference, but at least it makes it easier for you as a beginner if you’re told to “rhoi dy gôt ar” (literally put your coat on) rather than “rhoi dy gôt amdano ti” (put your coat about you) or people say “dweud i rywun” (to say to somebody) instead of the traditional Welsh “dweud wrth rywun”.
How difficult are Welsh mutations to learn?
Ask any Welsh learner of a couple of, erm, hours standing and it’s odds on that they’ll tell you that “mutations” are causing them grief.
In common with the other Celtic languages, the initial consonants of words change (mutate) in various circumstances.
Yes, whereas many languages have case “endings”, Welsh has beginnings.
There are three types of mutation: soft, aspirate and nasal and these can crop up in various circumstances.
One example is the mutation of feminine singular nouns after the definite article (“y” = “the”).
So, cat is “cath” (feminine). But “the cat” is “y gath” (the soft form of “c” is “g”).
The possessive pronouns for “her”, “his”, “your” (informal) and “my” also cause mutation of the noun that’s possessed.
For example, “her cat” is “ei chath” (aspirate mutation of “c” is “ch”); “you cat” is “dy gath” (soft mutation) “my cat” is “fy nghath” (nasal mutation of “c” is “ngh”).
Not all initial letters change. The only ones you need to worry about are c, p, t, g, b, d, rh, ll.
Still, there’s no doubt that getting on top of mutations takes quite a bit of practice
The key, though is not to obsess about this. You’ll rarely be misunderstood if you get it wrong and there is some variation among natives in the spoken language (though to be fully literate when writing, you should know and apply the rules).
Does Welsh have a case system?
An easy feature of Welsh it doesn’t have “cases”.
Cases? Yes: the “endings” that are added to nouns, adjectives, articles, pronouns to indicate their relation to other words in the sentence.
It’s an old system, inherited from the common “Indo European” ancestor of most European languages. It’s been completely lost in French or Spanish, just like in Welsh. English just retains an -s to indicate possession and some pronoun variation (I/my/me, he/his/him etc). German and Icelandic still have four cases, though. Russian has six (and Polish seven). Irish still retains a case system, too.
More good news: compared with a full-blown case system, mutations are a walk in the park.
Count your blessings, Welsh learner!
Many words for “yes” and “no” in Welsh?
Have you heard about all the Welsh words for yes? To rephrase that: ‘Ydych chi wedi clywed sôn am yr holl eiriau Cymraeg am “yes”‘?
Now, before you can answer that, you have to decide which of the numerous Welsh words for “yes” to choose. Is it “ydy”, “ydw”, “ydynt”, “oes”, “oedd”, “oeddwn”, “byddaf”, “basech”, “do”….
I could go on…and, yes, these all mean “yes”.
Or do they?
Let’s put it like this: in Welsh there is no word for yes or no.
All you do is repeat the verb in the positive or negative. “Yesiwill” “noIwouldn’thave”, “yesshewas” and so on.
In other words, the answer is already in the question.
Alright, you sometimes have to change the person too. You can answer “Will he have been swimming for twenty minutes in ten minutes time” with “yeshewillhavebeen”. You can’t answer “Were you there?” with yesyouwere… So, we’ll need to switch to “yesIwas”, but that’s all.
It’s easy, once you can do it! 😉
Okay, it’s a frustration at first, but a relatively minor one. As with so much else in learning a language, it’s all about practice.
Oh, and there actually are generic words for yes and no: “ie” and “nage”.
They were reserved for answering sentences that don’t begin with a verb…
…..but these days you can get away with using them quite a bit more as a general “yes” or “no” (the influence of English, again).
How complex are numbers in Welsh?
Did you know that there are three ways to say ninety-nine in Welsh?
First there’s naw ar ddeg ar bedwar ugain, or nine on ten on four twenties.
That’s the traditional “Celtic” method of counting twenties that you’ll find borrowed into French as well and sometimes even in English (three score years and ten, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…).
It’d be unlikely, but you could also say in Welsh “cant namyn un” (one short of a hundred).
Most common today would be “naw deg naw”, literally nine ten nine. That’s the “modern” system and it’s very simple: un deg tri (one ten three), dau gant tri deg pump (two hundred three ten five – 235).
You’ll still need to recognised the traditional numbers as they are still in wide use, especially for talking about people’s ages.
Do regional differences make Welsh difficult to learn?
It’s true that there are regional varieties of Welsh.
The rough division is north and south (in reality it’s more subtle).
There are some verb forms that have regional usages and a handful of common words that have two or three (sometimes quite different) variants according to vocabulary.
The differences, though are nowhere near as great as, say, within Germany.
Still, the variations can cause confusion for learners at the beginning.
The key is to model your speech on that of the one part of Wales and stick with that as your speaking style.
You should learn the differences, though.
The official teaching materials published by the Welsh government’s Learning Welsh centre come in “north Wales” and “south Wales” versions (as does the popular online course SaysomethinginWelsh.
A good course will build in familiarisation with the varieties (just as those for German, Portuguese or English do).
How big is the difference between spoken and written Welsh?
There’s a gulf between the spoken and written language…
We’ve already mentioned “literary Welsh” several times.
Formal written Welsh differs from the spoken language rather more than do formal written and spoken English.
First, verb forms. All written writing tends to use the short form verbs much more than you’d find in speech. We’ve already mentioned the inflected “future” verb endings.
Unlike English, but like French or German, the Welsh verb still has a full range of subjunctive forms.
These are used much less than in French or German. You’ll find them most in the higher-registers of the written language (especially in poetry or the words of hymns).
In spoken Welsh, you’ll only find it in some traditional set phrases such as “Da bo chi” (“goodbye” literally “be you good”) or “doed a ddelo” (“come what may”).
As a beginner, you’ll just learn the phrases. Not until you move into upper intermediate do you need to start recognising the subjunctive forms (for your reading of literary Welsh, especially poetry).
Second, there some other (minor) grammar patterns not commonly found in speech (except maybe in set phrases).
Finally, some verbal constructions that abbreviated in the spoken language are often written in full in the literary language
But, good news for beginner and intermediate learners!
Much modern written Welsh, for example journalism or factual books will not the most fullest forms. You’ll see “mae ef” (spoken mae e or (in the north) mae o) for full-on “y mae ef”, for example.
It’s this sort of simplified written Welsh you’ll see, for example on the BBC news site.
As a beginner, you don’t need to worry about literary forms at all.
Modern course materials will teach you the conversational language first.
Once you get to intermediate level, you need to start recognising the literary forms and the more advanced you get, the more you’ll want to read a wide range of Welsh and start to get to know the wonders of the literary language.
It it hard to find good materials for learning Welsh?
Here there’s good news. Although the absolute number of Welsh speakers is relatively low, there are a good range of classes available within Wales, including residential courses running from one weekend to many weeks). There are also a good range of books and some good online courses materials.
When I’m learning a language, I now make a lot of use of one-to-one online lessons. I normally book them through italki.com. While there are tens or hundreds of teachers for “bigger” languages. For Welsh (and other lesser-used languages), you have much less choice of teachers. There are currently four Welsh teachers.
Does “minority language” status make it harder to learn Welsh?
In my experience, the hardest thing about learning Welsh is not the language itself but what I’d call the “minority language dimension”.
Not everybody in Wales speaks Welsh, so if you’re going to Wales hoping to use the language a lot you need to choose where.
Even in areas where the absolute or proportionate numbers are lower, there will be many opportunities to use the language but you’ll have to get plugged into the right networks.
Attitudes to the language can also be more complex than in majority language situations where it’s “just normal” to speak the lingo to everyone, everywhere and in every situation.
None of these aspects are insurmountable problems. They may bring some frustration to your learning Welsh experience. They can also add new layers of fascination
I’ve explored this a lot more in my series on learning minority languages here on the site. The five posts in the series don’t just cover Welsh but do frequently refer to the Welsh example:
Where is Welsh on the scale FSI language scale?
I nearly forgot, how would I answer the question “Is Welsh hard to learn” with the help of the FSI language difficulty scale? It’s a bit finger to the wind but on the basis of this review – and my experience learning languages in all five of the FSI categories – I’d say Welsh should be keeping German company in Category II.
The Romance languages are easier: they don’t have Welsh’s alien vocabulary and more variable sentence structure.
Unlike German, as a Welsh learner you won’t have the case endings to struggle with or complex subordinate clause sentence structures. On the other hand, you have a richer verb system than German’s and those darn mutations.
The main added difficulty of Welsh, though, in my experience comes from its minority status. It’s just much less in-your-face in Wales than German is in the German-speaking lands.
If you’ve read this far, though, you’ll have seen that mutations can be kept in their place and, if you plan and make an effort, you can find more than enough people to practice with.
Final thoughts and where to find out more about learning Welsh
In this post, we’ve asked ourselves “Is Welsh hard to learn?” But as we reach the end, let’s ask another question: does the answer even matter at all? Do you need to learn? Do you want to learn? Are you willing to get the language habit and consistently engage for as long as it takes? Will you find ways to keep it relevant and to have some fun? If those fundamentals aren’t in place, no matter how easy, you won’t. If they are, nothing will stop you!
If you’re keen to find out more about Welsh, my good friend and fellow Welsh-learner Kerstin Cable explores in her “Dabbler’s Guide to Welsh”. It’s a great value taster of what to expect if you dive in to Welsh. Check out her info and enrolment page through my affiliate partner link, here: Kerstin’s “Dabbler’s Guide”.