Home    Learning Welsh - A Personal Journey   Notes
by George Tod

Connections with Wales

I was born in Yorkshire, but went to Liverpool University to study Electrical Engineering. From there it was a relatively short ride on my motorbike into North Wales, and I paid a few visits from time to time, mainly attracted to the mountains of Snowdonia. In my early adult life, I made camping trips with my brother and his family to the area near Abergavenny in South Wales, and a few years later, when I married Jean, we often spent camping holidays in Wales. Some years later, we decided to buy a holiday flat in Trearddur Bay near Holyhead on Anglesey. We were living in Manchester at the time and we spent many happy weekends and holidays there with our two daughters. In 2000, after being made redundant and being unable to find work, we decided to sell up our house (then in Yorkshire) and to buy a hotel. By good fortune at the time, house prices were rocketing where we lived but prices in North Wales did not follow suit for a couple of years, so we were able to get a very good deal on a hotel in St Asaph and were able to live in the country that we had enjoyed so much. Unfortunately, this backfired as a result of a number of factors including the economic crisis and we retired in 2010 having lost much of what we thought of as our retirement fund. However, we were still fortunate enough to remain in the area, moving to a bungalow in Kinmel Bay near Rhyl. In this part of Wales, very little of the Welsh language is spoken, as a large amount of the population and most of the visitors come from Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, so we never felt the need to learn it ourselves.

My wife Jean had a closer connection to Wales in that she was born in Swansea. Her parents were both from the north east of England, but her father, who worked in the petrochemical industry, was moved near there in the war. Sadly, her mother died giving birth and is buried near there. Jean was quickly moved away to be looked after by her grandparents. Her father remarried a couple of years later to a girl from Glynneath and relocated to the midlands, which is where Jean grew up. However, she spent many school holidays in Glynneath with her step grandmother who had the Local Post Office. Her stepmother and most of the family in Glynneath spoke Welsh, though Jean only picked up a few words and phrases from her time there.

I did quite a lot of walking around Anglesey on weekend and holiday visits before we moved to Wales as well as doing a number of mountain walks in Snowdonia. Since moving to Wales I have walked thousands of miles round the Welsh hills, mountains and coastline including walking the Cambrian Way, a mountain route from Cardiff to Conwy, three times, Offa's Dyke Path and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. During my walks and travels around Wales, I have always been interested in the names of places, farms, houses and natural features that I have come across, most of which have a meaning, and I became familiar with quite a number of these without knowing what most of them actually meant. Unfortunately, many of these stuck in my head with my own anglicised version of pronunciation which, to this day I am still trying to get rid of. Instead of helping me in my recent quest to learn the language, they have often proved more of a hindrance, as I have to try to relearn them with the correct pronunciation.

Starting the Popeth Cymraeg Course

Having been retired for a while, my wife Jean decided that she needed to find a few additional interests, so noticed the Welsh classes listed in the local paper and decided to join the one in Towyn just over a mile from our home. I still had quite a bit of work going on with jobs needing to be done in the houses of both of our daughters as well as for friends and a few other local people, so was not particularly looking for anything else to do. As Jean does not drive, I took her along for registration on the course in January 2013, where we met the tutor and a number of other people who were enrolling, most of whom had already done a five week taster course or had some previous knowledge of the language.

The tutor asked whether it was just Jean enrolling and Jean said to me "Yes, unless you want to join as well". As I had no real reason not to, I said "Yes, I might as well". There started our journey into the mysteries of this ancient language.

The following week we turned up for our first lesson, which was quite well attended. A few weeks later the numbers increased so that we had about fifteen people at one point. Only one other person was starting from square one like us. The rest had all either done the taster, had a partner who was a Welsh speaker or had done another Welsh course. We even had a few join who had already done two or three Welsh courses. It surprised me that people who had done previous courses should want to start with a group of total beginners, as I would have thought that it would be very boring spending all time on the very basics rather than joining in at a more advanced level. Although we were at a bit of a disadvantage having not done the taster course, we were taught from the very basics that assumed no previous knowledge of the language, but it meant that we had to work harder for a while to catch up with the others.

Early Lessons

Of course, those who joined a bit later with their previous experience were a long way ahead of us. This made things more difficult when it came to working in pairs with one or other of them, especially as some tended to show off their knowledge a little. However, we got along quite well, though we did find it very hard going and by the end of each lesson our heads were spinning, sometimes with a bit of a headache into the bargain. At times during the lesson my heart was beating as fast as that of an airline pilot coming in to land. In many ways, the last half hour of each lesson was rather unproductive, as most of us had taken in as much as we could cope with by then and were just waiting for the lesson to finish. Looking back on the experience, it would have been a lot better to spend this last half hour with less intensive tasks such as reading dialoges or using some of the easier teaching aids rather then doing things such as trying to form sentences in question and answer sessions, which is one of the most intense mental strains in the early stages of learning. I was not the only one to experience this - my wife felt much the same, as did a number of others in the class.

It soon became apparent that if I wanted to minimise the stress levels in the lessons I needed to get ahead of the game. It was not enough just to practise listening to the lesson we had just completed, do the homework and try to remember any new vocabulary, I also needed to have a good look at the next lesson to familiarise myself with what was going to come next. This did make quite a difference, but my brain was generally still spinning towards the end of each lesson. Part of this could be accounted for by the fact that we were having to catch up on things that most others had already covered on the taster course and part of it could be due to our age. However, it was not just the older members of the class who were feeling the pressure.

Teaching Methods

A number of those in the class who had previously learned other languages such as French, Spanish, German or Italian began to wonder whether we were following the best teaching method. There was a feeling that we were learning parrot fashion rather than applying some degree of logic to the formation of sentences as is often possible in other languages. However, it soon became apparent that Welsh was so different from English in so many aspects, that trying to apply logic was just not a realistic option and that the method in use, which had been tried and tested over the years, was the best way forward. When others complained about the lack of logic in Welsh, I coined the maxim "All attempts at logic will end in tears!". There was often a feeling that someone ought to take the language and make it follow more logical rules, but the fact is that the language has evolved over many centuries and we have to accept it as it is whether we like it or not. I am a firm believer in another adage "When the going gets tough, the though get going". Consequently we just kept on working to the best of our ability hoping that we would get there in the end.

Mutations

The other problem that we were soon introduced to was the use of mutations, which impose a huge addition difficulty for learners. We had been vagely aware of these when encountering 'Mawr' and 'Fawr' or 'Bach' and 'Fach' in various names, but were oblivious to the widespread use of these and other forms of mutation throughout the language. When we were first introduced to nasal mutations by "Dw i'n byw ym Mhrestatyn" in which the 'P' changes to 'Mh', we were gobsmacked, and things got even worse with "Dw i'n byw yng Nghaernarfon" and many other similar things. We were reassured that it didn't really matter about using these as we would still be understood if we either didn't use them or used them in the wrong places. That may well be the case, but it doesn't address the problems of understanding written or spoken Welsh which uses them. There are numerous occasions even now after nearly two years when I do not recognise that a word is one I already know quite well because it has a mutation. This also happens the opposite way round when I have learned a word in mutated form and then encounter it in its basic form.

The worst cases of mutation come with words beginning with 'c', 'p' or 't' which may have three additional forms: 'c' can become 'g' or 'ch' or 'ngh' with fairly similar mutations for 'p' and 't'. Other letters have less variations and some never get mutated at all, but it still means that for some words it is necessary to recognise four different options and for many more two or three variants. This is particularly confusing with a small word such as 'to' (roof) which can be mutated to 'do' , 'tho' or 'nho', or the word 'ci' (dog) which can become 'gi', 'chi' or 'nghi'.

There is no doubt that mutations cause one of the biggest headaches to learners, and possibly for Welsh speakers as well. Not only do they introduce so many different spellings of the same word, but they are a big distraction when trying to speak the language. Even though we are told not to worry about mutations, there is always a feeling of wanting to get it right. There is also a dilemma for the tutor in that leaving mutations uncorrected means that learners do not realise what should have been said, but correcting them can cause lack of confidence in learners making them hesitate before saying things next time. The problem is, particularly with the most common soft mutation, that the rules of use are so complex that it is almost impossible to work them out for certain whilst speaking, though a better attempt can be made with written work when there is more time to work things out. However, it is possible to get used to some cases of mutation after a while with considerable of practice. Thus there is a major impact on fluency in the language until either mutations have been mastered or a decision is made to largely ignore them.

Another major problem caused by mutations comes when trying to look up words in the dictionary, as each word has the possibility (or even probability) of having been mutated. Thus, the first thing to do is see what a word may have been mutated from and then look up all the possible options until, with a bit of luck, the right one is found. I coined another maxim about mutations: "All words are guilty of mutation until proven innocent!", because so many words in the average sentence are affected by them, particularly soft mutations. It is said that you have an 80% chance of getting any word right if you give it a soft mutation!

Yes and No

In most languages, saying Yes or No is just a matter of learning two simple words in the first lesson. To our surprise, this is not so simple in Welsh as the words don't effectively exist and everything has to be answered in the context of the question, which means that for nearly every verb used in a question there is a different reply. It has been pointed out that Welsh is not the only language where this happens: there are regions of England where this is common practice. Asking a Geordie if he likes something he will generally reply "I do" rather than "Yes", and the answer will change for different questions. This is even the case in the traditional English marriage vows. However, this form of reply is optional in English but not in Welsh and is the cause of great difficulty to learners. There is some solace when it comes to the past tense as "do" and "Naddo" work for all questions. I still find that a question requiring a Yes/No answer stops me in my tracks as I try to work out what should be said. Using the incorrect response is like being asked in English "Do you like tea?" and replying "I have", or "They are", so it is quite important to try to get the correct response to avoid looking totally stupid. It is often easier to reply "I like tea" rather than to get the wrong version of "Yes".

Using a Dictionary

When trying to translate Welsh into English it might seem that it would be a simple thing to look up a word in a dictionary. However, this is not as easy as it would seem. The alphabet includes some double letters such as 'ch', 'dd', 'ff', 'ng', 'll', 'ph', 'rh' and 'th' and these are treated as single letters in their own right. Unlike some other languages that use special characters to represent letters linked in this way, Welsh just uses the ordinary ones, which means they are easily confused with other single letters. This has a profound effect on alphabetical order in a dictionary as each of these letter pairs has its own place in the alphabet, generally following that of the first letter. For instance 'dd', 'ff' and 'll' follow 'd', 'f' and 'l' respectively and 'ch', 'ph' and 'rh' follow 'c', 'p' and 'r' respectively. The most confusing one is 'ng' which comes between 'g' and 'h' in the alphabet because it is a mutation of 'g'. The only words starting with 'ng' are mutations, so are not listed in most dictionaries, though they may be included in some learners' dictionaries or comprehensive Welsh dictionaries. However, the letter pair 'ng' may appear in the middle of a word such as 'angen' which appears in a dictionary before 'aidd', 'allan', 'ambell' and 'anffodus' and it is not until words such as 'anhapus' that the English style alphabetical order resumes. There are numerous times when I have been caught out by this, thinking that the word I am trying to look up is not listed only to find that I have been caught out by this difference in alphabetical order.

Additional Exposure to the Language

After a couple of terms of following the course and concentrating solely on the course material, I started looking for additional ways to help me get more accustomed with the language. These involved looking on the internet at other teaching methods such as 'Say Something in Welsh'. Our tutor also told us that a new series of 'Hwb', a learners' programme, was starting on S4C, so I started watching that. I also tried looking at a few children's books from the library. All of these things helped me along but they all had some limitations.

Songs as a Learning Aid

Useful as all the above things were, I did start to tire of them after a while but still felt that I needed to get that extra exposure to as much of the language as possible. Through Hwb, I had started learning a lot more about Welsh culture and history and realised that there was a whole lot happening that English speakers were generally unaware of. Through Hwb, I also saw what other learners were doing to learn the language, and quite a few pointed to Welsh songs as a learning aid or even as a sole reason for learning the language. Following some of the links mentioned there, I soon found that there was a host of material from Welsh Singers on YouTube. The added bonus was that many of them show the lyrics in both Welsh and English as the video is being played, making it much easier to follow and learn.

I soon found the singer Gwyneth Glyn whose songs were sung very clearly and mostly quite slowly, so they were just what I was looking for in helping me improve my vocabulary and also to get a better feel for the way the language works. Initially, my knowledge of Welsh meant that there was a lot that I didn't understand and there were a lot of different tenses of verbs that I didn't know or recognise, but I could still make out quite a lot and was soon able to increase my repertoire. The great advantage of listening to songs was that I could listen to them as many times as I liked without getting bored with them. Each time I played them I gained a little more understanding and added more and more words to my vocabulary without feeling that it was any effort. I also gained a lot more feeling for how sentences are put together, learning not just words, but phrases that could be adapted for use in making up my own sentences.

As well as listening to Gwyneth Glyn, I also started looking at other Welsh singers and, having seen Dafydd Iwan being interviewed on the Hwb programme, started to listen to some of his songs. These were often a bit more difficult than those of Gwyneth Glyn, but I still managed to get on well with most of them. As I got more and more involved with the songs I suddenly realised that I had actually stumbled on a bigger reason for learning Welsh than I started with, and my focus changed from that of following the lessons to understanding more and more of the songs. This, of course, had the benefit of boosting my general understanding of the language and making the lessons easier. I already knew quite a number of new words that were coming up and also had a better feeling of the way sentences fitted together. I then dubbed this method of learning as "Welsh without tears" as I could just relax and listen to music that I enjoyed whilst gradually picking up more and more of the language.

Whilst listening to the songs by Gwyneth Glyn and Dafydd Iwan, I also came across other singers and listened to a few of them from time to time, though I found a lot of them either not as much to my taste or not as suitable for my level of Welsh. As I progressed with my understanding, I found songs by Meinir Gwilym that I had previously dismissed for being too fast and too difficult, but which then came within my scope. Many of them are quite difficult to follow and I am still working my way through them aiming at understanding all of the lyrics eventually. It will take some time before I can do this, but I can enjoy listening whilst I do so. I haven't yet fully achieved full understanding with the other two singers, though I am getting closer to that goal.

Progressing into the Second Year

Although I was picking up more and more of the language, it didn't seem to have that much effect on how well I could speak in the lessons. After a few months of listening to the songs, I could recite more and more lines and sometimes whole verses, and these were spinning round in my head all day, so not only was I gaining from listening to the songs, but I was also practicing them for many hours in my head. Somehow I hoped that, after filling my head with songs, I would suddenly start bursting out in fluent Welsh, but got the feeling that this may only be the case if I could say everything I wanted to say by quoting a line from a song!

After the first year, our course numbers had dropped down to seven who have had the stamina to keep going despite all the difficulties of the language. We all get on well together and out tutor is very pleased with our progress, which is helped by the fact that we have one of the best attendance records of all of the courses. I myself have not missed one lesson and was only late for one because I had to take our dog to the vet to be put down. We still turned up for the rest of the lesson, thinking that it was better to have something to take our minds off things.

Just before starting the second year of our course in January 2014, I started working part time, and was in some doubt as to whether I could continue with the course. The days I was required to work were Monday, Wednesday and Friday for six hours each day and our course is on a Monday morning. I was unable to change my working days, but did manage to get agreement to go in to work after Welsh and make up the missing time by working an hour later on each of the three days. Hence I am still on the course. As time goes by, I find the lessons less stressful, and am starting to get better at conversation, though there is still a very long way to go before I become confident. I do feel that the Welsh songs have done a great deal to help me gain a feeling for the language and to broaden my vocabulary so that now I do not have to put as much effort into the coursework. I already know many of the new words that come up in the lessons and have a much better feel for the way that sentences are put together. One thing I have done is to worry less about mutations, using them as and when I remember to do so but not letting them get in the way of saying things - maybe they will fit into place in time, but I doubt whether I will ever get them all right. However, I don't think I will not be alone in that.

George Tod  george@gtleisure.co.uk

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