It was a warm summer evening in that lockdown summer of 2020. My wife and I were sitting in the front garden of our terraced house having a socially distanced drink with neighbours. Others came out of houses and spoke over hedges and walls. The conversation began in English, but because most of our neighbours are Welsh speakers, the language soon switched to Cymraeg. As we didn’t speak Welsh, we couldn’t join in. Every so often, someone would turn and translate. I am used to this happening when travelling abroad, but for it to occur in my own front garden was a dislocating experience.
I had moved to Cardiff in 2017, having spent the previous two decades in nearby Bristol, ignorant of another home language, widely spoken, just twenty-five miles away. I knew it was there, but it wasn’t something I ever thought about. That changed after I moved. There were notices and road signs in Welsh; I couldn’t avoid them. I became interested in the native tongue that had been so close all this time, particularly when I learned it was one of the oldest languages in Europe. I was intrigued by hearing Welsh spoken in the street, or in shops and cafés. I would pick up books and magazines written in Welsh and try to deduce some meaning; there was nothing. But the soundscape of the language was endlessly fascinating: sometimes musical and sometimes guttural, often not sounding like a European language at all. I began to fantasise about conversing (and even, one day, writing) in Welsh.
Despite growing up in Kent, within sight of the French coast, I squandered the chance to learn French at school. As the years passed, I became ashamed of my monolingualism and jealous of those who could slip between tongues in the same conversation. In 1922, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. The older I got the more aware of these limitations I became. Now there was a chance to do something about it; I decided to become a learner.
According to the most recent census in 2021, an estimated 538,300 residents in Wales over the age of three speak Welsh — about 17.8% of the Welsh population. This is considerably less than in the heady days of 1911, when nearly a million people reported themselves as Welsh speakers, though a moderate increase from the historic low point of 1981. The language has a deeply troubled history, with English threatening to overwhelm it, but there is now a government initiative to increase the number of people who speak Welsh to one million by 2050.
This means there are plenty of opportunities for learners in Wales. After the lockdown years, I was excited to discover an intensive beginner’s course taught in person at Cardiff University in the summer of 2022. Among the small group who gathered in a classroom on the first day was an actor, an NHS project manager and several University academics, two of whom were Chinese. We began exploring the alphabet. The letters k, q, v, x and z are not included in the Welsh alphabet, and there are eight additional letters (made from pairs of letters), ch, dd, ff, ll, ng, ph, rh and th. We were instructed to walk around the room contorting our mouths and rolling our tongues, saying words that included the new sounds these letters required. Coch… ddoe… llaeth… rhaglen… yng nghaerdydd. It was fun to begin with; all of us as bad as each other. But as the weeks progressed, I realised that some of my fellow students were already better than me.
The poet Simon Armitage wrote, ‘Language, I continue to believe, is the greatest human invention of all time and humanity’s most powerful tool’. As a learner I began to appreciate what this means, seeing a new language from its foothills and appreciating its complexity before it was understood. I make a living from putting one word in front of another, so it was extraordinary to gather new words to play with, free of the associations they carry in English. For example, when I hear the word ‘butterfly’, I imagine an insect with fluttering wings in a summer garden from my childhood, combined with images of all the butterflies I have ever seen. Also, at a deeper level, there is a consideration of the component parts of the word: butter and fly. The Welsh word for butterfly is pili-pala and comes free of associations and layers of meaning — it is just a word. I found it liberating to start again with language.
The total number of Welsh speakers in Wales is a little larger than the population of Leicester and yet this relatively small community supports several different dialects, two of which (North and South Wales) are so different they must be taught separately. There is also a rich seam of poetry, literature, drama and music, which has even extended to a burgeoning Welsh rap scene. There are national television and radio channels too. Even with a fragmentary knowledge of the language, it seems like a cultural universe inside the world in which I live.
Of course, the experience of learning was also deeply frustrating. I am used to holding my own in conversation and like to think I can adapt my words to different situations. Now, here I was trying to converse in a new language, when I only knew, at best, one word for everything. Frequently, I would start a sentence, only to discover I didn’t know the word that was coming over the horizon. Learning from mistakes is how language improves for a beginner, but it was hard not to feel frustrated when repeatedly getting things wrong. Then, after three weeks of intense learning at university, I woke up in the middle of the night and realised I had been dreaming in Welsh.
In a local pub I got talking to the headmaster of a Welsh-language primary school. He told me some of his pupils come from English-speaking households, whose parents know the standard of education in Welsh-speaking schools is high. I thought this would cause problems, imagining bemused children failing to understand their lessons. I wanted to know how long it was before these children were fluent in Welsh. Twelve weeks, he told me, was all it took. That is because of the incredible capacity of the young human brain to understand new languages. This declines in puberty, up until about the age of eighteen. After that it is much harder, though of course, not impossible, to learn another language. I took comfort from the story of Charlotte Guest, a remarkable Victorian who came to Wales at the age of twenty-two with no prior knowledge of the language. Among her achievements were educational reforms, running an ironworks and giving birth to ten children. Charlotte Guest learned to speak Welsh well enough to translate the first modern print version of the ancient mythological tales, the Mabinogion. When I struggled with simple sentences and grammatical constructions, I would think of her.
After the intensity of the summer school, I enrolled on a weekly online class. The pace was much slower and so was the progress, particularly if I didn’t do enough homework between lessons. But I kept at it and there were wonderful moments of discovery. There are Welsh books available for all levels of learning and I experienced intense excitement when I realised I could read one for the first time. I’r Eisteddfod by Lois Arnold is about a young woman who buys a bed and breakfast by the sea in an online auction. The pleasure of being able to understand this simple book, written in another language, was like when I first discovered the joy of reading on my own.
I am now one year into my learning journey and have a long way to go before getting anywhere near conversational fluency; to write anything coherent will probably take a lot longer. But as I spend more time living inside the Welsh language, I have become much more appreciative of my mother tongue. I hear English anew and wonder at things I had taken for granted before: at how sentences twist and turn, how they can pivot on a single word, and how we nuance the things we say with the words we choose, because we have so many to choose from. And most of these language skills were acquired when we were so young, we didn’t know it was happening. It really does seem like a miracle.
When I started learning Welsh, it was as if I was viewing a landscape totally obscured by fog. Now, sometimes, the fog clears, and I see the outlines of trees and the shape of the hills. That, for now, is enough. Or as I might say in Welsh, mae hynny, am nawr, yn ddigon.