How Welsh saved a useless language learner

Bad news – you’re all doomed.

No, really.  One of the best writers in Wales has just told me that reading this blog made her laugh.  I don’t care if it was with me or at me, it’s fuelled my natural narcissism to a dangerous degree – it’s not so much blossoming as turning into a fully grown Triffid.  Brace yourselves – I’m probably going to start sharing shopping lists, sixth form poetry, letters of complaint to my MP, anything I’ve ever written.  You have been warned.

For today, though, let’s just round up this hiccupy journey from serial language failure to a sudden and completely unexpected success.

I missed out one of the failures yesterday, by the way – I didn’t want you to realise just how useless I actually was.  During the five years I spent butchering Arabic, I went over to visit my father a couple of times, who by that stage was settling down in Thailand with some presents for me: a slightly unexpected step-mother and a thoroughly unexpected half-brother.

Somewhere between Chiang Mai and the border wi...

Somewhere between Chiang Mai and the border with Myanmar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They lived in a very small village about 100kms to the north of Chiang-Mai, where very little English was spoken.  Yes, you’re right – once again, I’d found an ideal situation to acquire a new language.  And what a language – Thai is like NewSpeak in its simplicity.  Once you’ve learnt a verb, it never changes – you just add tense markers to it, but you recognise it wherever and whenever it crops up.  It should be a joy to learn.

In two months (on three different visits), I learnt how to say the thoroughly dishonest:

‘Pom poot pasa thai nitnoy’.

‘I speak a little Thai’.

No, you dishonest scoundrel, you don’t.  You can say ONE sentence.  Surely that sentence should at least be true?  Something like ‘I am remarkably bad at learning languages, and I apologise humbly to you for all the mistakes I have just made in this simple attempt at communication.’

And then, one day, it happened.

I woke up, looked out of the window at the desert, and realised that I was 32 and I lived in a sandpit.  That may be okay for a Psammead, but it’s not a good sign for anyone who aspires to sanity.

It was time to go home.

And that meant I was going to have to face up to the dichotomy of being a Welsh man who couldn’t speak Welsh – a sore point that I had effectively been avoiding for 32 years.

Naturally enough, I didn’t go straight home.  No, I bought ‘Colloquial Italian’ and went home via Italy, to try and persuade someone to marry me.  The quality of my inevitably dreadful Italian put paid to that, though, although I did manage one short conversation in Italian, which was an unusual step forward.  I think it was about the weather, or perhaps cooking, or maybe something about going for a walk.  I accept that I hadn’t set the bar for success very high, but it was pleasing at the time.

Back in Wales at last, keen to take my mind off my broken Italian and even more broken heart, I made one of the two best decisions of my life.  I signed up for a four week immersion course in Welsh at what was by now Aberystwyth University.

Sunset as seen from Constitution Hill.

Sunset as seen from Constitution Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It should have been just the latest in a string of failures, but two things were different.

It mattered.  It really mattered.  If I failed this time, I was going to be faced with a genuine identity crisis.  I swore that I was going to succeed, and that when I spoke Welsh, I was going to get a Draig Goch tattooed on my shoulder.

And the teaching was focused on grammar drills and conversation.  Grammar, conversation, grammar, conversation – it often felt like an unusually effective form of mediaeval torture, but by God it forced the language into your gray matter.

It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.

By the end of the four weeks, I knew that my Arabic vocabulary was still much larger than my Welsh vocabulary (even now, I still don’t know the Welsh for humidity!) but I was having conversations in Welsh.  I was enjoying conversations in Welsh.  I was living through the medium of Welsh.  Like the best kind of coward, though, I found enough reasons to refuse the idea that I was ‘fluent’, so I didn’t have to get that tattoo.  Pain frightens me.

Even without the tattoo, though, it changed my life.

To cut this part of a long story short, after a brief detour to stay with my brother in Essex (not the best place to practise Welsh, surprisingly enough), I moved to Porthmadog, stopped speaking English, and went back to do the four week course in Aberystwyth again the following year.

Welsh Dragon, St David's Day / Draig Goch, Dyd...

At the end of that month, I’d run out of excuses (and I’d told everyone in the group that I was meant to get a tattoo when I could speak Welsh).  They forced me to go through with it – for the comedy value, I suspect.  I didn’t quite faint, and I didn’t quite cry, and the combination of a Draig Goch on my shoulder and the language of heaven like honey in my throat means that I will never again suffer any doubts about who I am.


I’d also, unsurprisingly, started to think.

Why did I know so many more Arabic words, and yet could speak so much more in Welsh?  How could I fail to learn language after language, and then become a Welsh speaker in a year?  What had I been doing wrong?

In the next post, I’ll talk about Spanish, and how all this turned into SaySomethingin.

I’ll post it come hell or high water – a genuine author said nice things to me! – but the more comments you leave, or shares you make, the greater my monstrous Triffid of narcissism will grow, and I’m sure we all want to see that, don’t we?


16 responses to “How Welsh saved a useless language learner

  1. Your daily blog is becoming addictive, Aran. Don’t stop now. Hope the Welsh author gave you more positives than negatives. That book deal looks very possible I’m sure. When you think of all the books written about buying a house in France/Spain etc. I’m sure you’d have an audience, even wide/larger than you have already. It could even become a series as the venture of SSiW continues, peppered with the daily life crises in the Jones’ household. Catrin writes a’mean’ blog herself. Loving it!

    • You’re too kind, Menna – diolch yn fawr! The chances of the blog remaining a daily venture once my head is clear enough to do some proper work are, I’m afraid, minimal – but with people as lovely as you commenting, it’s such high calorie food for my ego, I’m sure it will continue in some form or another…;-)

  2. It doesn’t carry the weight of an author, but I laughed too 🙂 Lovely it fill in some gaps. Hope the back is sorted and that, at least in the meantime, the drugs are helping Lx

    • Is that my lovely cousin? If so, making family laugh is in my experience even more of a challenge than making successful authors laugh, so you’re right up there alongside Tramadol on my list of beautiful things…:-)

  3. Hah, I remember quite well your description of that horrible suffering. i.e. getting that tattoo. It still gets me laughing. =)

  4. Here you go: omahyväinen
    (I had to translate it to English since I really didn’t get the Finnish one…)

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