The magic once you realise it’s genuinely possible

So, I need to tear myself away from an unexpected but entertaining Smiths quote-fest on Facebook, and do something worthwhile.

With a head as clear as one of Angharad Lliar’s paintings, and with SSiW volunteers rushing to send me down to the dole queue, that means finishing this meandering story (rather than doing any actual work).  In fact – please tell me that all this is inspiring you to want to learn a new language, and to use our courses to do so, and let me pretend that my raging self-indulgence is in fact of value…:-)

Welsh road markings seen near Cardiff Airport,...

So there I was, living in Porthmadog through the medium of Welsh, slipping haphazardly in and out of a variety of moderately peculiar jobs.  I can honestly promise you that I will never forget a meeting in Belfast to persuade some fungus academics that we were the right people to project manage a large scale fungus identification programme for them.  My friend Paddy (who was an art historian by trade) and I explained that we would be hiring in the necessary expertise, but I did try to encourage them by letting them know that I was at least extremely fond of eating mushrooms.  They didn’t quite laugh.  In fact, I’ve never heard such a heavy, offended, academic silence.  It still amazes me that they gave us the job, and I can only suppose that no-one else even submitted a bid.

I’d also joined Cymuned, and eventually ended up working in Gwynedd Council, and the world around me became a world where speaking Welsh was normal.  Then, of course, I made the best decision of my life – I met and married Catrin.

Well, to be precise, she bought me for a tenner from, which I think was a bargain.

And no, I didn’t marry her just as another opportunity to practise my Welsh, as she sometimes hints darkly.  It was her hair, and the way she swung when she walked, and the heart of gold that colours everything she does.

But it was also very much the finishing touch for my Welsh, that much is true…;-)


Now, that might (to your relief) have been the end of this particularly story – I was more than willing to believe that I was dreadful at learning languages, and that some kind of fluke had happened with Welsh – I even persuaded myself that the fact I’d been in Cwm Cynllwyd and y Felinheli for the first two years of my life meant that I had re-acquired Welsh in the first language sector of my brain.

English: Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Litera...

English: Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Literaturherbst, 10/10/2010 Göttingen, Germany. Magyar: Steven Pinker a Göttinger Literaturherbst rendezvényen, 2010.10.10 Göttingen, Németország. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That was a persuasive idea when research scientists like Steven Pinker thought that the brain processed the mother tongue in one part of the brain, and all other learnt languages in one other part of the brain.  New work in neuroplasticity, however, seems to suggest that no two people process any language in exactly the same part of the brain, so my neat little theory is busy falling by the wayside.

Which left me with a puzzle.

Why did I have so much more grammatical understanding of Arabic, and know so many more words in Italian, and yet could only speak Welsh?

My confusion was heightened when I bought a Michel Thomas Spanish course.

English: Defnyddiwch eich Cymraeg - Use your W...

Yes, Spanish is a perfectly natural language to be learning as you settle down to a new life in Gwynedd.  Okay, the truth is that I was already fed up of going into shops, asking for something in Welsh, and being told to ‘Say it in English!’.  I had a cunning plan – I was going to learn Spanish, and then the next time someone told me to say it in English, I was going to say it in Spanish, and claim to be from Patagonia.

Now, here’s how the Spanish went.  I took a couple of months to go through the basic course, about eight hours of content.  Then I took a month or so to go through the advanced course, about another five hours of content.

Then I stopped doing any work at all, because I’m really not joking about being dreadfully lazy.  Sure, I bought a couple of sample conversation books, and a dictionary, and they look very pretty and impressive on my bookshelves.  And neat, too, since they’ve never been opened.

But I did one good thing.  I met Dave.

Dave had just moved back to Wales after a life abroad, and as a south Walian he’d grown up without the language – and he was keen to have an hour’s conversation practice in Welsh each week.  And that was great, because he’s a fascinating guy, with barrel-loads of strong and interesting opinions, and spending time talking to him is one of the great pleasures of my life.

Oh, and he used to be a Spanish teacher…:-)

So the hour a week for Welsh became an intercambio – an hour in Welsh, and then an hour in Spanish.

And boy, were those hours ‘in Spanish’ a lovely opportunity for a bit of Zen meditation in the early days.  I suspect Dave may have rather loved the sheer peace and quiet of staring out of the window at Porth Dinllaen while I took twenty minutes to work out how to say ‘I would like to speak more Spanish, but I can’t, because I’m lazy’.

A few months down the line, though, something quite remarkable was happening.

Drinking like chimps

Drinking like chimps (Photo credit: andybullock77)

We were having conversations.  In Spanish.  Sure, I’d amuse Dave by throwing in words in Italian on far too regular a basis – but we were talking Spanish.  We were talking Spanish hundreds of miles better than I’d ever spoken Arabic, or Italian, or Thai, or Shona, or Portuguese, or German – after an absurdly small amount of time and effort.

By the time we’d been keeping to our weekly meet-up for a year, there was no way I could avoid the truth any more – I was a Spanish speaker.

No, not a fluent Spanish speaker – isn’t that word brilliant for putting yourself down?! – I’d still say I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker – but I can and do enjoy spending entire evenings talking Spanish to anyone willing to talk Spanish to me, and it has become another of my life’s great pleasures.  I’ve even read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish, which has provided me with all sorts of not particularly useful vocabulary.

Something important had changed.

I’d spent 32 years failing miserably to learn any of the languages I encountered, even in the best possible situations for language acquisition.

Then I’d learnt Welsh in a single year of working extremely hard at it.


And then I’d learnt Spanish in a year spent popping down to the pub once a week.

Now, I like understanding how things work.  You might even say I’m a little obsessive about it.  Or, if you’re Catrin, you might suggest that I verge on lunacy, and need careful monitoring for my own good.

But none of this made sense to me.

And that was how the line of thought that would one day become SaySomethingin rumbled slowly into life.

How it grew from bafflement to a collection of actual lessons, though, will have to be a post for another day.  I’ve told the functional story of the early days of building SaySomethingin on the forum before, but I’ve never talked about the underlying ideas, and how they came together.

If you’d like me to do that, well, just keep breathing, because it would take wild horses to stop me now.

Of course, the more comments you leave, the sooner my obsession will drive me to finish the story.  Probably…;-)


17 responses to “The magic once you realise it’s genuinely possible

  1. Nice blog. SaysomethinginWelsh is great. I’m doing the South Wales course (intermediate at the mo), after living in France for 6 years – pretty sure that having strong French is helping my brain cope with Welsh. Keep up the good work – maybe one day no-one will have to sit in a classroom having their innate passion for languages extinguished by conjugation!

    • Thanks for your post, Paul, really appreciate it – yes, I’m sure that the experience of using another language has a genuine neurological impact on your ability to use (rather than just learn) subsequent languages. Haven’t managed to afford an MRI machine to test this yet, though…;-)

  2. Sounds to me like a lot of your language learning failure and then success, must be largely due to your state of mind at the time. Drop someone in the middle of France and give them French language lessons every day, if they haven’t any interest in the culture or language, they’ll probably find reasons not to learn. However, put someone on an island with a computer and internet with a burning desire to learn the language and culture of a country, they’ll probably find a way to do it. And if SSi has a course in their chosen language, they’re bound to find it…;-)

    That was my favorite so far, by the way, keen em coming…:-)

    • Diolch ‘chan!

      I think you’re right that state of mind is a huge part of it – having said that, I was genuinely interested in all the cultures and languages with which I failed to get anywhere at all.

      My thoughts on what the real difference was at some point next week…;-)

    • Ooh! I shall tell my mother that there is no further need for her to fret about what to get me for Christmas…:-)

      • I’m American and not sure about these things, but doesn’t the NHS provide them for free? I do know that pretty flashing lights cost extra, but they’re worth it.

      • If you can’t walk and appear to be about to die, then yes. Otherwise, not if they can possibly help it – I’m in the middle of a several month long fight to get an MRI scan on my increasingly problematic back, and I suspect that if we say we’d just like to look at some language patterns they’ll chase us out with spears.

        Having said that, we may be able to strike a deal with a university one of these days, so it’s not entirely a pipe dream…:-)

      • Not a pipe dream? Oh my, I thought I was joking and it turns out I wasn’t. Well, I definitely don’t want to know why you dragged your mother into this.

        And, incidentally (and the real reason for this note): if you, or anyone, is interested in hearing Pirahã, or pretty much any other language (not Faeroese, though), have a gander at the evangelical Christian site:

        In addition to Pirahã (labelled “Mura-Piraha” on the site, but the other Mura languages are extinct), I recommend Nama, which is a click language (the choral singing is especially weird), and Yiddish which, if you can understand which the speaker is saying (not difficult if you know some German, or if you’ve heard other recordings on the site, since they all use the same set of texts), sounds like a Mel Brooks movie (laugh-out-loud funny because of incongruity).

      • I’m presuming she’ll be happy to sell her house in order to fund my passing obsession…;-)

        That’s a fascinating resource – diolch yn fawr iawn!

  3. Very fascinating and motivating indeed! I couldn’t believe it when I read you started learning Welsh at 32! Until I met you I assumed you were born into it. If you started at 32 and are as fluent as anyone can be then I have high hopes for myself who started at 23 🙂
    Like meeting people who had done all 3 courses and hearing what they could do with that wasn’t enough!

    • By the time you’re the age I was when I started, you’ll be the kind of Welsh speaker who would have scared me witless when I was just beginning to squeeze out the first occasional sentence or two…:-))

  4. I think it was Goethe who didn’t say “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it”. …dal ati! You’re on the home stretch now 😀

    • There seem to be a lot of chicanes on this home stretch – but I’ve always enjoyed chicanes…;-) Diolch, Amy…:-))

  5. “I had a cunning plan – I was going to learn Spanish, and then the next time someone told me to say it in English, I was going to say it in Spanish, and claim to be from Patagonia.”
    That is the most brilliant, evil, hilarious plot. 😂 Out of curiosity, did you ever act out said plan?

    “I’ve even read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish, which has provided me with all sorts of not particularly useful vocabulary.”
    But you might need to discuss elves, monsters, wizards, and magical rings in Spanish some day!

    • To my lasting frustration, ever since I got to the point of being ready to take the risk, I’ve been miraculously free from the ‘say it in English!’ headache! I like to think I’ve got to the point of looking unsettlingly ready to speak Spanish…;-)

      Oh, yes, if I ever need to discuss anillos, I’ll be more than ready…:-D

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