I was 32 when I finally figured out that camels all look the same, shook the desert dust off my feet and came home – to face up to the fact that I needed to be a Welsh speaker, and all the signs were that I just didn’t have what it took.
And then I did something I’d never done before.
Not the intensive month of Wlpan in Aberystwyth – I’d done an intensive month before, in Cairo, with Arabic, and got pretty much nowhere.
But after that intensive month (and a quick visit to my brother in Essex, where I had surprisingly few chances to practise my Welsh) I moved to Porthmadog.
And I made the conscious decision that however bloody frustrating or embarrassing or downright humiliating it was, I was going to live my life through the medium of Welsh.
It meant a LOT of nodding and smiling and wondering if I’d just agreed to anything dangerous (that’s how I ended up briefly in a choir, and certainly how I accidentally became a language activist).
It meant running away whenever anyone tried to speak English to me (including right before the GCSE oral exam! Who on earth speaks English when they’re about to be tested on speaking Welsh?! Don’t taint my ears or I’ll FORGET IT ALL!).
But it also meant – by brute force – that I became a Welsh speaker.
When I went back for another intensive month in Aberystwyth the following year, it just confirmed that there wasn’t much point going to classes any more.
I was much better off down the pub.
Then, one day, a little later on – when I was working as an eGovernment officer in Gwynedd Council – those lovely early days when no-one had the faintest idea what on earth an eGovernment officer was meant to be – someone came in to try and sell an online system of some kind to the council.
During his mostly boring pitch, he mentioned having learnt to speak Arabic.
So I trotted up to him at the end and said, in very bad Arabic, ‘You speak Arabic then?’ [Or maybe ‘You speaking now Arabic’ or ‘Speaking you the Arab’ or something along those lines].
My lack of Arabic didn’t matter, though, because he just started spluttering and waving his hands and saying something about ‘a long time ago’ – yup, he was a complete fraud.
But then on the way home I remembered, for no particular reason, that I knew the Arabic word for ‘humidity’. It’s رطوبة, if you’re wondering.
And it struck me suddenly – even by then, I still had a far wider vocabulary in Arabic than I had in Welsh. I had NO idea what the Welsh for humidity was, but to be fair we don’t suffer from it as often as the Arabs do.
But I genuinely could NOT hold any kind of conversation in Arabic.
So how could I know fewer words in Welsh than I did in Arabic, but have easy and natural conversations in Welsh when I couldn’t talk to anyone in Arabic?
A suspicion dawned on me.
Maybe I *hadn’t* been rubbish at languages all those years.
Maybe I’d just been doing the wrong stuff.
I started testing some ideas – with Spanish, first of all – and that became the long, winding track which lead to our gratifyingly successful Welsh courses – which are based, from the very beginning onwards, on getting rid of EVERYTHING which doesn’t help bring the language to life for you.
Now, I’m not sure how much the journey of developing the methodology itself would actually be of interest to you.
It interests me, but I’ve become more than a little obsessed with this stuff.
If you’d like me to do a couple of posts about how I went from testing some stuff with Spanish to launching SaySomethinginWelsh, comment below…:-)
[If it’s all very quiet, I promise I’ll take the hint! Catrin is trying very hard to train me to be more sensitive about not boring people to death by talking about language acquisition for too long, which in Catrin’s opinion is anything more than about 2 seconds. 🙂 ]