Doing good things and bad things… how I started to understand which was which…

So, I’d started writing, Iestyn had started adapting the script to a southern dialect, we’d all started recording – and we released 15 half-hour lessons into the wild.

And my education began.

The first thing I found out (as the first couple of hundred people starting working their way through the material) was that I’d got lesson 6 badly wrong. People were coming out of it screaming and bleeding.

I revisited the script, and saw the problem – too many new tenses and negatives all at once – easy fix, just split it into two lessons to give them all a bit more space.

So 6.1 and 6.2 were born.

And they didn’t work either. People were still screaming.

So that was lesson 1 for me – this stuff is more complicated than I’d realised, and there are things about how it does and doesn’t work that I don’t understand yet.

Which was, of course, exactly the realisation I needed.

[It was about another year and a half or so before I finally solved the lesson 6 problem, and this is now a core part of the methodology – it had too many high syllable count new pieces of information. High syllable count is VERY risky for new material – you can’t always avoid it, but if you have too many lapses too close to each other, you break people’s hearts.]

So, I carried on writing – being a bit more cautious about how many new things came at once (and I was lucky to avoid high syllable counts by and large, by accident, before I’d realised what an important issue it was).

And I got through to the end of Course 2, at which point I did one good thing and one bad thing.

The bad thing was Course 3.

I know, and am very glad, that lots of people have found lots of value in Course 3 – but no-one ever has said that it was fun (and they’re right – it’s not).

What went wrong?

I reverted to a more traditional approach.

I had a little panic.

I thought ‘Uh-oh, we really need to teach them the short form of the verb’ – that utterly-different-to-English thing that Welsh does about having two forms for the verb: ‘Dwi’n gweld’ or ‘Gwelaf’. I’d focused exclusively on the long form – dwi’n gweld – because I thought it was easier and more flexible and faster to get the hang of (which in many ways it is).

But that had left out the very, very common usage of the short form.

To fix it, I made a list of the verbs that get used in the short form most commonly, and just started wading through them – with the whole ‘I, you, he, she, we, they’ kind of thing going on.

That’s why Course 3 feels so relentless and painful.

I realised it wasn’t the right approach pretty much as soon as we’d finished recording it and publishing it (yeah, great timing, right?!).

Luckily, I also did the good thing.

The good thing was listening.

Specifically, it was listening to the people who were coming on our ‘No English for a week’ bootcamps.

And what I heard when I listened to them were some embarrassingly (for me!) big gaps in the stuff they really NEEDED to know how to say – and to understand.

They had very high levels of confidence, which was terrific, and they had really impressive range in terms of how many different sentences they could build – but they had some BIG holes.

The one that came to symbolise it all for me was ‘How long have you been learning for?’

I used to ask it all the time, and of course no-one knew what I was saying, BECAUSE I HADN’T TAUGHT THEM THAT STRUCTURE.

I taught them some Welsh – I invited them on a Bootcamp – and then I said things to them that they had NO WAY OF UNDERSTANDING.

I swear it was by accident.

What kind of monster do you think I am?!

And it wasn’t just me asking – it’s one of the most common questions people get when they start using their Welsh.

We weren’t just seeing that on Bootcamp, either – people were coming on the forum and saying ‘Ooh, bit depressed today – just used my Welsh on someone, didn’t have a clue what they said back to me.’

And I’d say – okay, so, how many lessons have you finished?

And they’d say ‘Oh, I’ve done the first 3 or 4’.

And – I swear, honest to God – I spent about a year and a half thinking ‘Well bloody well finish Course 1 before you go and start trying to talk to people, you lazy bloody short-cutters!’

Yes, I genuinely thought that.

Yes, this is my Idiot Hat.

It took witnessing it at Bootcamp, and being invited to increasing numbers of Welsh for Adults policy and training meetings, before it ever-so-slowly dawned on me…

We’d accidentally solved one of the biggest problems in learning Welsh.

The problem (that everyone else was moaning about) that learners won’t use their Welsh outside of the class.

Whereas we were having trouble holding them back.

Which was a Good Thing.

And that meant – we WANT them out there using their Welsh immediately, as soon as they’ve done a couple of lessons.

But we haven’t taught them what they’re going to hear when they start talking to people.

Which meant…

Oh my God.

I was going to have to write a better course.

[Right, getting some little flashes of PTSD here even thinking about it – I’ll try and process those while I’m driving down to Oxford, and tell you what happened next when I next get a little quiet time…] 🙂

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