So why are English people interested in learning Welsh?

It seems to break down into 3 general reasons – one a bit more unexpected (to me, at any rate!) than the others.

First of all, there’s the obvious – when they move to Wales.

I was going to say ‘when they move to a Welsh-speaking area’…

but English people who are interested in other cultures – who pay attention to the language right next door to them – will often learn Welsh even if they move to a part of Wales where it ISN’T the community language.

[Actually, this can make things a little tricky for them, sometimes – it can be a bit of a strange sore spot for Welsh people who don’t speak the language – but that’s probably complicated enough to need a different post.]

I’ve said previously what I think about this kind of English person – who moves to Wales and learns Welsh – they’re pure gold, so please send us more of them as soon as possible… πŸ™‚ ❀

The second main reason – which was a little surprising to me when I first encountered it, but seems pretty normal now – is when they have some kind of family connection to Wales.

This usually either means that they have Welsh relations in the mix somewhere, or that they spent holidays in Wales as a child and have happy memories of it, and a sense of nostalgia (perhaps even a sense of hiraeth!).

When people like this start to learn Welsh, it can be a powerful sudden flowering of connection – they can go (in a matter of months) from feeling that they just want to learn a few words to starting to have actual conversations with their family in Wales, or with people they meet when they come back to Wales on holiday – and the enthusiasm and excitement that generates can be an absolute joy to witness.

***

But finally (unexpectedly, interestingly, even a bit challengingly) there’s an entirely different kind of English person who learns Welsh.

***

They don’t have any family connections (at least, not that they know of, although they often find later on that there is some faint connection in their family tree)…

And they don’t even go to Wales on holiday (at first) – either they never have, or only very rarely.

So why on earth do they learn Welsh?

They feel that Wales is part of Britain, and they feel British as much as they feel English, and it seems reasonable to them that being British means having an interest in the bits of it that aren’t England.

And for some of them, that means finding out about the languages – or starting with one of them, and choosing the one ‘right next door’, as I’ve heard it said often.

They find it baffling that other people think there’s no point learning Welsh.

I can be in Wales in less than an hour,’ a friend told me once. ‘So I can use my Welsh every weekend, if I want to. How often do I bloody go to France?

[Okay, he didn’t actually say ‘bloody’, but my daughter’s home from school with a nasty sore throat, and watching over my shoulder as I type this, and her English is definitely good enough to follow what I’m saying by now…;-)]

The first time I encountered an English learner like this was such an utter surprise.

He said hello on our forum – and as I used to do often in the early days, I asked how he’d found us – and he said ‘Oh, on Google.’

Okay, I said, but how exactly – it would really help to know what keywords you were searching for about learning Welsh!

Oh, I wasn’t looking for anything to do with Welsh.’

Eh? What? Were you looking for something to do with visiting Wales, then? Or something to do with rugby?

No, no, I wasn’t looking for anything to do with Wales at all.

He’d found our Welsh course because (apparently) he was the world’s WORST user of a search engine.

I never found out what he WAS looking for – he said he genuinely couldn’t remember – but by that stage, he’d finished the whole of our first course, and just wanted to say thank you because he could have conversations in Welsh, and he’d never really expected that to happen.

Just. Too. Bafflingly. Entertaining.

***

It’s also – as I said up top – a bit challenging.

This whole British thing, you see. To be honest, I don’t really get it, and I never have.

To many Welsh speakers (although by no means all) ‘Britain’ is just another way to say ‘England’, and it usually seems to erase Wales itself (let alone our language) entirely.

If you find that hard to take on board, go and do a Google image search for ‘Britain’ – pretty much all you’ll see will be pictures of London – double-decker buses, phone boxes, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace – that’s what ‘Britain’ is to Google and to most of the rest of the world.

And that’s NOT Wales, and being invisible doesn’t feel all that nice.

And things which are invisible are more likely to vanish for good in the real world, too.

And that’s why I personally don’t feel British.

But when I meet people who DO feel British – and who are interested in – or actually learning – or confidently SPEAK – Welsh… and it’s BECAUSE they feel British…

I can kind of see – in a hazy, shimmering sort of way – an idea of Britain that I WOULD actually be able to belong to.

And certainly:

…every single English person who learns Welsh brings us one step closer to understanding each other – to building a world where the Welsh and the English are naturally friends with each other (and wouldn’t THAT be an improvement?!).

So if you know anyone in England who’s interested in Wales, do please share this with them, and they might end up becoming Welsh speakers…

Either in a matter of months on our brutal 6 month course:

http://www.SaySomethinginWelsh.com/6mws

or a bit more leisurely on our slightly more sane ‘6 Minutes a Day’ course:

http://www.SaySomethinginWelsh.com/6min

9 responses to “So why are English people interested in learning Welsh?

  1. * [Actually, this can make things a little tricky for them, sometimes – it can be a bit of a strange sore spot for Welsh people who don’t speak the language]

    This was the fear I had about using the Welsh language ‘in the wild’ in the year I lived in Wales that stopped me doing so more than I did.

  2. I found myself commenting on Twitter the other day that “mae’r gair [British] yn cael ei ddefnyddio i guddio mwy nag un hunaniaeth” — in that I always describe myself in English as “British”, but now that I speak Welsh I always describe myself in Welsh as “Sais”. And I think that for me it’s not that I have this particularly positive vision of Britain, so much as something rather messier and less coherent.
    These days, I would tend to say that I choose the label ‘British’ rather than ‘English’ because the whole English ‘brand’ (so to speak) has become too tainted by the Stephen Yaxley-Lennons of this world, and that’s partly true: my parents, visiting from France, saw that someone in the area had a large cross of St George flag up in their garden, and immediately asked me if I knew if the householder was racist. I didn’t know the answer, but the question didn’t surprise me.
    But that’s not all there is to it: I first chose to describe myself as British long before the EDL ever reared its ugly head, and I think I did so for two reasons. One was, in truth, a broader sense of belonging to these islands; but the other was that there wasn’t anything particularly special or distinctive about being English rather than British. And that could be seen as a kind of modest, what’s-so-special-about-me feeling, perhaps; but it could also be seen as the kind of comfortable “I am the default, the norm from which others deviate” sort of feeling that really needs to check its privilege.
    Even so, having said all that, I’m still going to carry on the same way: in Welsh I’m “Sais” because I’m not trying to pretend to be anything I’m not; and in English I’ll continue to be British because it still strikes me — in phrases like ‘Black British’ and ‘British Asian’ on monitoring forms, if nothing else — as a more inclusive, and thereby potentially more positive identity.

    • Thank you for that fascinating contribution – I find it quite easy to imagine having shared a lot of those feelings if I’d grown up in England with the English side of my family, and it makes a lot of sense.

      It’s interestingly complicated looking at it from the outside, though – in general terms, I share your wariness of St George flag wavers (which is very tough on good people with a strong English identity, because I don’t mind people waving the Draig Goch at all!) – and yet I find Englishness less threatening than Britishness, because it feels as though it leaves room for Welshness rather than tending to erase it.

      And yet if it were a British norm to speak English and Welsh, I could imagine having the same kind of comfortable British identity as my comfortable European identity.

      There’s an interesting point lying ahead of you – and probably not all that far ahead either – when the flow of your speech in Welsh loses the last few traces of uncertainty – when you’ll meet people through the medium of Welsh who’ll treat you as just another Welsh person, however much you tell them you’re English – because your Englishness will just seem faintly irrelevant in that Welsh medium context – a bit like telling someone in England that you were born overseas if you seem English to them – ‘oh, yes, interesting, now on with normality’…:-)

    • Richard: These kinds of racist EDL nationalists (like Yaxley-Lennon, whose background is Irish, so you’d think he would know better) are a very small minority of English people. It makes me sad that you’d distance yourself from English identity for that reason instead of trying to reclaim it. Why should we not be allowed a positive identity? England is the most diverse country in the union, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that we are less tolerant than Wales and Scotland. In fact, Scotland’s BAME national poet believes that Scotland is far behind England when it comes to racial attitudes.. https://www.scotsman.com/news/people/scotland-decades-behind-in-attitudes-to-race-warns-national-poet-1-4985812

      Anyway, read this. 90% of English people do not believe that race has anything to do with English identity. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/30/being-english-not-about-colour-say-majority

      I do agree that Englishness is quite difficult to conceptualise in an united sense, though, because we are so divided by region. Culturally, economically and by accent and dialect. When England is treated as a single entity, it tends to only include middle and upper class people from the home counties. I can’t help but feel that there’s some class snobbery going on when it comes to British vs English identity. It’s mostly the middle classes in the South East who sneer at Englishness, I’ve found, and use this to unfairly stereotype the more deprived parts of the north and midlands as a bunch of knuckle dragging bigots. England’s brexit vote is written off as “imperialist nostalgia” despite it coming most strongly from the deprived post-industrial regions, where it’s laughable to claim that anyone feels delusions of grandeur or wants the 19th century back, whatever other problems we may have (and I am not claiming that we’re saints). This is also true of the Welsh brexit vote, who voted to leave most strongly in their poorest deindustrialised areas, but Wales is not demonised in the same way. (To be fair this is Wales’ lack of visibility maybe working in their favour for once). The crimes of the British empire are laid solely at England’s feet, working classes and all, despite Scotland’s heavy involvement.

      Coming from the Durham coalfields I have often felt more kinship with the Welsh valleys (where my granddad came from – wonderful people there), and border Scots whose dialect is a lot like ours, than with the southern English, but it seems we’re just seen as a monolith of Germanic invaders who don’t belong in our own country, despite our current diversity, despite DNA evidence showing that Saxons didn’t displace the native Britons in England and lowland Scotland, despite heavy 19th century population movements from the rest of the UK into the English industrial cities.

      I’m sorry, that turned out a lot longer than I meant it to.

  3. Alright, English person here who was interested in learning to speak Welsh. I have no idea why people pay more attention to the other parts of the UK instead of Wales. Wales has so many gorgeous places and its culture is fabulous. I visited London once, and it was nice but overhyped, to be honest.

    I checked out this website because I wanted to know if people would be offended if I tried learning Welsh to get closer to its culture and show my appreciation for the place. What I found was so much better – thanks for this piece!

    My own view on the UK is that we have such a rich history and culture that still thrives all around, and we should try our best to preserve it and bridge the gaps between.

    • Yes – and if there were enough people who felt the same way, and it was normal for everyone in Britain to learn a bit of Welsh and Cornish and Manx and Scots and Irish Gaelic, I think we’d be a far richer and more interesting blend – thank you for your positive attitude… πŸ™‚

      • Scots is extremely similar to North Eastern and Northumbrian dialects of English. Much of the vocabulary is Old Norse in origin (thanks to the Danelaw) and shared by both. It’s a bit annoying that some Scots try to claim it entirely as their own. It’s hard enough for the north to distinguish ourselves from southern England as it is.

  4. I would love to learn Welsh for quite a few of these reasons. My Granddad was from Merthyr, and although he didn’t speak Welsh I’ve always been interested in the country because of him. I visited many places in Wales as a child, and there’s a love there that never left me. I study literature and Wales has some wonderful poetry I’d like to be able to read in the original language, as well as the folklore.

    I suppose I just worry that some Welsh people would see this as an act of appropriation or something, and get angry about it. I’ve seen some people who have taken ethno-nationalist offence at the idea that there could be any kind of kinship between the Celtic fringes and the “Saxon invaders” in light of the DNA findings that the Saxons intermarried with the Britons instead of displacing them, things like that. I’m wondering should I just back away from a minefield.

    • I suppose it’s not possible for me to promise that there are no negative people out there – but you will find them overwhelmingly outnumbered by the people who will be delighted that you’re learning, and would in no way see it as any kind of appropriation. Adults learners are a hugely, hugely important part of building a successful future for the language – and language has always been one of the most powerful ways to build connections and kinship… πŸ™‚

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