How to conserve Welsh language habitat

If promoting the Welsh language is like nature conservation, which I believe it is, then the current approach strikes me as being like a very well intentioned captive breeding program. The Welsh Government will tell you that they have a plan to promote and protect the Welsh language (indeed to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050), but I think it’s too important a job to leave up to them, and in any case, I spy some flaws in their plan.

The current strategy relies heavily on large numbers of Welsh speakers raised in captivity (in Welsh medium schools, which are actually lovely places despite this analogy). These bright young things are then released into the wild, armed with a solid grounding in passing exams through the medium of Welsh. The bit we haven’t cracked is that for this breeding program to succeed, these fledgling Welsh speakers need to survive in linguistic terms, to live and breed and raise their own Welsh speaking offspring. And to do that they need a rich habitat of other Welsh speakers to interact with. They need to be able to use all of their Welsh language skills in a rich and diverse habitat that includes places such as the dentist and the post office, the pub and the world of work (such as it is), not just to pass exams in maths, science and geography.

Unfortunately, as you can see in the above data from the most recent census in 2011, the percentage of Welsh speakers had gone down in nearly every area of Wales.

So what can you and I, Welsh speakers and Welsh learners, do about that? Here are my top ten ways we can all help to enrich the habitat for the Welsh language.

Sometime’s it’s the little things…

Pethau Bychain: Rhif #1 (Little Things: Number #1): Teach someone a Welsh word

One of the things that I am noticing lately, is that it suddenly seems OK again to poke fun at the Welsh language. Whether it’s Alun Cairns on Question Time or some idiot on Twitter, it feels like in the current political climate (where bullshit rules supreme) it’s become fair game once more to have a go at the Welsh language and those who speak it.

Whilst I haven’t encountered outright negativity about the Welsh language in person (thankfully idiotic internet trolls mostly tend to stay just there) what I do encounter fairly often is a more benign but still unhelpful sense of incredulity about the fact that I am a real life person speaking Welsh with my real life children and friends.

You can picture the scene I’m sure… A sense of wonder in the local shop from people who ask you what language you are speaking to your baby (‘Good Lord, Welsh!’ Whatever next?!) Treated as an exotic oddity with friends in Coffee #1 (‘Are you all speaking Welsh?’ all six of us ‘Wow, I didn’t know that many Welsh speakers existed!’) And this weekend a perfectly amiable bloke reeled off one of those stock anecdotes to me about the Welsh language (not the one about the Englishman that walks into a pub), the one where the labelling of toilets in Welsh causes an embarassing incident.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The anecdote guy was a nice guy. To be honest he seemed kind of embarrassed, and the toilet anecdote seemed like it was just there to cover his discomfort about the fact that he ‘couldn’t speak any Welsh even though he lived in Wales’. He was desperate to be polite and talk to me about Welsh, it just happened that his only conversation point on the topic  was that he once went into the ladies toilets by mistake because it was labelled ‘M’ (in Welsh the little girls room is ‘M’ for Merched, the little boys room is ‘D’ for Dynion, and in the Senedd they have a gender neutral loo, which rocks)…

So I find that a really great thing to do in these situations where you get predictable, trite anecdotes about Welsh, especially ones that are born out of misplaced but good intentions, is to give that person the gift of a Welsh word. Because then you can change their stock conversational piece about the Welsh language, and help them get over the embarrassment of not knowing any Welsh. Now their stock anecdote is no longer about the toilet in the Lamb and Flag, but about how they were once at a rally, and a woman from Derby taught them how to say Merched (including how to make the ‘ch’ sound with lots of phlegm at the back of their throat) and also that the Welsh word for beer is cwrw. Now they no longer know zero Welsh words, they know two, and they are slightly less embarrassed.

Knowledge is power.

Pethau Bychain: Rhif #2: Challenge perceptions

If you are speaking Welsh (even a little bit), people will make assumptions. They may assume you are Welsh. If you are learning Welsh, there’s every possibility you are not from Wales (Welsh classes are stuffed full of people from all corners of the globe in my experience, as well as the English Midlands).

Get out there and tell people that you are learning Welsh. Many people will tell you very many reasons that they have been too busy, too sleepy, too distracted or too down right terrified (of mutations and consonants and things) to learn Welsh. Just tell them about how you first learned Welsh from a book whilst living in Cambodia and also learning French (oh no sorry, that’s me, and I have to admit the French didn’t stick). But you probably learned Welsh on a unicycle whilst holding down two different jobs and fixing up your house, or more probably you’re from Gloucester and you’ve got the Duolingo Welsh App on your phone.

So tell them about that because it will just make it all seem more achievable and will rock their sense of commitment to the reasons they haven’t started learning Welsh yet.

Pethau Bychain: Rhif 3: It’s a ‘spectrum thing’

People will tell you that there are ‘welsh speakers’ and ‘non-welsh speakers’ (and when I say ‘people’, I mean people like the UK Census, but also real people like your gran and the guy that reads your gas meter). If we’re stretching it, then we can probably acknowledge a third category which are normally referred to as ‘Welsh Learners’. But I find all of this clumsy and unhelpful, and now that I think about it, kind of part of the problem.

I think we need a re-think.

Which category am I in for a start? Am I a Welsh speaker or a Welsh learner? I’m both, probably.

But my biggest problem with the whole ‘Welsh speaker’ / ‘non-welsh speaker’ is that it puts people in boxes. If you are in the Welsh speaker box, it kind of encourages you to close the lid, or only to hang out with other people who are in your box already.

And if you are in the ‘non-welsh speaker’ box, well, that’s pretty rubbish, because you didn’t ask to be there in the first place. They may well be having a real rip-roaring time in the ‘welsh-speaking’ box, hell, they’re probably having an Eisteddfod in there for all you know, but it may as well be invisible to you, and right now you’re feeling pretty protective about your own box thanks very much. You  may not have chosen to be in it, but it’s comfortable, and it’s the only one you’ve got, so you’re going to stay put.

That other box looks full anyway, and difficult to get into and a bit noisy.  They’re all singing in there

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect, but you get my drift. And surely we are all learning anyway, for ever? Whether you started learning Welsh at birth, or when you fell in love with a Welsh speaker on holiday, or for something to keep you out of trouble in retirement. We are all still learning every day.

So let’s rebel against the boxes and introduce a spectrum instead. One long rainbow of Welsh learners, with some very wordy Welsh speaking boffin type dude at one end (otherwise known as the ‘Chief Bard at the Eisteddfod’) and anecdote guy (who now knows two Welsh words) at the other end . In spectrum world, he’s a learner too.

Pethau Bychain Rhif #4: Declare your victories

There’s a thing in campaigning, that basically goes like this: ‘know when to declare your victories’. Basically, know when you are ahead. Don’t quit, but declare victory and move on. Welsh is like this, and fluency is the holy grail of victory we all seek. But fluency is elusive. No matter how good you get, you will always want to be better, so when do you declare victory?

I tend to say nowadays that I ‘have learned’ which I like to think implies a sense of past tense to the process at the same time as a ‘bring it on’ kind of approach to the elusive notion of fluency.  It allows me to bask in the kudos of having acquired the language of heaven through graft rather than accident of birth, whilst exposing me to the ever present risk that, throwing caution to the wind, someone will let rip in an unexpected regional accent and I’ll have to guess.

This can be fine, but proceed with caution if you are losing key words in an effort to keep up and may have missed the verb ‘died’ (wedi marw) in a conversation about someone’s elderly relative whom you assume has ‘visited’ (wedi ymweld)…

So my point is this. Claim fluency. When you are there, don’t be afraid to say it. You’ve earned it. You are ready to mingle with the big beasts, the Welsh as a first language speakers. Gogs even. Don’t be shy, don’t hide your light under a bushel. If you’re there or there abouts then get on with it, declare victory! And then go on learning 😉 You’ll still have to bluff a lot, but hey, have you heard someone from Llanelli speaking in Welsh with someone from Caernarfon?

They take it slow for a reason.

Pethau Bychain Rhif #5: Don’t ever apologise for your Welsh

Your Welsh is amazing. You haven’t lapsed, you aren’t rusty, you aren’t lacking in confidence. Just speak some Welsh today, and then speak more tomorrow and the day after. If you can’t remember a particular word, have a whip round, someone usually has the one you want in their back pocket. Be proud of your Welsh. It’s yours. Maybe someone you love gave it you as a gift (your mother or your father or one of your grandparents) maybe you earned it through years of study. Maybe you feel like it’s lost a little of its shine because you’ve been away and haven’t used it much but it’s yours. Never ever criticise it, just nurture it every day and it will get its sparkle back.

Pethau Bychain Rhif #6: Dance the dance of the nervy beginner

For all those who do declare victory in the fluency department there is at least one person, usually more than one, who have been significant along the way. These are the people who are willing to dance the tightrope dance that is speaking Welsh with someone who has just started learning.

This is a gruesome experience for all involved. There is fear of falling, of embarrassment certainly, and injury possibly. Nobody knows how much anybody can say, or on what topics if any they feel comfortable conversing. There is a paralysing fear of unknown vocabulary. A terrible anxiety about tenses. Facial contortion is usual and can help get around some of the impasses. Body language is a must. A sense of humour helps.

It’s easier not to bother. It’s a relief when it stops. Perspiration is inevitable. But it is essential. It’s the only way anyone ever gets beyond Mynediad. And lack of people willing to dance this dance can be the reason that some people are still in Mynediad, have been there for twenty years and will be there for the foreseeable future. I can recall some of those early conversations. The people I ducked behind the water cooler in the office to avoid because I knew they would ask me about my weekend and I hadn’t yet covered the perfect past tense. I cursed them at the time but I owe them a great deal. And I am repaying their patience and their kindness and their belief in me by terrorising all the Welsh learners I know through the medium of very basic Welsh.

It’s scary but it’s how you get from ‘I understand a lot but I can’t string it together’ to ‘I am in the pub and I am having a conversation in Welsh’.

If you know a learner, invite them to dance the dance, you’ll figure it out between you.

Pethau Bychain Rhif #7: Start a Welsh book club

OK, this one isn’t such a little thing, but it is fun. It might be a learner one or a proper ‘grown up’ book club. Either way, you’ll be supporting Welsh writers and publishing, more of your friends will read books in Welsh and so will you. You’ll learn some new words whatever level you are at (unless you are Chief Bard, in which case you are probably writing some of the books we are reading, diolch) and if you are at the Bob Eynon stage (Y Ferch o Berlin etc), you’ll enjoy some really cheesy plot lines…

Pethau Bychain Rhif #8: Be a magpie for the Welsh language

Once you speak Welsh, Wales is like a beach strewn with shiny pebbles for you to collect, or a treasure trove of sparkly morsels to tempt you.  Be a magpie, and you will help these words to survive and spread.

You will learn the regional differences between moyn and eisiau (or ‘ishe‘), and as you make more friends from different Welsh places you will expand your collection of sparkly things.

If you happen to have learned Welsh from someone with a sense of mischief and a very old dictionary, then you may well discover years later that words you have been using on a regular basis actually stem from y hen iaith bro Morgannwg (the old dialect of Welsh spoken in Glamorgan) and haven’t been used in everyday conversation for several hundred years.

Until now.

‘Waff‘ is making quite a comeback in Penarth…

Pethau Bychain Rhif #9: Be a bridge between Welsh speaking islands

Those who have studied social networks describe the existence of ‘lynch pins’. These are the people who connect different parts of the network, bringing people together who otherwise would have no connection.

You may find yourself to be one of these for the Welsh language. In particular, some of you will be in a special position in that you are able to bridge between largely unconnected parts of the Welsh speaking habitat.  Or islands, if you like.

I am fortunate to be in this position. I moved to Wales from England (via a few places) and have learned Welsh. My husband was born in Wales, and learned Welsh as a teenager, but he (now we) have a lot of friends who are all native Welsh speakers.

This has of course been an enormous advantage to me. One of these friends, some ten years on, reflected recently that he remembers meeting me for the first time. We had done the conversational dance of the nervy beginner at the Eisteddfod in Cardiff. And then, suddenly I was fluent. He couldn’t remember anything between the two – apparently it had happened overnight (I assure you it hadn’t… Blood, sweat, tears, vocabulary written on stickers and attached to household objects…)

As is typical for someone who has moved to a place, I tend to attract other migrants as friends. We are like tiny magnets to each other. Whether this is due to our mutual lack of locally based family with whom to have Sunday lunch, or the things we have in common because we have knocked around the place a bit, we rub along well. While others are tucking into a roast, we head for the hills.

Many of these migrants from here there and everywhere are learning Welsh. So in addition to liking many of the same things, I also have something they need. Access to large numbers of real life, born and bred, fast speaking (terrifyingly fast in some cases) Welsh speakers.

So I have been mixing these groups on purpose.

It’s easier not to in a way. Because it’s kind of easier to speak Welsh or not to, it’s easy to end up unintentionally keeping these sides of your social life at arms distance from each other. But often you can build a bridge. Maybe you encourage your friends who are learning to come along to a gig (they will discover Dafydd Iwan so it will be a watershed moment). Perhaps you like to throw parties, in which case all of your friends have met already and there will be a myriad opportunities to practice Welsh with the help of alcohol.

Before you know it, everyone is out of their boxes and you are having a spectrum party.

Perhaps you will invite a bunch of your friends, the fluent ones, and the ones who are learning, and the ones whose children are going to Welsh school but who aren’t quite yet learning themselves, to do something. Perhaps you will all go on an icy walk in the mountains and everyone, children and adults alike will shriek with delight breaking enormous pieces of ice that skid across a frozen pond, with a snow topped Pen-y-Fan as a backdrop. It will be a new habitat for your children to enjoy, one in which all of them, including the ones who hardly knew any Welsh until September, are running and screaming and splashing and breaking the ice through the medium of Welsh.

Perhaps you’ll all want to do it again and you will have connected some islands.

Pethau Bychain Rhif #10: Join Cymdeithas y Iaith

If you are learning Welsh, then you are already an activist for the Welsh language because if you use your Welsh whenever you can, then you are bringing us one closer to a million Welsh speakers.

But even if we do all of the things on this list (and if you have even read this far, it’s probably because you are the sort of person who is doing a lot of them already) we can’t make all the difference we need to on our own. We also need to take collective action and campaign for changes.

When we access public services in Welsh, when we watch S4C or listen to Radio Cymru, we are standing on the shoulders of activists such as Eileen Beasley who for generations have fought to establish rights for the Welsh language.

Cymdeithas y Iaith is campaigning on a wide range of issues including demanding improvements in education (like making sure that all children have the opportunity to become fluent in Welsh, not just those in Welsh medium schools), and in access to public services such as mental health care through the medium of Welsh.

No doubt many of you are involved in one or more of the other fantastic organisations that are so vital to maintaining a habitat for Welsh.  They are too numerous to name them all but they include Mudiad Meithrin, Merched y Wawr, y Urdd, and Mentrau Iaith.

Diolch i bob un ohohyn nhw…

Geirfa Defnyddiol (some useful Welsh words):

Iasoer: the feeling in the back of your neck when approached by a person who insists on helping you speak Welsh outside of your comfort zone

Diolchgar: how you feel towards that person now

Rhugl: fluent

Iaith y nefoedd / y nen: the language of heaven

Pioden: magpie

Pontio: to bridge

Ymgyrchu: to campaign

Manwlith ir: sappy dewdrops (literally just texted to me by my best mate who is reading Cerddi’r  Galon by Susan May for book club. Timing!)

Source: Indymam