Confessions of a Welsh learner

By the time I left the Cardiff school system in the early 1970s I did not know one single word of Welsh. In primary school we had been taught Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau parrot-fashion, but it was not felt necessary to explain what it meant or why we should know it and in any case was only ever dusted down when Wales played rugby. My version soon degenerated into a blurred phonetic mess not far removed from the old ‘My hen laid a haddock, one hand oiled a flea’ mockery. In secondary school we weren’t granted even that small token. Welsh wasn’t on the curriculum (and wouldn’t be in most Cardiff schools until the 1990s) and the mere fact of the language’s existence was never mentioned. Indeed, Wales as an entity itself did not feature in any lesson – including history. We were anti-taught in order to not know something, a grotesque perversion of the very purpose of education.

Yet, despite this concentrated and concerted brainwashing, I somehow slipped through the Britification net. There was no encouragement for me to do so, Welsh had not been spoken in my family since my great-grandparents’ generation and an overwhelming panoply of cultural conditioners urged me to forget Wales; but I was beginning to identify as Welsh rather than British as early as age 13. Why? Random happenstance: that Plaid Cymru booklet a boy shoved into my hand at the back of class one day; the red daubings I noticed on road signs as we drove down to my grandparents in west Wales every summer; my bristling antipathy to every utterance of my convent-educated older sister who, amongst other things, insisted “Monmouthshire is in England”; my grandfather’s misty-eyed recollections of Lloyd George Liberalism’s dalliance with Welsh ‘home rule’; and, the ‘x’ factor, an instinctive siding with the underdogs, losers and powerless. In the Cowboys & Indians TV Westerns and B-movie horse operas that were ubiquitous at the time, I was always rooting for them Injuns and would feel real pangs of grief when Crazy Horse or Geronimo bit the dust. This could not have been learned behaviour: my upbringing accepted without question the might-is-right determinism of Toryism and my schoolmates accepted without question that Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok were the heroes. There can only be one explanation for my contrary allegiances: I’m one of the good guys.

Yes; you read correctly: Dic Mortimer is stating that Dic Mortimer is good!! It’s important I do so in order to make this point: those 10-15% of Welsh people who, like me, support Welsh independence, are the cream of contemporary Wales. We are the best there is. We are the bravest; we are the brainiest; we have the purest hearts. We’ve taken the long road, the hard road, the rocky road, not the soft option. We’ve eschewed personal gain and the abundant reward system of Brit-compliance. We stand for righting wrongs, for justice and for freedom. We are the Goodies and the Brits…oh yes, they are the Baddies.

However, I must take this point further. Of that 10-15% who support independence, the vast majority are from the 20% of Wales that still speaks Welsh. Only 2% of non Welsh-speaking Welsh people support independence. Therefore someone like myself, a non Welsh-speaker who supports Welsh independence, is in a miniscule minority-within-a-minority. And that means we are the cream of the cream, because we’ve had to forge our Welsh affinity without the language’s birthright claim on loyalty, without its support structure and without all its cultural consolations. At a rough estimate there are just 6,000 of us on the planet. Being so rare, we are precious. Being so unusual, we are extraordinary. And, being capable of seeing through the cradle-to-grave conditioning that ensnares most Welsh people, makes us geniuses (or should that be genii?).

This needs to be put down in writing because we 6,000 suffer greatly for our cause. Our confidence is usually low, our resources invariably meagre, our future perpetually on a knife-edge. We should remind ourselves of our crucial importance to the 5,000 year-old, ongoing Welsh narrative as it unfolds in the here and now; we should recognise our vital place in the long continuum of human idealism; and we should let those who marginalise and malign us know that we’re not going away any time soon.

So, I slipped through the net; but I didn’t know I had until, at 18, I left Wales and went to uni in London. There, two disparate strands converged to confirm my Welsh identity. First, the reaction of the other students to me. They immediately fingered me as Welsh and allocated me the usual ‘Taffy’-based nicknames. Coming from Cardiff’s posh-ish, anglicised suburbs, I hardly spoke like Frank Hennessey, let alone Nerys Hughes, so this was a surprise. And secondly, that surprise quickly became a delight as I wandered into the mesmeric orbit of the writings of Jean Genet (1910-1986).

Once, a barefoot Parisian urchin, the boy Genet plucked a grape from an overhanging bunch on a market stall and popped it in his mouth. “Thief! Thief!” the stallholder yelled after him as he ran away. And in that moment Genet’s philosophy for life crystallised: BE WHAT YOU ARE ACCUSED OF.

I became what the middle-class English undergraduates at Queen Mary College accused me of. I became Welsh.

The next step was obvious: learn Welsh. And here I get to the nub of this piece. In the wake of the alarming 2011 census figures, which showed a decline in the number of speakers despite the growth in Welsh education, there has not been enough analysis of what is going wrong. If anyone is a perfect example of the barriers to learning Welsh, it is me. After all, I’ve had the zeal, the intent, the motivation, the capacity and the time to learn it – and yet, over 30 years after my first Welsh class at the CityLit adult education centre in Holborn, I am still incapable of stringing together even the simplest conversation in Welsh. I am stuck at the babyish level of what I call, amusingly, Mark-Aizlewood-Welsh.

Let’s dispose quickly of the usual excuse. Welsh is not “difficult”; in fact, it is comparatively easy with its unwavering pronunciation, rich vocabulary and lucid rules of grammar – all three I had mastered after a couple of years of London night classes. No, that wasn’t the problem: it was just that I had nobody to speak Welsh with on a regular basis. I knew the textbooks inside out but a language can only be properly learnt out in the field. And that could only happen in Wales.

You’ve heard of the Gap Year? Well, at this juncture I took a Gap Quarter-Century. Eventually, back in Cymru, I picked up where I’d left off. This time it was going to be different. I joined the full, accredited Wlpan course and, week-in, week-out, attended classes in Carmarthen and Haverfordwest for year after year; I passed all the tests and got all the certificates; I progressed from beginner via intermediate to advanced; I went to intensive cramming weekends at Crymych and Llandeilo; I wrote literate essays in Welsh; I could mutate consonants like Dafydd ap Gwilym; I had arrived: I could speak Welsh! Well, actually, I couldn’t.

I found that whenever I attempted conversation with a native Welsh speaker, rather than another learner, the response was always a perplexed look and then an exasperated “Beth?”. They didn’t understand me!  And they never seemed to have the patience to want to try. I remember one Welsh- speaking acquaintance expressing alarm that some of the English people who moved to the Carmarthenshire countryside were learning Welsh, as if a secret code was in danger of being cracked. Easily knocked back, I became demoralised and lost my enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm was rekindled by my return to Cardiff on the crest of the devolution wave. Again I enrolled in beginners classes, again I sailed through more years of learning, but still I couldn’t put it into practice when it mattered (ie: when face to face with a big hairy Welshman from Bala in Clwb Ifor Bach). What was going wrong?

First, the standard of teaching. Just because somebody speaks Welsh doesn’t necessarily mean they can teach it, any more than I, a fluent, articulate English-speaker, could teach English. Over and over again I found that the series of lovely people who attempted to teach me Welsh in the adult education sector were crap at teaching; they were not trained teachers, just keen amateurs, and came encumbered with language baggage rather than a blank slate. Only when professional teaching personnel and practices extend to adult education will that change.

Secondly, the feminisation of learning. In every group of Welsh learners I’ve joined, women have outnumbered men many times over. In the CityLit they were sharp, intellectually-curious American blue-stockings; in west Wales they were rosy-cheeked, well-meaning ladies from London who had read the Mabinogion; in Cardiff’s Howardian Centre they were young mums who wanted to keep up with their kids’ Welsh classes at school. This is all symptomatic of that unpleasant and stupid characteristic of Britishness: a definition of masculinity plagued by twisted anti-intellectualism and ludicrous gender-stereotyping in which knowledge itself, and linguistics in particular, is deemed effete, gay and for the girls. In Welsh classes this means there’s always an atmosphere of womanly decorum and genteel self-effacement: anathema to the rough-and-tumble nitty-gritty of a spurred-on group challenging each other to keep up. There are solutions to this issue: by vigorously countering the notion every time it rears its ugly head that learning ain’t manly (there is nothing tougher), and by letting you blokes out there know that when you’re the only guy in a room of 20 women even I, a griping, unprepossessing scruff with little interest, had to fight ’em off!

Thirdly, and this is crucial: we learners must be FORCED to use our Welsh. Given that all first-language Welsh-speakers are bilingual, it is all too tempting for them to shift into English rather than endure the clumsy, banal blunderings of us learners. But they should see the bigger picture, put aside their immediate discomfort, try to hide that expression of contempt for our pathetic misunderstandings, and HELP. Unless that Carmarthenshire farm-hand was right, and Welsh speakers are so inculcated with minority status they like it that way…

Lastly, the bottom line: I am a lazy, readily distracted, moody sod. That’s the real reason I’m still a Welsh learner after all these years. I’m to blame.

The story is far from over. Due to more unforeseen and unplanned circumstances, in other words this blog and what is spinning off from it, I am at last meeting the other Welsh speakers and learners Ialways lacked in my life. Ni fydd yr hen iaith yn marw.