Tuesday 4 September 2012

Arrested development

Thanks to a link on Twitter, my attention was drawn the other day to an article on Click on Wales with the provocative headline "The arrested development of Welsh". You can read it for yourselves here.

The author of the piece, Colin Miles, has tried and given up trying to learn Welsh as an adult, although he lives in a strongly Welsh-speaking part of Wales. Fair enough, although I hope he reconsiders.

He wishes the language well, but the article goes on to peddle several myths which are common and which need to be challenged.

1. Welsh is inherently difficult with its "mutations, myriads of yeses and noes, innumerable ways of forming plurals, and overabundance of apostrophes".

All languages have their peculiarities, English included. Quite a few European languages have several (not innumerable) ways of forming plurals. German, Italian and Swedish, for example. In English you say children rather than childs. Languages are like that. Over time bits of language cling like barnacles to the hull of a ship while others are washed away, seemingly at random. Speakers of German, Italian, Welsh and Swedish don't even notice, and neither will learners of those languages after a while. That's just how it is.

And if you get it wrong, it doesn't matter. How many times have you heard young children saying mouses or mans? It happens, and we all understand what they mean, although we might gently correct the mistake.

The truth is that nearly all of the lovely twiddly bits which learners struggle with are not actually necessary to communication. If I say we was or even we beed it may not sound great, but you know exactly what I mean.

There is a group of languages called creoles and pidgins which do this as a matter of course. They strip all of the accumulated twiddly bits off languages like English and French, graft on vocabulary and bits of structure from other languages and set off on their own voyages as new languages. Over time they too will pick up barnacles. Afrikaans is an example of this.

The many different ways of saying yes and no are a peculiarity of the Celtic languages. But you can cheat, and just as you will come to find it natural to say dyddiau and blynyddoedd, in time you will find that you will stop saying ydw when you mean ydy. And you will not be arrested by the uniformed branch of Cylch yr Iaith if you get it wrong.

As for the mutations, a well kept secret (kept by Welsh teachers) is that Welsh speakers don't mutate correctly all the time or even most of the time. By which I mean that people don't mutate everything as laid out in the grammar books. If Welsh speakers had to put £1 in the mutation box every time they broke the rules, Welsh really would be heading for extinction. Within a month probably.

But while people break the rules, they mutate nevertheless. Ask the average Welsh speaker (including quite a few teachers I know) why most people say ges i sioc rather than ces i sioc, and it is very unlikely that they will know. They just do. So go with the flow and copy them.

We will come back to copying.

As for apostrophes, you don't need them to speak Welsh. Lots of Welsh speakers struggle with ar, a'r and รข'r when they are writing, just as English greengrocers struggle with apple's. Don't worry about it. It's a bit like the Highway Code. We are supposed to know it inside out before we get behind the wheel of a car, but how many of us do?

A German professor and a German dustman both speak the same language, although the professor is likely to be rather niftier in his use of the subjunctive. But you will not come across a German dustman who says, "Sod all these subjunctives and genitives for a game of soldiers; I'm switching to English or Spanish because they are easier". And our hypothetical dustman should be warned that Spanish, often claimed to be the easiest European language to learn, has a hyperactive subjunctive (and quite a lot of irregular verbs to boot).

In everyday Welsh there are just 5 irregular verbs. English has more than 200, by the way. The subjunctive lingers on in both languages as twiddly bits, but if you don't know what the subjunctive is, I shouldn't worry about it if I were you. What a smart arse.

So are some languages "easier" than others? Well, up to a point. Polish has loads of twiddly bits, but for most of the languages spoken in Europe, including Welsh, it's a case of swings and roundabouts.

Staying with our professors and dustmen for a moment, it is probably fair to say that the professors will score higher in IQ tests (although listening to some academics, I am not so sure). But Polish dustmen have no problem with Polish, and in this part of Wales we have bilingual dustmen. So unless we have some particularly brainy dustmen, being able to speak more than one language is not about being super-intelligent, and there are lots of English university dons who have never mastered another language.

Next time you hear someone say that Welsh is a "difficult" language, try not to punch them. But I will forgive you if you do.

2. "Reading a 1950s history of a Welsh chapel is a bit like trying to read Chaucerian English".

Resisting the temptation to shout "Bollocks!", let's just say that Welsh differs from English in that it has a high degree of differentiation between registers. In plain English that means that there are degrees of formality in Welsh which are more marked than they are in English, from the sort of language used in poetry at one end, to the sort of language used in the pub at the other.

This happens in other languages too. In Switzerland the sort of German that people speak is very different to the sort of German they read in a newspaper. The same is true in Luxembourg. In Greece there are two distinct forms of the modern language (a posh, sophisticated one and the kind that people actually speak), but that all got a bit political, and the dictatorship of the Colonels pretty much did for Katharevousa.

It is true that nobody actually speaks the very formal variety of Welsh when they nip into Tescos, but it is nevertheless alive and well, especially in poetry and some prose writing. And its use is not confined to a handful of craggy old bards. There is a very lively poetry scene with lots of very talented young poets who use literary forms and all the intricate rules governing poetic form, metre and cynghanedd. Here's one about a bidet (Rhybudd: iaith gref).It contains some rather colourful language, and if you listen carefully, you will even hear the poet mutate his bidet.

As for that bit about Welsh not liking borrowed words, the Welsh for bidet is, um, bidet. Our poet also uses the word anws, the Welsh spelling of a Latin word borrowed by English as well.

See what you're missing?

All living languages have changed since the 1950s, and all living languages continue to change. It's what they do. But Welsh from the 1950s is not anywhere near as remote from the language today as Chaucer's English is from modern Estuarine English. If you want to see how much English has changed in the last 60 years, just watch an old film like Brief Encounter.

3. "Let me mention a couple of the strengths of English, both of which cause problems for other languages like Welsh. Firstly it has an absolutely enormous vocabulary".

Colin's second strength is the borrowing words from other languages bit, but there is an argument that English has probably borrowed more than is good for it. Vast numbers of Latinate words have entered the language, and in many cases they have killed off or stifled the development of native English words. The result is that the language has a high number of words for everyday things and concepts which, to the casual English speaker without a degree in the Classics, are little more than random arrangements of letters and sounds.

It is quite possible that this obsession with Latinate borrowings has had the effect of reducing the size of the active vocabularies of many native English speakers. A quick glance at the Sun will confirm that.

Let's take an example of an everyday word. The English word important comes from the Latin importare, meaning "to bring in". By extension, this came to mean "signify" (the import of her message was, etc.). All a bit obscure.

The Welsh word is pwysig, and coincidentally the German word is wichtig, both of which could be roughly translated as "weighty". The idea is that important things carry more weight than unimportant things.

All of which is a useful illustration of how different languages "see" some things differently. In this example, the English are peering through thick fog.

It is true that the Oxford English Dictionary is vast, and that Anglophiles love to claim that English has more words than any other language.

The truth is, of course, that a large proportion of the words in the OED is obscure or obsolete. That is what made the old panel game Call My Bluff possible. It would also be possible to play a Welsh equivalent using Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, incidentally.

Studies have been carried out to try to estimate the numbers of words in regular use in different languages and to measure the vocabulary of an average speaker (if there is such a thing) of German, English, French, Welsh, etc.

The boring truth is that there is not a great deal of difference from one language to another in Europe, where cultures, climates, etc. are broadly similar .

Certainly English has its strengths in some areas of vocabulary, but there are quite a few instances where Welsh has several words at its disposal, and English has just one. And glaw (rain) is not one of them. Welsh has some neat words, such as oeri (to turn colder), where English has to use several. Swedish also has some very useful everyday words, such as orka (to have the strength to do something) and hinna (to have time to do something).

The Welsh word for 'night' is nos. You can turn that into a verb, nosi. English really struggles with this simple concept. If you say night has fallen or it is becoming night, you risk sounding like Dylan Thomas on a bad day.

Different languages obsess about different things, and the result is that many are capable of differentiating shades of meaning which English, for example, would really struggle with. Swedish insists on having two different words for "his", so that we know whether "he saw his mother" means that he saw his own or somebody else's mother. This lack of clarity in English is a godsend to writers of sitcoms, but being able to tell the difference is probably what makes Wallander such a good detective.

"He shot his dog, Inspector". An English-speaking cop could easily leap to the wrong conclusion, but Wallander wouldn't.

Perhaps that's why the English version with Kenneth Branagh just doesn't quite hack it.

So English is certainly a powerful and interesting language, but it is not superior to any other.

4. "One of the problems the Welsh language has faced over the past 150 years could best be described as ‘arrested development’. By that I mean it hasn’t had the chance to ‘modernise’ itself."

A problem common to many minority languages which lacked official status for so long is what is known in the jargon as "domain loss". Volumes have been written about this, but one example will suffice.

The country now known as Slovenia was under Austrian rule for hundreds of years, and German was the language of officialdom and the courts. Now Slovenia (population 2 million) is independent, and the civil service, the courts and all other areas of public life get by in Slovenian with no problem at all.


5. "Some people are just good at languages". "Children have a natural advantage when it comes to learning a language".

Not quite myths, but not completely true either.

Remember our bilingual dustmen? As it happens I know a couple of our local boys quite well. Neither of them would claim for a moment that they are intellectually gifted or good at languages. But they can hold their own in English and Welsh without any difficulty.

It is true that some people have a gift, but that is actually quite rare. Just as it is quite rare to find people who can play music by ear on lots of different instruments.

It is also true that people who have learned a second language find it easier to learn a third, fourth, and so on.

For most of us, however, learning a language means applying yourself and a bit of hard graft. You can expect to have quite a bit of fun along the way as well.

Language development in children is another subject that is beyond the scope of a blogpost, but it is true that children have some advantages in language acquisition. But only some.

How long does it take a child to acquire a good command of its native language? How long is a piece of string? A child of six can communicate effectively certainly, but children of six still have a long way to go before they have acquired all of the vocabulary and mastered the trickier bits of the language that they will need to function as adults.

The time taken will vary from child to child, and lots of external factors come into play. But for most of us language acquisition is still going on when we are in our mid to late teens. For an adult starting Welsh from scratch, you will certainly not need 15 years before you can communicate effectively.

Unlike babies and toddlers, adult learners can usually also read and write. That is certainly an advantage.

Unlike children, adult learners already have a handle on abstract concepts. You might teach a two year old to parrot words like intelligent, idea, decision, circumstantial but they would not normally have the faintest clue what these things meant.

So for once nature goes some way to creating a more level playing field. The kids have not got all the trump cards.

If you're reading this, Colin, I hope you might by now be wondering about giving it another try. If you do, here are a few tips.

So how do I learn Welsh (or any new language)?

  • Motivation. What is your motivation for wanting to learn? Would you like to understand what Rhys Iorwerth was saying about his bidet perhaps? Or do you just want to be able to pass the time of day with Mrs Jones, Rhif 1? If you cannot think of a reason for wanting to learn, give up now. If you can (and there are lots and lots of reasons), set yourself a goal. "I will have a short conversation in Welsh with Mrs Jones, mentioning the weather and asking about that no-good son of hers by Christmas". For example.
  • Be nosey. This is about motivation really, but eavesdrop on conversations in the shop/pub/cattle market if you live in an area with lots of Welsh speakers. You will fairly quickly begin to understand bits, and over time you will understand more and more. You want to understand what people are saying, and you want to know why they said it like that. Be subtle about this, and don't get yourself arrested for stalking or punched by Mrs Jones in Aldi.
  • Copy people you hear in the shops, on the radio or on S4C. But as with the previous point, be discreet. If you have picked up a phrase, repeat it to yourself over and over again, trying to mimic the accent and pronunciation.
  • In the privacy of your downstairs loo or your car practice some of the trickier sounds. Try rolling your r's, and try rolling them for longer and longer. Eventually you will beat your reluctant English tongue into submission, and it will trill on command. Do the same with tricky sounds like chi, llall, rhos, ar yr un pryd.
  • If you are not lucky enough to live in a Welsh-speaking household, immersion therapy is still possible. Switch on Radio Cymru, and have Daf Du and Caryl Parry Jones twittering away in the background. Soon you will be able to pick out odd words. Eventually you will recognise bits of sentences. Gradually their stimulating chat will come into full technicolor focus. At which point you are allowed to turn the radio off.
  • Drive your partner and/or family wild by switching over to S4C at every opportunity. Take up ironing, and watch Pobol y Cwm. Watch Dai Jones Llanilar with the English subtitles, but when you feel confident use only the Welsh subtitles. Look, no stabilisers!
  • Some of the best conversations we have are with ourselves. Much more interesting, as often as not. Try this in Welsh. Keep asking yourself how you would say the sort of thing you might want to say in a conversation. Work out how to say it, and then have that imaginary conversation. "Fancy a cup of Horlicks and a cuddle, Mrs Jones? It's freezing out tonight". That sort of thing.
  • You will make mistakes. Years ago Cneifiwr was staying with a respectable Swedish family. One day he wanted to help tidy up, so he asked Mrs Johansson, "Where do you keep the lady sucker?" The word he had been groping for was dammsugare (dust sucker = vacuum cleaner). Unfortunately he missed out one of the m's. These things happen. Mrs Cneifiwr told Old Mother Cneifiwr that her son was a dickhead. Mrs C is German, and Dickkopf is what someone has if they are stubborn (a fat head). Mother Cneifiwr was perhaps a little too understanding, and needless to say many people think Mrs C was right the first time round.
  • Remember that most Welsh speakers are actually quite nice, and no matter how badly you mangle the language, they will almost certainly understand. You may be unlucky and find the odd Dickkopf. If you have just started learning, there is nothing wrong with starting out in Welsh and exchanging pleasantries before switching to English. Perhaps once you have passed the Horlicks and cuddle stage you may feel tempted to go all the way. And why not?
And there's lots more where that came from. Another time, perhaps.

So Colin, stop making excuses ("it's too hard; there are too many ways of saying yes; I don't like the nasal mutation, etc.). If you don't learn, it's only your development that will be arrested.


Mrs Angry said...

well said, cneifiwr - if I were Welsh I would be a militant Welsh speaker & refuse to speak English. Actually, I am sorely tempted to learn Irish, to keep the old brain cells from switching off.

Anonymous said...

I had a 'discussion' last week in a pub. I was told that having to learn Welsh was detrimental to a child's English. This person told me she had actually taken her child out of school and did some home schooling. She claimed the child improved his/her English. Her side-kick said that English was the international language and there were no jobs in Wales. He was actually a Welsh speaker. I think you would know him if you live in CN Emlyn. I was almost left speechless by how anti-Welsh she was and surprised by him. It's happened to me before....heard similar things being said. Sometimes I despair.

Cneifiwr said...

I think I know who you mean. No comment.

Anonymous said...

who cares ......

so many more important things to think about/concentrate on........

Dylan said...

Very very (very very) well said. Ymateb ardderchog.

Mr Miles' previous article was similarly frustrating. I hope he perseveres with the learning.

Anonymous said...

So, I just would tell her that she doesn't do her child a favor with that. At ALL! I mean, Heck, I grew up in a Lowgerman household, speaking nothing but Lowgerman (Y'know, people use pretty much the same dull arguments against lowgerman like those that go against teaching welsh - and they are the same nonsense.) Needless to say, people always told our family how bad my High German will be and blabla - and guess what: by now, I know more about high German and its quirks than these language-end-time prophets themselves. You don't even hear an accent or anything. People can be quite surprised If I start speaking lowgerman. So, after learning quite a bit of high german, I also learned english in school, obivously. I do consider myself quite fluent in it, though I don't get many opportunities to practice.
AAAAANWAYS: Since the internet is such a vast space, I even started to learn quite a bit of welsh now - through english.
There is a time where you are a bit behind in both languages, yet, after some time you'll get ahead in both, becasue you learn to see the world through two different philosphies, which are encoded in a language. And that also helps to understand new languages.
I think it's fair enough to say that without lowgerman, I would have never learned the value of different languages - especially those which are NOT spoken by every person on the street. And most importantly, it opened a door for me which enabled me to actively appreciate even MORE languages, than this monoglot attidute (which, frankly, I see quite often in english o high german speakers - this bit of arrogance, that they just don't have to bother respecting other cultures and languages - after all THEIR language is the one OTHERS HAVE to learn, wether they want it or not)

So, next time, someone tells you that learning welsh is contraproductive to english, just tell them this story. That, of course, can be said for ANY language. Learning two is ALWAYS better than one - and frankly, english is so prominent, that learning it is not as hard as many say it to be anymore.
So, I'm 23 years old, speak round and about three languages fluently. People can learn a talent for languages - inhibiting them, by teaching only one language, during the time, where tehy naturally pick up langauges faster than ever, in a bilingual country is not doing a favor, it's wilfully holding your child back from what talent it could develop. And frankly, that sounds more despicable than any anti welsh/anti minority language propaghanda alone could be.

Anonymous said...

I love your wit, Cneifiwr, and your razorsharp analysis of the defective logic in Mr Miles's article.

Unknown said...

I'r dim. Spot on.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to thank you (and Dylan above) for linking these articles. I am a language enthusiast from England who decided to bite the bullet and learn an actual British tongue, and do my part to keep Welsh alive, as opposed to only learning languages from mainland Europe. I came across your blog while disgruntledly googling during a fit of frustration with my studies and my will to learn Welsh has been completely revived by reading Mr Miles' articles, particularly his first one.

I won't say I'm finding my first attempt at a Celtic language -easy-, but I refuse to allow myself to be lumped in with a gentleman who seems to think it is a particular fault with Welsh that her prepositions don't match up directly with English's, or any of his other complaints in a similar vein. There is only one option available: to continue learning Welsh! One day, I'll be able to comment here in comprehensible Welsh, all the way through.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Dw i eisiau dysgu Cymraeg a dw i'n gallu dysgu Cymraeg.
Hwyl am nawr!

slightly overwhelmed of England!