Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Persuading natives to talk to you in Welsh

You would think that living in Wales it would be easy to learn Welsh to the point of being fluent and using it in every day situations. Well, you would be wrong!

I was actually somewhat reassured to read that it's not just a problem here in Wales. I have to admit that I'd always assumed that if I lived in France or Italy, I would speak the langauge fluently by now, and I'm sure I would have been forced to use it far more than I do here, but it seems that the problem is a common one.

However, in Wales the problem is magnified by the fact that everyone -- apart from toddlers in families whose first language is Welsh and perhaps the very occasional elderly person -- is much more comfortable speaking fluent English to you rather than hear you struggle with their own language. (And I suspect that the situation is even worse in Ireland and Scotland for those wanting to speak Gaelic.)

I used to get frustrated by this. I would think, They say they want to preserve Welsh, surely they want people to learn the language? So why aren't they encouraging me? Well, there are lots of reasons, some of them obvious, others more subtle and complex. Here are just a few.

1) It is not their job to teach random strangers Welsh. What they actually want to do is sell you a cup of tea and a sandwich (or whatever) and move as swiftly as possible on to the next customer. If you are in the Czech Republic or a remote village in Portugal and they speak no English, then in the interest of selling that something to you, they will put up with your efforts at communication, but when they speak perfectly fluent English, they are not going to bother.

2) They are not teachers and not trained to teach the language. They may indeed have taught their own children perfectly successfully to speak Welsh and probably English as well, but they are not trained to teach a langauge to adults. They are also afraid that you will ask them about Grammar.

There is a certain type of Welsh learner who insists on asking grammatical questions all the time. Tutors are fine with this and will explain. I don't generally find it helpful to know grammar and I prefer the "don't worry about why it happens, it just does" approach, though I have absorbed some rules by osmosis. I didn't learn to speak English by learning grammar and I failed to learn French at school because they taught us grammar first. But some people want to know the Why? of everything and though the native Welsh speaker speaks the language perfectly well, they might not know why something mutates or why a certain idiom is used. Afraid of looking ignorant, they give learners a wide berth.

2a) Because the Welsh taught in most Welsh classes for adults is not quite the same as the colloquial Welsh spoken in the street, the moment a learner says anything, they reveal themselves as a learner. Now the variant of Welsh taught to adults is more like the register of written Welsh. (There is a much bigger difference between written and spoken Welsh than there is between written and spoken English.) This leads the average native speaker to feel that the Welsh spoken by the learner is somehow more "correct" and "superior" to the casual language that they use. They are made to feel that their language skills are somehow inferior and because they don't speak like the learner, they are afraid of teaching them "bad" Welsh if they try to help. (This feeling of inferiority is at least partly due to the type of Welsh speaker referred to in #5 below.)

3) Whereas those who have English as their native tongue are used to there being many Englishes, spoken with many and varied accents, because Welsh is a minority language and (apart from Patagonia) is spoken only in one tiny country, the native Welsh speaker is just not used to hearing Welsh spoken with an accent and probably genuinely finds it difficult to understand the enthusiastic beginners who insist on trying out their limited Welsh.

This does lead to a chicken and egg situation because without speaking, the learner won't get better, but until they can speak fluently enough, they won't be understood or tolerated.

4) Though most Welsh speaking Welsh people would say that they want to preserver the language (which, if they thought about it, means getting more people to speak it), there is also a feeling amongst some Welsh speakers that it's almost a secret language that divides Them and Us. Thus there is a conflict. If speaking the language marks out the true Welsh person but someone can learn that language fluently enough to pass as a native, then there is no Us and Them any more.

5) Another type of ardent Welsh speaker doesn't want the purity of the language sullied by people speaking it badly and with English accents. Though they never say it outright, they give the distinct impression that if you can't speak it well enough to be in the running for a prize at the Eisteddfod, then you shouldn't attempt to speak it at all. (See above re chicken and egg.) This type of Welsh speaker also hates the way young people speak the language and has a similar mentality to these people who want to turn the clock back and preserve the "purity" of English. (The French also have a tendency in this direction.)

6) If the Welsh speaker has known you for some time before you try to use Welsh with them, you will be flagged in their memory as "Speak English to this person". Today in the Welsh class, someone was mentioning a Welsh couple they knew who, because they met at college as part of a bunch of friends that always spoke English together, even though both members of the couple were both first langauge Welsh, it seemed odd at first to speak Welsh to each other when they were alone together. Therefore, though biligual people can switch languages from sentence to sentence, if they've always spoken English with you before, it will feel odd speaking Welsh with you now. Also, of course, the conversation that used to flow so smoothly will now be much more limited and therefore somewhat frustrating.

There are probably more reasons, but those will do to be going on with. I will write about possible ways around these problems in another post.

(Crossposted to LJ and Dreamwidth. If you want to comment, please feel free to do so at whichever site you find most convenient.)
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