Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Persuading natives to talk to you in Welsh -- Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the problem of finding native speakers to practice Welsh with. The blog post did end up pointing out all the problems and gave very few solutions, but I was somewhat relieved to read in an interesting paper I found online yesterday that it's not just me. Trying to learn a language in a situation where everyone is bilingual and they speak your native tongue much more fluently than you speak theirs really is the most difficult situation for a language learner to be in. (Greg Thomson's Leave me alone! Can't you see I'm learning your language? Scroll down to 4.2 Learning in a totally bilingual society.) You don't actually need to learn the language and can function perfectly well without. Learning Welsh is even worse than that. It's not a totally bilingual society because a lot of people don't even speak the langauge you're trying to learn! Thus any approach based on total immersion and struggling to make oneself understood just won't work. To further complicate matters, Greg Thomson talks about taking on the role of the "foreign weirdo". (Leave me alone! Can't you see I'm learning your language? Scroll down to 5.1. Bootstrapping your way to good behaviour) As he says, "A basic rule of culture learning is that you will never be present in a new culture as a normal person unless you are first willing to be present as a weirdo. Weirdness is the only path to normalcy." I need to think a bit more about whether this role is possible for a langauge learner in Wales. My initial thought is that it isn't, but there may be some equivalent.

Anyway after pondering things for while, doing more research on the Web and attending a very interesting meeting yesterday, here is Part 2 which contains some suggested strategies.

(The numbers refer back to the headings in my earlier post.)

1) It is not their job to teach random strangers Welsh

If you want to try out your Welsh in a shop or cafe, as long as you have observed the staff speaking Welsh to other customers, by all means try it. But don't push it! Their job is to serve the customers as efficiently as possible and if your well-practised sentence requesting a cup of tea and a scone unleashes a torrent of Welsh that you're unable to follow or if the person behind the counter can't understand what you're saying, be prepared to smile, apologise and switch to English. However, don't count it as a defeat. Just make a note of how far you got and where the exchange stalled. Perhaps you need to learn more vocabulary? Perhaps you need to practice listening to more rapid speech than you're used to in class? Perhaps you need to work on your accent? (As I explained before, Welsh speakers are just not used to hearing Welsh spoken with an accent other than the one they hear locally.)

Do some extra work and try again the following week.

2) They are not teachers and not trained to teach the language

If you do find a neighbour or friend or even a shopkeeper or waiter in a cafe who will speak Welsh with you, keep it conversational. The class is the place to ask grammatical questions. If anything puzzles you, don't ask the person you're conversing with, instead, make a note and ask your teacher or look it up in whatever course you're learning from.

Also remember that speaking to people who are not fluent is hard work, at least that's what I find when I speak to people whose English is rudimentary. The article I found yesterday talks about exchange theory. (Leave me alone! Can't you see I'm learning your language? Scroll down to 1.1.2 Doing unto others, with others also doing unto you) In other words, asking someone to practise Welsh with you is basically asking them to work for you for free. Why should they bother?

Some ideas about how to make it more appealing for them:

a) There are some people who are passionate about the Welsh language and culture and want to share it. Not only that, they know exactly how to talk to learners at the right level. Their reward is intrinsic and consists of getting a warm fuzzy glow when they help someone to appreciate their language better. These people are pearls beyond price and must be treasured! They have a warm and outgoing personality (without being too pushy) and they know how to gently correct a learner, without offence and without bringing the conversation to a halt. Parents do it in their native language. For example if a child comes up and says: "Peter hitted me!" the parent would say something like, "Peter hit you! Why did he do that?" They will not stop to explain what the learner said wrong and why, neither will they get embarrassed, turn bright red and bring the conversation to a grinding halt when a learner inadvertently says something embarrassing, such as remarking there is a lot of sex (rhyw) on the road tonight when she meant there was a lot of ice (rhew). (Something that happened to one of the women at the meeting yesterday. She was happy to laugh it off, but the person she was speaking to didn't know what to say and was covered in confusion.) If you are lucky enough to find a type a) Welsh speaker, don't overburden them. Until you are pretty fluent, speaking with you is probably as hard as you find speaking to them. I suggest that keeping conversations short, at least initially. That way you won't run out of things to say and will thus end each interaction on a good note. Sadly I don't have access to any of these paragons, other than my Welsh tutor. :(

b) Most native speakers would probably say they want incomers to learn Welsh, but they don't actually want it enough to put themselves out in any way. The warm glow that that Type a) Welsh speakers get from helping someone doesn't cut it with Type b). As these are the majority of the Welsh speakers you will encounter, how can you make use of them?

My thoughts are these:

i) Keep any conversations brief. If you know this person well and normally speak English with them, try asking them to speak Welsh with you just for a few minutes. Make it a game and be as enthusiastic as possible. After a while (preferably while the conversation is still going well so you end on a high note), turn back to English and try again next time you meet.

ii) Try to think of something interesting to say. This is one of Benny Lewis's tips and it makes a lot of sense. In most Welsh classes, you learn to say things like where you live, how long you've lived there, where you come from originally, what you do and whether you have children and pets. Not exactly enthralling stuff! If you can tell an amusing anecdote or talk about something the native speaker is genuinely interested in, then you're likely to get a better response to a request to speak Welsh.

iii) Is there some way you can pay them back? It might mean actually paying someone to practise speaking with you, but it's probably better if it's on an informal basis. Buy them a drink if you see them in the pub. (Assuming you have the sort of social life that takes you into pubs. Mine doesn't, as a rule.) Offer to meet them over a cup of coffee and treat them to a cake or something. Or perhaps there's something you can offer them in exchange, for example a skill or a service? If you help them by occasionally sorting out a computer problem or giving them a lift into town or whatever, you are keeping the exchange equal and neither will feel indebted to the other.

iv) Is there an organisation you can join or events you can attend where the language is Welsh and the situation is such that it will stay in Welsh? The major Welsh language event is the National Eisteddfod, but there are small local Eisteddfodau held in almost every town or village. I have decided to join the Merched y Wawr (similar to the WI but entirely Welsh speaking) after the summer holidays. I had been dithering, even though my Welsh is good enough to understand what's going on even if I can't say much, but I learned yesterday that it's part of their brief to nurture learners, so that was the deciding factor. Unfortunately it's a female only organisation and there is no male equivalent, so this route isn't available to men. There may also be volunteering opportunities and I'm going to investigate one possibility. (More on this if anything comes of it.)

v) It might be possible to turn type b) native speakers into type a) with training. This idea came to me only yesterday and of course it's not something an individual learner could do, but something that colleges could try. The Welsh tend to be introverts rather than extroverts, so some of the unwillingness to converse with learners could be due simply to shyness. So far, all efforts to increase the number of Welsh speakers have been focused on incomers by providing Welsh classes. As far as I know, there have been no initiatives aimed at helping native speakers help learners. Perhaps it's something that should be tried?

c) There are some people who are passionate about the Welsh language in a more aggressive political way and will use it whenever possible to Make A Point. Though these people may not have much in common with you, they can't on the one hand demand that everyone speaks Welsh and then refuse to speak it with learners. This type of person will usually at least pass the time of day with you, but probably best to leave it at that until you get really good. Extended conversations are somewhat exhausting because there is no safety net of reverting to English.

d) There are some people who are passionate about the Welsh language in an aggressive political way and will use it whenever possible to Make A Point. And yet they always give the impression that if you can't already speak it like a native, then you shouldn't even try and will therefore speak to learners in English. These people are not really helpeful, though if you have enough Welsh plus confidence and determination, you can continue to speak to them in Welsh while they resolutely speak to you in English. This is rather silly, but you are communicating and are getting to practice speaking Welsh. (A friend's wife has done this with a regular customer at the Welsh bookshop where she used to volunteer.)

I think that's enough to be going on with and the rain has finally stopped so I need to go out for a walk. I will therefore stop for the moment and tackle the rest of the points next time.

(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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