Saturday, March 1, 2008

More on learning Welsh

I'll be posting another bilingual piece soon. Currently I'm working hard on my Welsh, looking forward to Cymdeithas Madog's course this summer. Also I'm trying to get back in the flow of writing after the disruption of Estrella War.

Why work on improving my Welsh in order to attend a Welsh language course? It does sound kind of counter-intuitive, doesn't it? Well, for two reasons. First, I'm the kind of person who doesn't start the term paper until the due date heaves into view over the calendar horizon. So having a fixed date to aim for - "I want to improve this, this, and this by such-and-such a date" - helps motivate me. Secondly, this will be my eighth trip to Cwrs Cymraeg, and in four of my previous Cyrsiau I've been in the top level (originally level six, now level seven). I love the challenge of that level, but I know to fully benefit from it my spoken Welsh needs to be as good as I can get it. So I rejoined the local Colorado Welsh Society class here in Denver last fall, and I've been working weekly - if not daily - on my Welsh. Sometimes it feels like patching a leaky boat - as soon as I fix one problem, I become aware of two more. But that's life - and language learning.

More later - back to work.



  1. I did the same "counter-intuitive" move when preparing last year for Irish immersion at Oideas Gael in Donegal. I figured I easily boosted myself up a level or so, and found myself entering OG at 4 out of 5 to my discomfort, being among the lowest achievers in my section. I was among a few primary schoolteachers themselves, believe it or not, although I had never really spoken Irish beyond a few sentences and badly at that. I was almost entirely a self-taught reader, an anomaly. That's why I lacked the proper pronunciation and articulation. Others had less vocabulary but better speech. Still, I pushed myself and refused to back down.

    Most of us in this same position of weakness were, in fact, Americans who had studied more or less on our own before coming into a course among lots of native Irish who, after a day or two, recalled their school lessons and had lots of memories to fall back on-- unlike us floundering Yanks with no such earlier drill!

    However, as I never had the chance to take classes regularly here in the U.S., my spoken abilities were minimal compared to my book-learning in rudimentary reading knowledge. That's where it sounds like you have an advantage, even if not entirely a "home court" edge there in Denver. It's great that you are pushing yourself, and I wish you all the best.

    When at OG, I noticed some American college students had been there for weeks. They started from nothing, and had great accents and much better patterns of conversational naturalness. There seems to be debate on the wisdom of this approach. Some argue for getting all you can before an immersion course, as you will jump a level if not two beyond a week of rote greetings and comments about the weather that anyone can pick up these days in other media. Others counter that as a total neophyte, you start with nothing to correct in terms of pronunciation. I did think, on the other hand, those at lower levels had a tremendous amount of memorization of grammar and vocabulary to master in a matter of a few days, a few stolen hours, in order to survive with a sufficient word-hoard for minimal conversation.

    I wonder how, in an American-centered Welsh intensive course, such a balance evens out? Are most of your classmates at CM self-starting Americans or Canadians, as opposed to the Irish milieu when I found internationals mixed in with native residents on holiday refreshing their casual knowledge along with teachers polishing their own skills? Many of the folks had children who learned it too, and they were able to listen to TV and radio daily as well as help their kids with lessons. This passive intake of the language, I think, as well as simply seeing signage and bilingual notices, helps the learner lots more than those of us on the frontiers. The "feel" of such a language-learning atmosphere when it's replicated for a week in isolation I imagine may differ between the indigenous and the foreign places, but perhaps in immersion, such differences recede?

    Hwyl fawr! Maith thú!

  2. There are some differences between the Cymdithas Madog course and your Irish experience (which sounds great). First, our students are almost 100% North American learners, so don't have the background in the language that your Irish fellow students had. (This was true even in 2000, when we actually held the course in Wales as a millenial celebration.) Because of that, most things outside the classroom go on in English, although we do have a "Welsh-only" table at lunch for those desperate for more conversation in the language.

    The student body on the CM course tends to be part people of Welsh family background interested in their heritage, part language professors, and part people with a general interest in Celtic cultures. Your experience reminds me of a story one of the professors told me - he arrived on the course self-taught but with no conversational practice, was placed in an intermediate level, had the largest vocabulary of anyone there, and couldn't understand a word that was spoken to him! My first time on the course was likewise shortly after I moved to Denver from Alaska. I had been studying on my own for a year or two, but at least had been working enough with the "Now You're Talking" tapes that I could understand some of what I heard. (I was placed at level 3 out of 6 based on a written submission.)

    In my present situation, having been to the course several times, I know what to expect, and get to chose my level. One of the things I enjoy about the top level at CM is that it's assumed in that class that you don't need grammar drills, so the teaching tends to center around literature or other readings, taught in Welsh only. Just what's discussed depends on the teacher and the class. They often do incorporate some type of learning comprehension exercise as well, and like you I've had the experience of being at the bottom of the class more times than I like; hence my current application!

  3. Last paragraph - that should have been "listening comprehension exercise".