Welsh As A First Language

My own experiences of Wales and people speaking Welsh are limited to not really understanding the 'Owain Hughes' joke in Gavin and Stacy, childhood trips to Rhyl and Prestatyn and knowing how to pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch correctly.  The language is a mystery because learning it is not as easily accessible as you'd think.  It has a very 'sing song' type of rhythm and has always fascinated me.  

welsh flag, flag of wales, red dragon, Rewind to a Friday evening (post-#fridaytwiz) conversation with Gwyn (@KingOfAnkh) and an in-depth conversation about solving maths problems (fuck, yeah... we know how to kick it on a Friday) and he drops the fact that he has to translate all numbers before working out the problem and then translate back.  Now, something stirred deep in my brain about Gwyn being Welsh (he makes no secret of it, after all) but I didn't know that Welsh was his first language.  

So I took advantage of his drunken state and made him promise to write me a guest post.  I retweeted his promise (which is the online equivalent to signing in blood) and emailed him to remind him of his promise when he awoke from his drunken stupor.  This is the result of that promise.


Being a Welshie

A couple of weeks ago I was having a chat online and the subject of being Welsh came up, being a Welshman of nearly 38 years myself I would consider myself a bit of an expert on the subject.  Some general questions were asked and I tried to answer them in my drunken Friday night haze as best I could, yet the subject seemed to fascinate everyone.

It seems it is somewhat difficult for English people to understand that even though I’m fluent in English, it is my second language.

Up until the age of five or six, there were only a few English words in my vocabulary. At primary school, all of my lessons, even English, were taught through the Welsh medium. I still have to complete maths problems in Welsh mentally as that’s how the times table was drummed into me.

Imagine having to add up on the fly, numbers thrown at you in English, you add them up in your head in Welsh then provide the answer in English, yup, you thought maths was hard enough already, try being bilingual.

In secondary school we carried on learning in Welsh, I took my GCSE’s and A Levels in the Welsh language although English was taught more rigorously.

I’d like to think I’m quite erudite and well spoken, but I was in the ‘B English’ class, which left us just learning the basics and learning them well. I do feel I missed out on the heavy literature of Shakespeare, but I’m sure at the age of 14 I’d much rather be reading the Hobbit instead. In fact, I think it turned to my benefit as the standard of my English is a damn sight better than 90% of what I see online and in the newspapers.

I do come from a very Welsh part of Wales, everyone I know does speak Welsh, even the English! This might seem like a stupid thing to say but you can’t live in a foreign country and not expect the language to rub off on you. It’s generally accepted that everyone will be taught Welsh at school so English kids will learn Welsh as a foreign language.

I get asked how often I speak Welsh, to be honest, not very often living in Gloucestershire.  I tend to speak Welsh with my family on the phone which brings me to the most humungous preconception about the Welsh other than being sheep shaggers. We normally speak Welsh with each other, we don’t wait for English people to walk through the pub doors and instantly switch over to Welsh. I’m sorry to burst the English bubble, we aren’t being pig headed, nor are we gossiping about you, you are simply not important enough for us to bother.

I will admit that I do have a tendency to switch over to Welsh with people I have always spoken Welsh with. I could be at mum’s house with an English friend where all conversation will generally be in English unless a question is directed towards me specifically. This might seem odd, but you try holding a conversation in French and turning around to your sibling and talking to them in French, it’s just unbelievably difficult to do when you are so used to speaking your mother tongue with them.

Oh, another thing, the structure of the Welsh language is totally the reverse of English, so ‘that large tree’ becomes ‘that tree large’, so don’t take the piss out of me when I muddle my words, I didn’t have a stroke or any other kind of brain bubble, I’m just translating a bit slower than normal.

You would think that being a Welshie gives you an upper hand in some situations, having your own secret language that only a couple of million people speak worldwide does allow you to pass comment quite easily.  Mind you I have been caught out a couple of times, for instance, don’t say to your girlfriend quietly that the couple in front of you are speaking Welsh, only for her to say loudly, ‘What? Look at that fat bird?’ in Welsh loud enough for them to hear and scowl menacingly at us.

Being Welsh is quite a special thing for me, I’m very proud of my country and its heritage. I’d say that as a nation we are a poor people who are rich in life and personality. I’ve never failed to have a warm welcome anywhere in Wales and within a matter of minutes you are part of the group and laughing and invariably singing by the end of the evening. Although I can say the same of many places around the world, I seem to have to try harder at this in England. I would say that the English national pride was almost non-existent until the recent Jubilee, which is a great shame, so imagine living in a country that is constantly celebrating and supporting its heroes and isn’t ashamed of waving its flag. Imagine living in a country where everyone knows the words to their national anthem because they are actually proud to sing it. That’s Wales that is.

As a better person than I once said, ‘To be born Welsh is to be born privileged. Not with a silver spoon in your mouth but with music in your heart and poetry in your soul.’ Ain’t that the truth!