Sunday, 30 September 2012

Total immersion in Welsh: visiting Nant Gwrtheyrn

Let's be honest here - I have been trying to learn Welsh for a very long time!  We have lived here for just a few weeks short of seven years so I think it must be around six years ago that I walked through the door of the first class.  To begin with we had a class twice a week which ran in our local pub.  Numbers have fluctuated, people have come and gone, the class moved up the hill into Caerwys, first to a room which is now part of the butcher's and then into the Institute, handy but not quite as cosy as the pub and with no glass of wine as a reward after either.  The twice a week classes shrank to once a week so we moved from two lovely tutors to one.  But week in, week out, I have trundled down with my files and my dictionary.  I have sat exams: Mynediad, Sylfaen, Canolradd, roughly equivalent to Entry, Foundation and Intermediate.  While I might not be fluent you would have to grant me my commitment!

Now numbers have settled to a small hardcore of good friends and for quite a while I have felt stuck on a plateau.  I can understand quite a bit although I have huge gaps in my vocabulary.  But the most frustrating thing of all is that I can't really speak Welsh and I can't really read it.  This is no one's fault except mine.  The tutor is great, the course is good, the class are supportive, but never before have I tried to learn a language where everyone I speak to also speaks English.  There is never a time when you have to hold your nose and plunge in because using your new language, however slowly and awkwardly, is the only possible way to communicate.  So I rarely speak it except in class.  Our part of Wales is not the heartland of Welsh speaking Wales but there are plenty of  people in the village who are first language Welsh speakers, including a good friend of mine.  Sometimes we exchange a few sentences before falling back with relief into English.  We want to catch up, we have lots to say and not enough time together.  Why would I make her cope with my stumbling and inadequate Welsh when it takes me so much time to work out how to say the next thing that the conversation has totally ground to a halt?  How could we talk about difficult, complicated, subtle things when my Welsh is for buying milk and asking the time?

So months ago I decided that I needed to give the whole thing a big kick up the backside and I booked, together with a good friend from Welsh class, to go to Nant Gwrtheyrn.


Nant Gwrtheyrn (pronounced nant gur thern with long slightly rolled r's) is a Welsh language centre on the Lleyn Peninsula, about an hour and three quarters west of here.  The Lleyn sticks out into the sea like an extended finger, beyond the island of Anglesey, pointing west towards Ireland.  The village was built in the 19th Century to house quarrymen and their families back in a time when the granite setts which came out of these steep hills were made into roads throughout busy, bustling Victorian England.  It became a close knit  community of around two hundred with its own chapel and school, its own shop and a port which shipped the granite to Liverpool and beyond.

But the coming of asphalt roads saw the death of the use of cobbles and by the middle of the twentieth century the quarry was long closed, the village was deserted and the houses falling into disrepair.  For a while it was lived in by a hippy group who left it in an even worse state, burning floorboards from the manager's house to fuel their fires.  Then in the 1970s it became the focus of a huge fundraising effort to buy the village and turn it into a centre for the teaching of the Welsh language.  Read the full story here.

A full week's course would surely kick me on into speaking instead of just listening.

We arrived as it was getting dark on Sunday evening.  The drive into the village ends with a startling, twisting road plunging down a steep wooded hillside towards the sea.  At the bottom of the hill is a triangle of flatter land falling gently down to a rocky curve of beach and here there are two rows of granite cottages, built at right angles to each other, one row facing the mountain and one row facing the sea.


It was deserted and a little bit eerie.  That night the wind blew hard, hurling rain against the windows.  An overflowing gutter spattered water all night long outside my door.  I didn't sleep well.  In the morning it was still raining so hard that a rush down to the cafe for breakfast left us soaked and shivering.

Breakfast was good and the warmth of the reception from the tutor more than made up for the blowing rain outside.  And it was a really great week.  After a couple of days of dramatic wet weather the sun came out.  We spoke Welsh all the time in class and most of the time outside it.  To begin with a lot of it washed over me but as I got my ear in I found I was understanding more and more.

The group was a good mix of people.  One man had come all the way from Seattle and this was not his first visit to Nant Gwrtheyrn.  There were people from South Wales, people like us from the North and a couple of people who lived in England but had family ties to Wales. They were a clever and interesting bunch of people and we all soon felt comfortable enough to use our Welsh with each other.

The week sped by in a whirl of games and more formal teaching, reading, chatting, learning about the village and its stories (told with vivid enjoyment by Pegi the tutor).  There was a visit to the house which the Welsh writer Kate Roberts lived in as a child and evening sessions about the area, including one about Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli) which is just off the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula.  It was for many years a place of pilgrimage, indeed it used to be thought that three pilgrimages to Bardsey had the same benefit to the soul as one to Rome.

I loved it.  The food was good, the accommodation was great and the place was spectacular.  I met a fabulous group of people and I learnt a lot.  Perhaps most importantly I learnt that my Welsh is after all good enough for communicating, especially with people who will give you a bit of help, and that first language Welsh speakers are quite comfortable with slipping into English for a particular word or phrase.  I still feel that real fluency is a world away but it may, like the summit of the hill when you are climbing which presents you with a series of false tops, be in the nature of learning another language that it sometimes seems to move away as you approach.

I have come away with all sorts of suggestions as to ways to keep the buzz of excitement generated by the week.  I even found myself putting what I was doing into Welsh as I worked in the garden yesterday.

Mae'r haul yn gynnes ar fy nghefn.
Maen brain yn hel boncath dros the glas.
Mae'r aeronen yn disgleinio yn goch yn y setin.
Dw i'n codi winwns.

The sun is warm on my back.
Crows chase a buzzard across the sky.
Berries shine red in the hedge.
I am lifting onions.

So thank you Pegi, thank you Nant Gwrtheyrn, thank you Margaret for your company and Ian for holding the fort at home.  That was a good week.

47 comments:

  1. It always sounds such a musical language when you here it. Welsh people speaking English always sound like they ate singing to my ear, so when you hear them in their native tongue, it just increases the impression.

    I admire that you have stuck at it all those 7 years though and not given up on it, I am sure I would have done long ago. Languages and me are unnatural partners.

    Its great that you had a good time at the school too, can only think it will get better the more you use it and persist.

    Well done!

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    1. Thanks Zoe! It was a great week and I totally agree about the musicality of Welsh, although not necessarily when I speak it. I always fear that I sound like the policeman in "Ello, Ello" if you remember that!

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  2. Sounds like a great week. There's a real sense of achievement when you learn a new skill. Well done!

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    1. I would like to tell you I have learnt a new skill but I haven't really got there yet!

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  3. The best part of your seven years of learning not your native . . . for me . . . Is the magical, informative way you have for "expressing the journey!"

    I love to READ you . . . I hope you write more, and more, and more . . .

    In our visits to Ireland we have been amazed at the daunting task it must have been to take plentiful stone and shape it into structured design . . . No heavy equipment to move and put pieces in place, instead chipping away and moving pieces by hand and their backs. Much like the structure you stayed in. New Grange NW of Dublin comes to mind once again . . .

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    1. Lynne, I am so very pleased you like to read the blog, and yes to building without the help of modern machinery, extraordinary, impressive and a good reminder of what people can do when they must! We are more inventive and resourceful than perhaps our 21st life provides much evidence for.

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  4. Dai iawn, Elizabeth! You are making great progress. I have experienced the same problem of everyone wanting to speak English, though in this case I was learning French and even my neighbour (who is French) just wanted to speak English. I did two years of night school in Welsh but my only benefit was learning this song. So few Welsh learners and speakers seem to know it that I'll risk retailing it here. Think Eira Wen.

    Hi Ho, Hi Hee
    Y Ffordd y'r Gwaith a'r ni
    Gyda Chaib a Rhaw a Ffon gerllaw,
    Hi Ho, Hi Hee, Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Hi Hee
    Yn nol yr Gwaith a'r ni
    Gyda Chaib a Rhaw a Ffon gerllaw,
    Hi Ho, Hi Hee!

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    1. If this was your only benefit it was still worth it! Thank you. You have made my day!

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  5. Oh you - you have shamed me!! I was full of good intentions this year! I was going to concentrate on 'Say Something in Welsh' and follow the course attentively and I've failed miserably. Well done you!

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    1. Well you could equally say you have shamed me - you have written a book and I have just thought about it! The Say something in Welsh site is really good if you have time to get back to it.

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  6. Fabulous and well done you :)
    So glad the week was good, the company interesting and that the sun came out.
    K
    xxx

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    1. It was really good and just what I needed!

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  7. It's the only way - and good for you for taking the plunge. I enjoyed your description of the centre, buildings and atmosphere. Both our children were sent to French Immersion schools here in Canada and I had to learn German that way - by being dropped into a German village by my military husband - no car, a baby, trying to set up a house....I truly depended on 'the kindness of strangers' and became fluent in the process. When I look at written Welsh I am overwhelmed - you are brave!

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    1. I think I could manage if I had to be dropped into a Welsh village now (although I am impressed by your bravery with a baby and all!)

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  8. How fantastic! I've wanted to learn Welsh for over 20 years. Back then I started tracing my family tree and learned that I had a close branch from Wales and became fascinated with the country. I still haven't made it there - but will some day and I will definitely look into this option. I started with a Welsh-English dictionary and a series of cassette tapes. hmmm... I wonder where those are?
    blessings
    ~*~

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    1. If you are interested still Laura I would recommend a website called say something in welsh - it is really good!

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  9. The course sounds really good - I'd love to try it. It's 10 years since we moved to Wales and the children and I started learning Welsh. They took to it like ducks to water, I didn't.
    Three or four years of evening classes have never seemed to get me far beyond the 'dw i'n hoffi coffi' stage. A week of doing nothing but learn, and in a beautiful setting, would be marvellous.

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    1. Go for it! It will kick you on further than another four years of evening classes I promise!

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  10. You put me to shame. I moved to Wales five years ago with every intention of learning Welsh. Should be easier here as I am in the heartland of Welsh as the first language, but there are so many dialects it gets confusing. Perhaps I will get to evening school next year!
    I can ask for a cup of tea and say thank you though!!
    It is fascinating to listen to the Welsh speakers at work. It is a technical industry and there a very few Welsh words for most of the terms used. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which language they are speaking.
    Well done you.

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    1. One of the things it has taken me a while to get my head round is that native speakers slip in between languages without any self consciousness. It's not like French where they insist on making up their own French words. As you say, Welsh just uses English technical language and very sensible too!

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  11. I can remember a long uphill battle with German. My breakthru came with 3 chatty interesting colleagues, our teabreaks were conversation, not work. And I knew German was my second language, when I began to dream in it. (I still can't cope with writing in German, but I don't need that. Reading and speaking is enough for me)

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    1. I have never dreamt in another language. I do agree - that is a real sign it has become part of your consciousness! Lucky you.

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  12. Congratulations on your persistence! Your story is fascinating, I would like to see the village and hear the language...

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    1. You can visit the village just to look and use the excellent cafe!

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  13. It is such a lovely language to listen to. My parents had a cottage on the Old Racecourse at Oswestry and, on my first visit back from New Zealand in the late '60's, my father and I stayed there and used to catch the bus down to Oswestry. I loved listening to our fellow passengers speaking Welsh.

    I now enjoy hearing my cousins from Oswestry and Welshpool when I phone them.

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    1. It is a lovely language. Interesting that you heard welsh right on the border with England in the 60s in Oswestry.

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  14. I'm always fascinated with any commitment to learning another language. With French, I also feel the need to be somewhere that doesn't accommodate an inevitable recourse to English. I can imagine the exhilaration you must have felt, the adrenaline pumping . . . and the exhaustion at the end of each day. And I recognize that thrill at hearing an inner conversation in one's second language days, weeks, months afterward. Wonderful! So pleased for you!

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    1. It truly was exhausting! By the end of every day I was in bed super early but worth every minute!

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  15. Elizabeth, I so enjoyed reading this post. Isn't language a fluid sort of skill/ability/talent?

    My own vintage school language classes were in Latin, French and Russian. Of the three, Latin might strengthen my English vocabulary and spelling, French my ability to view films without total recourse to subtitles, and Russian the ability to be polite to international visitors I encounter in the shop.

    I think that I have some passive ability with Spanish, and know a few expressions in some Asian languages.

    So...I really enjoyed hearing about how you've immersed yourself for some years in taking on Welsh. It's a beautiful language to my ear, although the spelling of the words mystifies me. There was once a Welsh tv show available on our local PBS (Public Broadcasting System) station with subtitles. It's no longer broadcast, but I did love trying to just listen without reading the subtitles, seeing if I could catch the drift.

    Bravo to you. Do test your ear and skills by talking with more local Welsh speakers. It might be like some sort of physical exercise regimen.

    xo

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    1. I agree entirely about the need to keep your ear in with continued practice. I am wondering about trying to join the Merched y Wawr which is the welsh speaking version of the Women's Institute but I am not sure I could cope!

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  16. Fabulous and what a good idea to immerse yourself in the language for a week. I've lived here seven years and the only Welsh I've learned is from road and shop signs :). I have had the greatest intentions, but never found the time. One day ...

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    1. It is quite a challenge! Mind you, even learning from road and shop signs is learning and that gives you some feel for the language. I am sure you would enjoy it if you could find the time. It is very rewarding.

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  17. I am glad that you had a good time - and it is really not easy to learn another language when you are an adult, so well done for doing so well!

    Pomona x

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    1. I think doing so well is a bit of an overstatement although I wish I could claim it! But I am still here, that is my claim to fame!

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  18. I find that tremendously encouraging, both that it has taken you so long to start to feel comfortable, and to learn that actually you had learnt more than you thought. My other half has been expending considerable energy into learning Welsh, and I have it as my winter project to start "properly", but everyone we meet speaks english, a depressing number of them ARE english, and in any case, every welsh person speaks welsh differently! Such a beautiful language, and if I had moved to France, even Provence, I wouldn't dream of not at least attempting to speak the lingua franca, but oh my goodness, what a challenge... So thank you, I feel encouraged!

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    1. I agree so much that you would not move to another country and not try to learn some of the language. Do have a go and go to Nant Gwrtheyrn if you can. It's not that far from you!

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  19. This sounds wonderful! I have lived in Wales nearly twice as long as you and can barely, to my shame, manage more than Bore da! But in my defence, like you I live in this English speaking part of Wales, and much closer to the English border than you. It is rare to hear Welsh spoken here, and for libraries and hospitals and the like I go to Chester, so I've really had no need. Perhaps I should follow your lead :)

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    1. If you like languages you would find it fascinating but I do quite see how living even nearer the border than we do can make you feel that there is no practical necessity. You could do a bit just for the interest perhaps!

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  20. Shw mae, Elizabeth. I wish I could have your kind of encounter with the Welsh language. The oral tradition of my mother's family is that it originated in Wales. So I would like to learn a few things Welsh, particularly the language. Basically, I'm getting nowhere.

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    1. Look at the say something in welsh website Rob. It is the best thing I have found to get you speaking!

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  21. Well done you.I am also learning Welsh with a small group in U3A.It is soooo difficult.I have found the Say Something in Welsh a good help though I am only up to Chapter 4.Flintshire U3A have an advanced Welsh Learners group if you want extra practise.I am being silly here because I am presumimg you are retired.I havn't visited your blog before so have no idea of your age.You are probably in your twenties!!Sorry.

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    1. I am not retired but I work part time now so could probably manage a group. Thank you. I will have a look.

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  22. I don't speak Welsh but I'd be willing to try just to stay at Nant Gwrtheyrn... it looks absolutely wonderful!

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    1. It was quite a special place Marcheline. If you ever get over here I am sure you would love it!

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  23. Well done. My father worked in Wales for a couple of years long before I was born and passed on a couple of phases to me which I can say but can't write.
    I think it's great the work which is being done to keep Welsh a living language. Sadly we're not being as successful with Irish even though children are taught it from age four upwards. A lot of them simply resent learning what they regard as a useless language. And while I could hold a basic conversation, I regret to say I rarely use more than a cupla focal (few words) here and there.

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  24. Dal ati Elizabeth. Rwyt ti'n ambasador ardderchog i'r iaith, yn ol yr ymateb gan bawb i'r post. Y blog yn ddifyr iawn bob tro. Ymlaen at yr arholiad Uwch rwan, ac wedyn blogio yn ddwyieithog! Pob hwyl.

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  25. Elizabeth, gaf i ofyn ble ydych chi'n dysgu efo'r U3A? Diolch Jonathan
    www.derbywelshlearnerscircle.blogspot.com

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