Clare Mack­in­tosh

Is there room in my adult brain for the Welsh lan­guage?

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS - CON­TACT www.claremack­in­tosh.com @clare mack­in­t0sh CLARE MACK­IN­TOSH

Igrew up in a fam­ily of lan­guage lovers. En­tire Sun­day lunches were spent de­vour­ing Fowlers’ Mod­ern English Us­age in an at­tempt to set­tle an ar­gu­ment about the Ox­ford Comma, or to de­bate the ori­gins of the phrase ‘be­yond the pale’; and woe be­tide any child of my fa­ther’s who mis­tak­enly used ‘me’ in­stead of ‘I’, or ‘less’ in­stead of ‘fewer’.

I took to French and Ger­man like a par­tic­u­larly lin­guis­tic duck to wa­ter, spend­ing two years in Paris to per­fect my grasp of my favourite tongue. La vie était in­deed belle. Over sub­se­quent years I flirted with Ital­ian and Span­ish, and al­though I’d strug­gle now to hold a con­ver­sa­tion in ei­ther lan­guage, I can un­der­stand much of what I read or hear.

Where num­bers swim in front of my eyes, mak­ing no sense at all, words seem to take shape of their own ac­cord. I am one of those peo­ple who – chameleon-like – be­gin to take on the ac­cent of who­ever they are in con­ver­sa­tion with. This has its down­sides (an hour-long record­ing for Ra­dio 4 saw me dig­ging my nails into my palms in an ef­fort to halt the en­tirely un­in­tended ab­sorp­tion of my fel­low in­ter­vie­wee’s Birm­ing­ham ac­cent) but does mean I can achieve a pass­able ac­cent in pretty much any lan­guage with­out much ef­fort. Blessed with an ex­cel­lent short-term mem­ory (and a ter­ri­ble long-term one) I can mimic my way through greet­ings and small talk in a for­eign lan­guage with­out un­der­stand­ing a word I’m say­ing.

When we moved to North Wales last year there was no ques­tion that we’d be learn­ing the lan­guage. We live in a pocket of the coun­try where Welsh is not only the pri­mary lan­guage spo­ken, but is – quite rightly – proudly up­held and pro­tected. It is en­tirely pos­si­ble to get by with­out know­ing a sin­gle word of Welsh – ev­ery­one speaks English, and any­thing writ­ten down is ac­com­pa­nied by a translation – but to do so would feel rude in the ex­treme.

And so we went back to school. Our sponge-like chil­dren were flu­ent within weeks, al­though for weeks they re­fused to open their mouths un­less forced to do so. My hus­band en­rolled in a weekly class, com­ing home each Mon­day with a work­sheet of home­work and an­other list of vo­cab­u­lary to add to his ar­se­nal. I didn’t sign up for classes. I was too busy, and be­sides: I was a lin­guist! I’d be flu­ent in no time. Ex­cept that I wasn’t.

I bore da’d my way through morn­ing greet­ings, and gleaned how to order a cup of tea with milk but no sugar, and fooled nu­mer­ous peo­ple into think­ing I spoke more than I did. As a tac­tic, that works fine when I drop into Barcelona, or Mu­nich, or Rome, for a whirl­wind book sign­ing, but it as a long-term strat­egy it achieves lit­tle. At the start of the year I was still lim­ited to hello, good­bye and Glaw eto! (rain again!) Dog walk­ers be­gan to steel them­selves as I ap­proached, ready for our daily Ground Hog Day con­ver­sa­tion, and I de­cided it was time for pro­fes­sional help.

I signed up to weekly classes; a term be­hind my hus­band, but con­fi­dent I’d catch up in no time. For a time things went well.

‘Mae’n hyfryd hed­diw yn tydi?’

I sang out to the dog walk­ers, who – too re­lieved by the va­ri­ety to point out the loom­ing clouds – agreed that it was, in­deed, lovely to­day. My weather-re­lated vo­cab­u­lary im­proved. I learned to talk about my fam­ily; to ask about your hol­i­day. I com­mit­ted to start­ing ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion in Welsh; grad­u­ally man­ag­ing a lit­tle more small talk be­fore drop­ping back to English. This was it! The road to flu­ency! And then I missed a les­son.

Com­ing back into class the fol­low­ing week I was mo­men­tar­ily dis­ori­en­tated. What on earth were they talk­ing about? When did we cover the past tense? How was that com­bi­na­tion of con­so­nants even pos­si­ble? The fol­low­ing month I missed two classes, as travel com­mit­ments took over and my book dead­line drew nearer. Dust set­tled on my course book, and a new term came and went. I gave up. Learn­ing is harder as an adult. Not only be­cause the old grey mat­ter takes time to warm up, and be­cause new in­for­ma­tion seems to fall out as quickly as it drops in, but be­cause school is no longer the only obli­ga­tion in our lives. We have jobs, we have fam­i­lies, we have house­work and hob­bies and friends to see and a mil­lion and one things to do ev­ery day. But I still want to speak Welsh.

And so, as the start of a new aca­demic year beck­ons, and my chil­dren ready them­selves to go back to school, I am ready­ing my­self to do the same. And this time I’m stay­ing there.

‘Blessed with an ex­cel­lent short-term mem­ory (and a ter­ri­ble long-term one) I can mimic my way through greet­ings and small talk in a for­eign lan­guage with­out un­der­stand­ing a word I’m say­ing’

‘Wel­come to Wales’. Now, please do try to speak the lingo

For more in­for­ma­tion visit claremack­in­tosh. com

I See You, pub­lished by Sphere. Out now in pa­per­back

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