Its a warm
sunny day in Aberystwyth, the sea purring gently in the background,
on the edge of consciousness. The sky is truly blue, lending
a sparkly feel to this seaside town set in the heartland of
Ceredigion. Constitution Hill looms to the north of the town,
with its funicular railway that clambers up the cliff. Pen
Dinas lies to the south, its single monument oft forgotten.
Nestled between the two, down on the beach, are the ruins
of Edward Is castle. Built in the 13th century to help
consolidate his conquest of Wales, it now oversees one of
the most vibrantly Welsh towns in Wales.
a month studying Welsh in Aberystwyth, with its
inspiring Welsh countryside and its ferment of Welsh culture,
is many learners dream. The intensive month-long
Wlpan course at the University of Aberystwyth attracts
many learners, from people who are being sponsored by
their employers, to retired Welsh people who were denied
their heritage and language by parents who would speak
only English to their children, to the descendants of
the Welsh who migrated abroad to America and beyond. Here,
in Aberystwyth, they all come together to achieve a common
goal - to speak Welsh.
In 1999, Sandi
Thomas decided that shed had enough of trying to learn
Welsh on her own, and that it was about time she took the
plunge and signed up for Wlpan Awst. With a name like Thomas,
its easy to see a Welsh connection - but it wasnt
her long-past Welsh heritage that inspired Sandi to start
attempts to understand Welsh were directly because of my obsessive
need to understand what Dafydd Iwan was singing about,"
explains Sandi. "I liked his music which, although
old in Wales was new to me but I knew that
it was his words that would unlock Welsh-speaking Wales for
on an ancient Celtic language in America could not have been
easy but, the Internet provided the way forward.
"I first learned
Welsh by translating the words to Dafydd Iwan's music via
an online lexicon," Sandi says, "and by listening
to CDs and videos. I obviously had a quite fantastic array
of nationalistic verbs and nouns, but not a lot of practical
stuff! Ive never learned Welsh from books except
for my almost falling apart Learner's Dictionary!"
In order to fill
the holes, Sandi made the long journey over to Wales and embarked
on the month-long immersion in the Welsh language that is
Wlpan. Originally a feature writer in California, Sandi had
moved to Alaska with her husband (a wildlife biologist), where
she continued writing and trained to be an English teacher.
Then she returned to California to teach literature and drama,
whilst continuing writing travel features.
she gave up teaching to write full time, concentrating
first on You Dont Speak Welsh. Her book
details the joys and frustrations she experienced on the
course, each little tribulation balanced by a little victory
such as finally saying her first word in Welsh
diolch to a Welsh-speaking shop assistant. Every
learner who reads You Dont Speak Welsh
will sympathise with Sandi and her fellow learners, and
will be grateful to find out that they are not alone in
sometimes thinking Why on earth am I doing this?.
Its a tonne of moral support in a handy-sized book
that you can dip into anytime you feel that the language
is too strange, too complex or just too damn hard to pronounce.
But, all good things
do come to an end, and eventually Sandi had to leave Wales.
"It was very
dismal to finish the Wlpan course," she says, "and
return to California. I didn't want to return, so I immediately
began an online course through Prifysgol Cymru at Lampeter
and it was excellent! I got to see all the rules for the first
time, which helped me to put it all together. I had a good
tutor who responded, corrected and encouraged me. Last November
I actually took the final for the beginners level orally,
when I was in Wales for a few weeks. I got to meet my tutor,
and we chatted (in Welsh!) for an hour or more. This spring
I began Level 2 the same way and its wonderful.
I finally understand the future tense! Im hoping that
it will help me to prepare me for the Level 2 course."
Of course, keeping
the momentum going when youre learning any language
is tricky. How does Sandi do it?
"I learn in
bits and pieces," she says, "a unit here and there,
I read Golwg, I listen to Welsh CDs. It's always exciting
when I realize I know more and understand more than I used
to. It is such a slowly blossoming thing that happens. Not
a day goes by that I'm not doing something in Welsh though.
I am motivated by my intention to live in Wales and not as
just a Sais!"
In You Dont
Talk Welsh, Sandi posits that when you have memorised
a word, when you really, truly, instinctively know what a
word means, you own it. How does Sandi come to
own her words?
She says: "I
think owning words comes from hearing and seeing
them used, and looking them up over and over and over until
you finally remember them all the time. Some words just won't
stick for so long that you despair of ever owning
them! I had a particularly hard time with 'hefyd'. Some come
and stay almost from the first time you hear them maybe
because you relate to them in some way. My technique (hardly
a technique!) is to have my dictionary everywhere with me
so that I can always check a word, and to listen to and read
Welsh so that you see and hear those words. My top learning
tip is to expose yourself to the language continually, in
any way that you can, so that every day you think Welsh in
some way even if it is just one new word.
Sandi admits, "my biggest stumbling block has been the
lack of anyone to speak Welsh with. Consequently, I'm not
very good at actual conversation in Welsh!"
Living in America,
and then Belgium, where does Sandi find Welsh to read and
have never had trouble finding Welsh resources," she
admits. "I think this is because of certain companies
Y Lolfa for one. They have a good selection of books
on everything Welsh, and lots of language and learner stuff.
Then there is Sain, whose music is all in Welsh, and who also
have learning stuff on CD-ROM. The learner magazines really
help you to practice your language skills Lingo Newydd
for beginners, and Golwg for the more advanced. The excellent
online courses offered by the University of Wales in Lampeter
are great and give you the advantage of a personal tutor.
The beginning level is also free of charge, which you can't
beat! The Welsh Books Council are also very helpful in telling
you what books are out and available and where. And little
Siop y Pethe in Aberystwyth carries all things Welsh and will
mail to you."
What prompted Sandi
record her experiences as a learner in Aberystwyth?
"I felt that
the Welsh language learning experience was now such a big
part of the Welsh culture," she explains, "and such
a difficult thing to do, that the experience needed to be
shared. Firstly, to encourage learners: We're all in
this hellish thing together guys!; and secondly, to
show Welsh speakers what a dedicated struggle it is for non-Welsh
speakers to try to learn their language.
"I kept a
diary almost from the first minute of Day One, and every evening
(before launching into the homework of the day) I wrote up
the entire day. It made my job a lot easier when I sat down
to write the book, but it also took a lot of self-discipline
at the time. As a travel writer I have always kept journals
if you don't develop that discipline, you can't remember
enough detail when you come to do the writing.
the book was fun to write! Every moment I wrote was a moment
I was back in Wales again. I would lose whole hours as I wrote
which is how writing always is for me. I am somewhere
else and come back to reality with a shock. It was far easier
to write the book than to finish the Wlpan course!"
One of the key
points in the book and, indeed, the experience that gave rise
to the books name, was Sandis meeting with singer
Dafydd Iwan at the Miri Madog music festival in Porthmadog.
He was, as she notes in the books dedication, the reason
that she started learning Welsh, so the chance to see him
sing was one not to be passed up. A chance comment to a steward
resulted in Sandi meeting Dafydd but when he started to talk
to her in Welsh, she was struck dumb. "You dont
speak Welsh," he said, as Sandis stood mute in
front of him. But her disappointment served only to stiffen
her resolve to one day be able to converse in Welsh. Considering
that Dafydds been such an influence, has he seen a copy
of the book?
"It is interesting
that I have this question today," Sandi says, "because
only yesterday I heard from Dafydd Iwan. He had been sent
a copy of the book and he wrote to me to thank me and to respond
to the book. And, of course, the whole letter was in Welsh.
I could read part of it fairly easily, but it was not written
in 'beginner's Welsh' so there were parts I had to really
work at to translate, but I did it. He teasingly said he was
feeling very important after reading the book, and commented
that I have done a great favour to Wales by writing it. He
said that hopefully it would help many people to realize the
value of the Welsh language. He did feel that when he said
"You don't speak Welsh" he meant it as a question,
to ascertain if I did or didn't, and not as a blanket statement
of fact. But since I made good use of the occasion, he forgave
me the very little misunderstanding.
"I think his
reaction may be the difference between a Welsh speaker and
a non-Welsh speaker like me. Our perceptions are different.
We come to the experience with different expectations. He
was very definite in wanting it known that if you were a Welsh
learner he wouldn't waste his English on you!
He would speak Welsh to you. He also sent me his new CD, Dafydd
Iwan a'r Band, and told me that the English sleeve notes were
in reference to the letters we had exchanged, (which I quoted
in my book), and that he is learning!
"If I ever
met him again would I be able to speak Welsh to him? Ask me
again after my second Wlpan course!"
What does the future
hold for Sandi now? A book in Welsh, perhaps?
"I have been
asked this several times recently. One reporter actually decided
for me that that must be my next goal so put those words in
my mouth! I don't think I can ever have the fluid command
of the Welsh language necessary to be a good writer. My natural
language is English, and as a writer it is where I have my
"But I do
have plans for a novel about Wales, and I'm moving to Wales
at the end of July!" she happily says. "But it isn't
as easy as it sounds. Immigration rules in Britain are very
tough and as an American I can only stay six months out of
every twelve, but living in Wales is the culmination of all
the things that have led me there. The history, the music,
the culture, the politics, the language
now the reality
of being part of that as much as I can.
"I hope that
I will be able to speak Welsh with people, and that to hear
it spoken on a daily basis will help me to grow comfortable
with it. Living where it is spoken will make the whole language
thing real for me, and I think it will start to come fast
once I am around it."
Can we look forward
to a second installment of Sandi Thomas journey through
Welsh language and culture?
this some thought for a while now the process of becoming
a part of the culture would be interesting to write about,
putting my feet in the water so to speak. It would
focus more on the people and the culture of Wales itself,
I think, and the ongoing language struggle, I'm sure. I don't
think I'll ever not be writing about Wales!"
In her book, Sandi
implies that peoples perceptions of her American-ness
were a little disconcerting. How do her American-ness and
increasing Welsh-ness meld together?
knew my Thomas family name was Welsh, but as a kid and teenager
it had no relevance for me I was a California girl
through and through. My family had no interest in its Welsh
heritage, except for my grandfather, who had a beautiful Welsh
tenor voice. I fell in love with Wales first, then I grew
interested in my familys Welsh heritage. I don't say
being Welsh is preferable to being American. I am proud to
be both. I love America despite its flaws, and I feel the
same about Wales. It's just that I have the desire to be as
much a part of Wales as I am of America. Of course, my family
is in America, so obviously I will always feel roots there."
said that Welshness is a state of mind, and has little to
do with where youre born. So, does Sandi feel Welsh?
"I do feel
Welsh," she admits. "Even if I didn't have Welsh
ancestors and a Welsh name, I'd feel Welsh. I am inherently
drawn to the people and country of Wales, and I don't even
understand why myself. I don't need to. It is like the old
Dafydd Iwan song Pam fod eira yn wyn? It just
Some learners would
say that they have been victim of prejudice against learners
by native Welsh speakers who dont take them seriously
or give them any respect. Sandi also mentions this tendency
in her book, but how often did she actually come across this
"Much of this
perception was transmitted by our Welsh-speaking tutors,"
she explains. "They said it was a problem with Welsh
speakers, but I never really spoke Welsh well enough to know
if its true. Although the few times I ventured a Welsh
word I had very positive reactions from Welsh speakers.
"I have a
friend in south Wales who has never had an interest in the
language but since I wrote this book, he now says things like
It's really pathetic that I have to have an American
translate Welsh for me isn't it?, so maybe he's starting
to think a little about the language... I did once get called
Sais in a very snide way by a Welsh speaker, and
I don't suppose it is the last time it will happen to me.
It was not a pleasant experience, but I have now thought of
answers to that in Welsh!"
And why is it that
fluent Welsh speakers seem to reluctant to talk in Welsh to
"I hope, and
have thought it is probably true, that it is merely impatience
and a need to communicate in the easiest language for both
people. But I think language snobbery also exists in some
Welsh speakers. I have certainly heard Welsh learner's pronunciation
being criticized harshly at times. I suppose I will find out
soon how true it is. If it is true, then its self-defeating
for Welsh speakers to do this, because it only serves to intimidate
and discourage people from trying to speak Welsh!
part of the reason that I decided to write my book was to
try to combat that attitude. It is really much easier to be
a Welsh speaker from birth... so for Welsh speakers to be
able to see how difficult and demanding it is to learn their
language may help them learn to respect learners. I think
it shows a great determination and love for Wales to struggle
to learn yr hen iaith, which may not be something
that Welsh speakers have thought about. Its easy enough
to say Want to be part of Wales? Well, learn our language,
but its harder by far to actually do it! There needs
to be respect for the effort. Without that respect for learners
the language dooms itself."
At the moment,
Welsh has quite a low status as a foreign language
amongst almost all non-Welsh speakers, whether or not they
are Welsh. With various multinational companies promising
to include Welsh on their list of acknowledged
languages, is the status of Welsh improving, or are these
promises just tokenism?
Welsh is an official foreign language is just
a meaningless game to me," Sandi says. "Of course
it is a real language! I think, though, that the status of
Welsh would only really change if, in Welsh Wales, it truly
was popeth yn Gymraeg everything in Welsh.
In France, everything is in French. Here in Belgium, where
I have been living since February, everything is either in
French or Flemish. The Flemish had to fight for that right,
just as the Welsh struggle to do, against the same forms of
tyrannical prejudice. But that is what they speak and they
don't speak English to you, although they can. The same with
France. If Welsh was the only language being spoken in North
Wales, then it would be accepted and people would try to learn
it much faster. But of course, that is just like saying that
if everyone in America gave up guns there wouldnt be
a gun problem in America. Sadly, its unlikely to ever
happen because the monster is too large and out of control.
that the fate of the language rests with the Welsh speakers
themselves," Sandi continues. "I think it is what
Dafydd Iwan's message to them is all about, and what drove
me to learn Welsh. It is about pride, confidence, tolerance
and determination. I think there is a chance for Welsh because
nationalism is stronger than it used to be and its kind
of an in thing to learn the language. That phony
little in thing can't be discounted its
amazing how good it is for the ego when what you are is the
in thing to be! But I think the threat from incomers
is very real too. Everything I hear and read, from Golwg to
messages from my editor at Y Lolfa, says that things are very
black for the language in Welsh Wales these days. I believe
in learners they are who I wrote my book for
and it is up to us all to perpetuate the desire to learn the
language so that Welsh can live."
Speak Welsh by Sandi Thomas is out now on Y Lolfa.
Interview by Suw Charman