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Sandi Thomas - on the road to Cymru

It’s 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, it’s single monument oft forgotten. Nestled between the two, down on the beach, are the ruins of Edward I’s 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.

Spending a month studying Welsh in Aberystwyth, with it’s inspiring Welsh countryside and its ferment of Welsh culture, is many learner’s 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.
Sandi Thomas

In 1999, Sandi Thomas decided that she’d 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, it’s easy to see a Welsh connection - but it wasn’t her long-past Welsh heritage that inspired Sandi to start learning Welsh.

"My first 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 me."

Getting started 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! I’ve 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.

You Don't Speak Welsh, by Sandi Thomas Eventually she gave up teaching to write full time, concentrating first on ‘You Don’t 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 Don’t 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?’. It’s 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 it’s wonderful. I finally understand the future tense! I’m hoping that it will help me to prepare me for the Level 2 course."

Of course, keeping the momentum going when you’re 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 Don’t 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.

"But," 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 listen to?

"I actually 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.

"That said, 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 book’s name, was Sandi’s meeting with singer Dafydd Iwan at the Miri Madog music festival in Porthmadog. He was, as she notes in the book’s 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 don’t speak Welsh," he said, as Sandi’s 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 Dafydd’s 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 fluency.

"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?

"I've given 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 people’s perceptions of her ‘American-ness’ were a little disconcerting. How do her American-ness and increasing Welsh-ness meld together?

"I always 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 family’s 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."

It’s been said that Welshness is a state of mind, and has little to do with where you’re 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 is."

Some learners would say that they have been victim of prejudice against learners by native Welsh speakers who don’t 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 attitude?

"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 it’s 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 learners?

"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 it’s self-defeating for Welsh speakers to do this, because it only serves to intimidate and discourage people from trying to speak Welsh!

"In fact, 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. It’s easy enough to say ‘Want to be part of Wales? Well, learn our language’, but it’s 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?

"Saying that 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 wouldn’t be a gun problem in America. Sadly, it’s unlikely to ever happen because the monster is too large and out of control.

"I believe 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 it’s kind of an ‘in’ thing to learn the language. That phony little ‘in’ thing can't be discounted – it’s 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."

You Don’t Speak Welsh by Sandi Thomas is out now on Y Lolfa.
ISBN: 0862435854

Interview by Suw Charman


© suw charman 2002, 2003 unless otherwise stated

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