online: 23 october 2002

22 hydref (october) 2002

dysgu Cymraeg
(learning Welsh)

22:12 Since 1989 I've been relearning and extending the little Welsh I learnt as a baby and as an infant. Now is the time to do something with it...

...butwhat I've learnt in these 13 years is only to speak Welsh in everyday conversations within a vocabulary of perhaps 1000 concrete words - I've resisted learning the grammar and abstract vocabulary of Welsh as it is written - so to my disappointment I cannot write this in Welsh now, though perhaps I could speak about half of it, clumsily, improvising word-forms like a foreigner and getting the tenses wrong...

But at least, in writing this half-apology for failure to become literate in the language my parents knew but didn't speak at home, I can write and speak something across that gap (between speaking Welsh and not being able to) that has turned many Welsh people into strangers in their own country.

In the 1930s it was not fashionable to speak Welsh in middle-class homes - though now it is. But my father insisted that I had a Welsh-speaking nursemaid, called Kitty, and from her and from him I seem to have learnt the pronunciation and the rhythm of the language, and a love of its sounds. And that is something wonderful to know and to possess - the gist, or bodily basis, of two languages.

I know very well that to write fluently in any language one needs tens of thousands of words and a well-practiced feeling for the look of it as well as for the sound. When I measured my vocabulary in English (by sampling dictionary pages and counting the % of words I knew on each) I found I knew the meaning of at least 25 000 words and probably used perhaps half of them in writing, and far fewer in speech. But when I tried the same experiment in Welsh I found that I spoke only hundreds and didn't have any measurable experience of writing in the language of paradise as I've once heard it called. And to have inhabited two such paradises, as a child, is most certainly a blessing, not only for each bilingual person but for everyone else - for that surely is a good step towards understanding the many others who speak in different tongues, and have therefore different brains and ways of perceiving..

I see that this could grow into a long writing, perhaps a book or its internet equivalent, but for the moment I'll stop just here - having made what I feel and hope is a tiny step, but for me a large one, between putting my little Welshness into contact with my large and long-practiced Englishness - and hoping that, out of their connection here, can come something interesting (diddorol) and something good (rhywbeth dda) ... a little purpose to my slow and as yet so fragmentary learning to speak Welsh (i ddysgu Cymraeg) or even to write it.

what's new


digital diary archive

© 2002 john chris jones

You may transmit this text to anyone for any non-commercial purpose if you include the copyright line and this notice and if you respect the copyright of quotations.

If you wish to reproduce any of this text commercially please send a copyright permission request to jcj at