Ignorance of Welsh

Anwybodaeth – Ignorance

Well, here’s a new word for the day, always an exciting moment for the language learner. We can see ‘gwybod- to know’ hiding away inside anwybodaeth, which in itself is a rather wonderful concept.

As a Welshman, I often have to tolerate ignorance of the language, not just knowledge of the language itself, but ignorance towards it.

I grew up as a non-Welsh speaker, in a part of Wales where speakers of the language were few and far between. The only Welsh speaker I knew personally was my great-uncle and he lived in Surrey, England. At school, we made jokes about the Welsh teachers and this funny little language they tried unsuccessfully to teach us. At high school we even had classmates whose parents took them out of Welsh classes as it was a ‘dead language’. Yet, growing up in Wales most of us held a sense of being supportive and respectful of the language, despite the jokes we made about it.

As we grew older, we slowly began to realise how odd, how unusual it is to be in a country with a minority language, where it is one of many other minority languages such as Hindi, Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or Spanish, but where that minority language is the native language of the country, a language much older than the concept of the nation of Wales. The non-Welsh speaking Welsh, as I once was, have this strange relationship with the language. We put up with the hassle of bilingual information as we feel a sense of guilt about not speaking Welsh, or a sense of anger perhaps that our family lost use of the language in only recent generations, or that our English ancestors played a hand in trying to suppress it. Whilst feeling supportive of the language, we are always aware that the Welsh-Welsh, as we called them, who seemed were much more passionate about the language than we were, I used to often hear ‘oh she’s very Welsh she is’ this being in Wales! Also, we felt a little bit scared of learning the language, for fear we would turn into some rabid nationalist, ever cursing the oppression of the English.

I believe everyone in Wales knows that learning Cymraeg,  the language of Wales is a political act. Really, if it wasn’t such a political act I feel fewer people would be put off learning it. Yet, we all boisterously sing the national anthem ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau’ and in particular ‘O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau – Long may the old language continue’

And then I decided to learn Welsh and things changed. The change being that instead of supporting this facet of Welsh life, I became part of it. There is this strange moment in learning a language, where it ceases to be simply an academic exercise and you accept the language fully into you. Even though I am far from fluent and attempting to write this essay in Welsh would require huge amounts of effort and result in hundreds more mistakes, I now feel as though I am a member of the Welsh speaking community. It’s not that I feel any more or less ‘Welsh’, rather that I simply have an extra dimension of Welshness, a new language to be Welsh, or English (which is lots of fun), or indeed anything else  in.

As I am a Welsh speaker, it is obvious to me that it is a living breathing language, that I always now have a choice, to use Welsh or English, or even any other language I become passably proficient in. It’s this choice, that seems to be the root cause of all the language politics. Welsh is still a minority language, and us Welsh people, being a generally polite bunch, don’t like speaking when there are people present who can’t understand what we are saying. I lived in a town with numerous Welsh speakers, and they never uttered a word of Welsh to me, until that is I started speaking to them in Welsh. However, people have come to realise that if we only speak Welsh with other Welsh speakers, then the language will die, it will cease to be a living language. Is it really fair that Welsh should die, just because it has lived peacefully alongside what became the worlds lingua-franca (English) for it’s entire life? where is English’s respect for it’s elders? Really what is so difficult about saying:

‘Mae’n ddrwg gen i, dw i ddim yn siarad cymraeg’ well you might struggle with that, but probably not if you went to school in Wales,  so how about:  ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Welsh’. No-one will bite your ears off for saying this, even at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol, whenever someone starts a conversation in Welsh with you.

No, it isn’t the most wonderful experience to be somewhere surrounded by people speaking another language, we’ve all been there at some point. Usually we just go ‘well I am in the middle of Africa, i shouldn’t really expect everyone to speak English’, so why don’t people think this in deepest darkest Wales? You do have theluxury of still being able to communicate in English, which isn’t always the case in Africa and you can always learn the language if you want to join in the fun. It’s optional, no-one is actually forcing anyone to speak this language, but it is a living language, so the option to speak,  read signs or whatever in Welsh should always be there for those that do speak.

I can almost hear the usual critiques wailing ‘but why should children be ‘forced’ to learn Welsh at school’, yet these people generally have no problem with teaching children to read, do sums, learn about science, or history, or Finnish literature,well that’s usually only an option, unless you happen to be in Finland. This is the point, no-one in Finland says ‘why should my child have to learn about Finnish literature, they can read in English! So, really, why should it be any different in Wales?

And then people go on about the money it costs to produce material in two languages. It doesn’t cost that much and I’ll wager there are at least a hundred things the government waste much more money on than supporting a native language. Welsh is valuable anyway, it is not until you can speak more than one language that you realise how restrictive, how bias any individual language is.

This is the thing, you more you learn about Welsh, or really any other subject, the more you encounter ignorant views about it. Why isn’t there more awareness about ignorance. Why do we now seem to live in a world where a view is equally valid from someone with no knowledge of the subject? I rarely hear news about life in say, Laos. If I hear some news from Laos, I may well have an opinion about it, but I wouldn’t dream of thinking that my ill informed view is as important as the opinion of a Laotian about it. Yet why do some people seem to think opinions about Welsh are valid without an understanding of Welsh. Yes, outside opinion is often useful, but decisions should be made with the best available evidence and that surely has to involve the Welsh speaking community.

The thing is, now that Welsh is a part of me, I am now more protective about the language. Any attack on the language feels like an attack on me and all the other Welsh speakers. It is so easy to forget that in becoming a member of something, you can forget , or become ignorant of what it like to be ignorant of it. Nothing is wrong about someone in England making jokes about Welsh, to them it is just this funny little language they may have heard on a summer holiday in Wales. After all that is what is was to me when I was young and ignorant of the language.

We should respect and tolerate ignorance, no-one can know everything but no-one should try and ascribe equal value to views based on ignorance.