Language Personality

One of the most fascinating things about learning a second language is the phenomenon of seeming to have a different personality in a second language. I do feel a different person when I’m using Welsh and I know other learners who experience a similar thing.

There are many possible explanations for this phenomena. Firstly there is the possibility of the language structure being different, that things are expressed differently in other languages, so this may have some bearing on feeling different, that perhaps languages themselves have different personalities. Indeed we often talk about how people from different countries in general have national personality traits and a part of this may be due to the native language.

However, I feel that other forces may be at work, related to the process of language learning as an adult. Learning to use a second language is not just learning the language itself, it is a re-working of social skills. The language learner is thrust into communicating with a considerable lack of vocabulary and an ignorance of the many nuances of fluent speakers. So, these basic skills have to be re-learnt, explored again. It is like being a child again, having the freedom to experiment, to find what works and what doesn’t. It is just an awful lot of fun, without the feeling of having to demonstrate competence, to conform to sets of rules and be a lot more free. The language learner, whilst nervous about speaking in their new language also relishes opportunities to practise communication in the new language and a part of that is learning through experimentation.

So, in a sense, in the new language as people we are largely letting go of our systems, of our social rules, there is a sense that we can be who we really want to be. We no longer have to act a role, or rely on acting as ourselves and can be more just ourselves. We can allow facets of our personality that are suppressed in our native tongue to flourish and be played with again. Learning allows us the chance to play.

Someone said to me recently that they are an introvert in English, yet in Welsh they feel like an extrovert. I get this, I too, feel more like an extrovert in Welsh. The question is how much is this a product of wanting the practice in the language and to speak to lots of different people that otherwise I would perhaps be less inclined to chat with, that we are more happy about being sociable with people for extended periods to live in the language, rather than in ourselves. We are not yet capable of being fully ourselves in the new language, as we lack enough experience of expressing all our everyday thoughts and feelings, so as we explore the language we also explore ourselves. It’s like we have to re-build our personality for the new language. So, perhaps we wish to play at being an extrovert.

It is very much like being a child again. We desire expressing ourselves. Indeed we want to talk about our joy in simple pleasures, even if it’s just doing an everyday thing like buying somethign in a shop in the second language. Doing anything for the first time is always a thrill, which becomes more routine and everyday when doing things for the umpteenth time. So learning a second language gives us a huge number of opportunities to do things for the first time. I recently got drunk for the first time in Welsh and it joyful to make myself understood without feeling obliged to speak in proper sentences, to make more jokes and laugh, an experience akin to when I got drunk for the very first time.

So, the question is whether the increased extroversion is simply a product of seeking social experiences in Welsh, whether it’s a more fundamental desire to be more of an extrovert or do we simply have different personalities in different languages. It is such a fascinating question. I now have friends whom I have never or rarely speak in English with and I don’t really know if we would have exactly the same relationship in English.

Please comment below if you have any thoughts on this as I would be really interested to know. I would be especially interested in hearing from bilingual people in other languages; does using a different language change how you behave?

Fear of Welsh

A lot of people are afraid of the Welsh language. I think that there are a lot of complex reasons for this rather odd fear.

I have just done a whole week in the Welsh language, doing everything in the language, living in a house with fellow Welsh learners under the guidance of our tutor. I remember feeling somewhat scared about the prospect of only speaking in Welsh for a whole week as we sat around the dining room table preparing not to use English.  I was nervous of losing the comfort blanket of my first language for a whole week.

Yet, it was an enormous amount of fun. Perhaps the most important aspect of the no other languages rule for the week was not being able to ask: “What is the word for X in Welsh/ Beth ydy’r gair am X yn Cymraeg?”, not being able to use a dictionary and having to rely on finding ways to describe things with my limited Welsh vocabulary or simply using gestures. This also meant not being able to use the internet for a whole week.

The result of this single rule was to live in the Welsh language, to think in the Welsh language, to enter an entirely different world really. Instead of simply looking for the equivalent English word or expression, I  lived in Welsh, enabling a close personal relationship with the language. It was a very special and unique experience. Indeed it is one most Welsh speakers never experience, as Welsh speakers always encounter someone who can’t speak Welsh in any given week, or simply use an English word for somethign they don’t know how to express in Welsh.

It was very very mentally tiring not being able to use the vast amount of understanding of the English language I have acquired. English almost became a ‘foreign’ language, which meant that sometimes when walking in the street and overhear someone speaking English, it would sound odd and garbled as I was indeed thinking and being in Welsh.

There were a couple of occasions during the week when I would encounter fear of Welsh from English speakers. The first time was when as a group we were laughing and joking  about a Welsh sign. A man approached and asked ‘Are you lost?’ As we couldn;t speak English someone said ‘Dan ni’n iawn diolch [We’re fine thanks]’ and smiled. A smile is almost universal and I’m sure he understood that we needed no help, however he persisted ‘I don’t speak Welsh’. I made an apologetic face ‘Dan ni’n iawn, diolch, rhaid i ni siarad yn Gymraeg yn unig [We have to only speak in Welsh]’. Suddenly he raised his voice ‘ I said that I don’t speak Welsh, you are being very rude’. At which point our tutor, who was allowed to speak English, intervened to try and explain this unique circumstance and an argument proceeded. The thing is this is a fairly unique aspect of Wales and the Welsh language , in that almost every Welsh speaker can speak English too and many monoglot English speakers are troubled by the Welsh language as this man obviously was, he felt threatened by it, that he has encountered a rare situation where he was unable to communicate. The thing is in most of the rest of the world this doesn’t happen, you cannot assume a knowledge of English you encounter people who don’t speak English and you do communicate with gesture and tone of voice and broad feelings are communicated. Having said that there are Welsh speakers who don’t speak English, in Patagonia in South America, a bilingual Welsh-Spanish speaking community and indeed a few Welsh learners from non-English speaking countries. The man had an negative attitude to the Welsh language and was hostile towards it.

I experienced this again after the language immersion experience. For the first day after, i stayed predominantly in Welsh. I visited a local castle and asked for my ticket in Welsh, quite naturally, The lady at the counter responded ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ at which point i reverted to using English and asked politely for a ticket in English, however she shied back from the counter and another lady took over my transaction. Another encounter with fear of the language.

Of course as a learner of Welsh I regularly experience language fear when talking to strangers, particularly first language Welsh speakers, especially when you don’t know their attitude to a Welsh learner. It’s partly a fear of being judged on your ability and risk of appearing to be a simpleton, which in effect you are at the time, and this is coupled with all the incessant language politics we suffer on a daily basis in Wales. My week in Welsh, has helped me grow my confidence in Welsh so much, being in Welsh I don’t have the cloying memories of anxiety I experience in English. It’s like I have a different version of my personality in the Welsh language.

As English speakers, we are just incredibly lucky to be able to travel in so much of the world in our first language, so many British people, never learn another language, never placing themselves in a situation where they have to learn to use another language to communicate. I think that some of these people simply find it threatening when people use non-English languages in Britain, the phrase ‘Why don’t they speak English’ is often heard in the certain circles in English society, lobbied at the Welsh speaking community and other language communities. However, an I have learnt that being able to exist in another language is a truly wonderful experience. As a Welsh speaker, sometimes I want to experience the world in Welsh and sometimes in English. Hiding within only one language and being hostile or fearful of other languages is just a very odd desire, to want everyone else to be as similar to you as possible. As learners we now our fearful feelings are somethign to get over to leave behind, non language learners ar perhaps not ready to take a risk in a new situation and wish to remain fearful?



Waking up to a new day, a new start, a whole day of possibilities is a very wonderful thing. However, it often doesn’t feel like it, often we are worried about all sorts of things or just feel like we can’t face it this morning. So, when we go to bed there is a sense of not knowing what things will be like in the morning. For those who suffer from anxiety or depression this sense of the unknown is not a neutral thing, it grinds us down with excessive worrying.

Waking up in a broader figurative sense, with a full realisation that much of your own worries are unnecessary, turns those rare happy bouncy days into somethign more regular, more likely. When there is a bad day, there is a real reason for it, such as bad news. This is what waking up from or recovering from anxiety is like, the troubles come from the world rather than from inside ourselves.

Perhaps the greatest thing about not being anxious anymore is being able to feel with other people, to be on the same track as other people some of the time, to share success together or even endure bad times together on the same emotional wavelength. This enables a real sense of connection with other people, enabling you to be open with people and it not to be terribly inappropriate and enabling you to empathise with what others are communicating to you.

To be anxious is to be living with a big shield around you, it’s stops people getting in and stops you getting out. It’s a pointless shield, cutting yourself off from your own emotions and those of people you care about. Of course you need to protect yourself from chaos, but some trust in the world and other people is necessary, you have to go an journey and trust that it will be all-right, that there aren’t monsters lurking around the corner. I think that in the modern world to increase trust in the world at the very time the world is becoming less trustworthy as our sense of community is under attack

This is what recovery from anxiety gives you. The first flush of super positivity and energy from getting there is amazing. Once you get used to it you realise some quite important things.

Firstly that modern society has got it so wrong, we are all increasingly living in our own worlds, we are not communities that bond together and share the ups and downs, we are on our own rides, much like the person suffering anxiety or depression.

Secondly, a sense that we post-anxiety people are always going to be on this different ride, simply because all those years we have suffered anxiety and cut ourselves off from the world we have learned social skills in a much different way to other people. We have learnt social rules in an academic way, through trial and error, to find ways of getting by and causing the least damage to ourselves and to other people. Whereas the non-anxious learn more ‘naturally’ with their feelings bouncing off others feelings and finding what works well, rather than what limits damage.

The difficulty with getting older is that we have more responsibilities and less time to play, less time to learn, so there is a sense of knowing that we will never really catch up with these abilities, the shadow of anxiety will always remain with us. This is compounded by the fact that other people do find it odd that as a more mature person you are acting like someone much younger and you just have to blot that out to keep learning and not drift back to anxiety.

It’s unlike learning a second language, where you can put the time and effort in to catch up on the language skills. Yet, second language learners know they will never quite gain that true fluency that comes from learning a first language. It’s like second language speakers miss out on being a child in that second language. Even though we can play like a child in the language we will never be children in the language. I think it’s a different thing with learning Welsh and being Welsh because many of us are learning a language that we wish we had been brought up in, rather than learning a foreign language to better explore a different culture somewhere else in the world. There is a sense of it being bizarre to learn a ‘native’ language later in life. Yet it isn’t!

It isn’t because it’s the same thing as overcoming anxiety, it’s learning a set of skills that we should have learnt when we were much younger. But, you can’t be young again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn and make your own life better.

Anyway, I’m off to live in a closed community for a week, an immersion week of Welsh only, no English, no other languages, just Welsh, kind of trying to experience growing up in Welsh! I’m really looking forward to it, it’s such a rare thing outside of families and when grown up and so very special.

Oh, and the UK is suddenly having a General Election. I have so much to say about that. It seems to be about a battle for Britain and those of us who feel a part of Britain, whether Welsh, Scots, Cornish, Northumbrian or even just English, of those for Britain and those against. Those who seek to divide and those who seek unity. Those against Britain are miles ahead in the polls, it’s very disturbing, so I feel that I should do whatever I can for the dear people of these isles. Anyway, but that’ll be for when I’m back here at this keyboard and knocking on people’s doors. If you are in the UK and thinking about voting Tory or UKIP, please please please please think very hard about whether that choice is really the best for Britain.

Hwyl fawr tan tro nesaf / Goodbye until next time

The Art of Language

The study of language has always been lumped together with the arts as an academic discipline. However it is only today that I have really connected how language, specifically learning a second language is really what art is all about.

We don’t learn a second language in order to communicate or to get by in another language; though sometimes this is why people learn a language as adults. We learn a second language to discover new ways of communicating. We learn how to express thoughts and ideas in a different way and when we receive thoughts and ideas through another language those ideas are quite different.

Essentially these new avenues of expression are the function of art, to express things in ways that are outside of our everyday language, so we can see and hear things in new interesting and enjoyable ways.

Probably the closest art form to language learning is poetry. Most languages have rich poetic traditions, because everyday words are combined in new ways to express different thoughts. This is exactly what we do when using a second language. It’s like we have instant access to art by trying to express the same thought in a second language, we instantly have a subtly different version of the initial thought that can be in itself thought provoking by making us view that thought in a different way.

Everything is somehow a different world in a second language and there is of course new realms of art of writing and music to explore in that language as a speaker of that language. Strangely this art argument for learning new languages seems to be seldom used to promote language learning. It is reason enough to learn  as a bonus to being able to understand more people in their native tongue.

The differences between language learning and the other arts is that use of the second language is not usually done with the intent of producing or appreciating art. There are no great works of language learning, the process is too messy to ever be considered great art. However for the individual learner this process is very much like the mental processes involved in absorbing ideas from great pieces of art.

My first day on the Maes

Having spent six months or so learning to speak Welsh, I was keen to go to this years National Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod is essentially a celebration of the Welsh language and culture. It’s primary purpose is for artists to perform in competition in front of a panel of judges. In many ways it is much like any other outdoor festival, there are various stages and venues hosting a wide variety of events: music, literature and Welsh culture. So, the usual lots of fun in a muddy field, portable toilets, food and drink stalls and other commercial stands promoting their wares.

It was an amazing day out and is just very Welsh. Welsh celebrities are everywhere and are approachable and happy to talk to people. Indeed the main point of the festival, like any other festival is to chat to people and enjoy yourself. Having learnt just about enough Welsh to be able to converse in Welsh, it was even more fun to be part of this language theme park.

I enjoyed a political discussion, listened to a storyteller, listened to bands perform, bumped into so many people I know and seen more harps in a day than I have ever seen in my life and went to a harp playing competition. As the Welsh language predominates, Welsh speakers are a culture of around 500,000 people + learners, so has a vibe of inclusivity and friendliness that I haven’t experienced at any other festival, you just feel welcomed by the huge ‘Croeso’ [Welcome] in large red friendly letters. I love the harp, I think it’s an astounding musical instrument and the performer who won the competition I sat through was simply overflowing with talent and musicality.

Anyway, I’ll keep this blog entry short, as I’m going back again tomorrow to meet up with a group of fellow Welsh learners. I’m on a positive vibe, away from the all the politics and Brexit nonsense for a change!

Science is Golden

Scientists are perhaps simply people who like to know how things work. I am a scientist and I do feel a compulsion to understand how everything works. The desire to take things apart, see how each component functions, then try to put it back together again making a single change to see what happens. Of course Scientists realise that as individuals they cannot understand everything, so scientists specialise into an areas they are interested in.

Scientists go out into the world like everyone else and are often somewhat startled to realise that not everyone is a scientist. Other people often become another subject themselves to try and work out how they work, usually is some empirical way. however as human society is too big and too complex a challenge, scientists realise that society is something they can only make some progress in understanding and never fully understand.

Generally, scientists are profoundly appreciative of artists and have a huge respect for people who can transcend the compulsion to understand how things work and simply create things based on partial understandings. To the scientist this seems to be how other people function. Instead of seeking the most accurate, rational explanation possible, most people seem to be more comfortable with things that are probably true, or simply use systems that work most of the time and seem to ignore the rare situations where the frailty of that system is exposed, or explore how that is interesting, rather than how it works.

The image of scientists as the geeky obsessive with poor social skills is actually fairly accurate in many cases. This is exemplified by such popular culture television series as ‘The Big Bang Theory’, where a group of scientists struggle to interact with the real world. The problem is that scientists use scientific methodologies to learn social skills, in a social world where there is such a diversity of people and changing social values that such any understanding of social rules ends up being based on very rough, but workable approximations. Actually to develop social skills more efficiently a non-scientific approach is required, which is what most scientists try to do.

This issue has been brought to my attention through learning a second language. It is possible to learn a language in a way familiar to academics; to study the workings of the grammar, learn vocabulary, make sentences with the system, then experiment. However, to actually use the language to speak with people, to read and listen, requires understanding of how the language works in context. Often language is illogical, in any language you can construct a sentence in a sensible way, only to find that such a structure is not used by speakers. I have found a more rapid language acquisition method is to learn through how words are used and build up from an evidence base, with repetition. What this means, practically is letting go of the desire to focus on the mechanics of the language and simply use sentences that are probably correct, then correct when their failure rate is high. It’s a shockingly bad use os statistical method, but it works practically as language isn’t really trying to mislead. It is important not to try too hard to make sense of the second language in terms of the first language. I can construct sentences in Welsh from English sentences, that are grammatically correct, but are not how the language really works. it’s the need as an adult learner, to through off the shackles of the English way of expressing things that is deeply ingrained.

I am spending a lot of time listening to Welsh language radio and television. It is frustrating not being able to completely understand what people are saying. when I switch off this rational scientific desire and just listen to what I can, I can pick up the gist of what is said, expand the process of fitting in new words from context and understand more each time, without spending too much time thinking about why it works that way.

Using a non-scientific method as a tool for acquiring the ability to speak a new language is justifiable, because it is known that there is a rational structure underneath, which can be explored later, once the new language is fully bedded into the memory. However, the world of human beings seems a world where so many things happen that are not based on how things really work, decisions are not made from a scientific enquiry. Often decisions are made on the idea of systems that work most of the time, being applied to all systems. the scientific mind screams about how wrong this is.

We live in a world where the media reports such things as ‘Science say this’, or ‘Scientists say that’. Science does no such thing, the media seem to ignore the fact that all science does is attempt to answer questions to the most rigorous way possible. The answers that science provides can only be understood in the specific context of the question asked, you cannot leap from a specific case to a universal rule.

The worst example of this is the political world. Now, to the scientist, politics presents an interesting realm, politics asks questions like ‘what is the best way of running an economy?’. So the scientist then begins to think about all the various factors and competing forces, it is a very big, complex and interesting question. However the politicians of today, don’t base their decisions on the results of such enquiries. Today the political world involves the spinning of media stories, appealing to particular emotions, crass universal applying of a specific principle to the whole economy. Rarely do politicians actually make rational reasoned decisions based on evidence to increase the efficiency of an economy. This causes scientists and other rational thinkers to despair and become angry, how can people be this,well, stupid. It is tempting to withdraw back to a world where discussions lead to evidence based conclusions, where things get settled.

It is one thing to ignore how things work to to achieve a goal, such as learning to drive a car without also learning how the engine works, or indeed learning a language, it’s another thing to ignore evidence and rational enquiry and base decisions on things that seem to work well in a specific context to the huge complex system of a global economy.






Speak my Language

It was perhaps a new years resolution, but this year I have made my mind up to learn a second language. I do want to learn a foreign language at some point, however I feel compelled to learn the language of my country first, Welsh. Perhaps because I have attempted to learn Welsh in the past and grown up in Wales, that I have some advantages in learning, so, after just a few weeks I feel as though I have made enormous progress.

The main reason I want to learn a second language is to broaden my thinking, away from the constraints of being a monoglot English speaker: Firstly because I often work with people whose use English as a second language, so having some experience of a second language myself, will help my communication skills and increase my awareness of how misunderstanding happen. Secondly, to be able to think in another language, to be able to express ideas in different ways. There is a third reason, I am a complete child who never really grew out of enjoying material aimed at children.  I have got to the point where watching children’s television programmes is useful, as I it also interesting to try and pick up a language in the way children do, for example use of songs and games to learn the colours, to describe the weather, the language used to instruct children in how to make artwork; all of which is very useful to a language learner too. So I watching a lot of the excellent children’s programming on S4C.

I’m using the ‘Say Something in Welsh’ course [Dweud rhwybeth yn Cymraeg!]. I have found this course to work really well for me, so I can heartily recommend it. I have tried various other courses in the past. The basis of the course is simple, a sentence is given in English, you then say it in Welsh before hearing it said by two Welsh speakers. What I like is that vocabulary is built up slowly, so you can concentrate on saying the phrases quickly, almost automatically, as a native speaker would. Other courses I have tried and studying Welsh in school focus too much on grammatical rules and building up grammar, before you have the basis of how to speak the language, which does seem the wrong way around. I have spent too much time trying to remember vocabulary, to the detriment of getting the patterns of phrases construction in my head.

I am now at the beginning of the stage where I have began ‘thinking in Welsh’ and understanding the literal or real meaning of words in the language itself, rather than simply translating, or constructing sentences using grammatical rules and remembered vocabulary. It feels like a massive breakthrough, to comprehend the idea that conceptually learning a language is not simply a case of finding exact equivalence of a phrase in another language. Such equivalence doesn’t exist, because different languages evolved in different ways. Commonly used words simply mean different things but can be used in a phrase to convey the same thought. So it is important at soem point to learn the literal or real meaning of a word in the language itself, here same language dictionaries, rather than translating ones come into their own.

What has helped me enormously in making this breakthrough is the language correction website ‘Lang-8‘. The concept of this site is that language learners post short pieces of writing in the language they are learning, then native speakers correct the language to how native speakers would phrase the sentence, correcting spelling and grammar along the way. Correcting the writing is lots of fun, I have found it to be quite addictive.It’s also incredibly useful to the people whose work is corrected, so you are doing a good deed, there is a real mutual benefit. Also it provides a forum for  communicating with people from around the world. Doing such corrections have helped me develop my ability to de-construct English, which helps with my learning of Welsh.

It is the realisation of the difficulties I and I’m sure most learners have, with prepositions. Prepositions such as: as, with, on, at, to, have, is, be, after, next etc. I have realised that the meaning of each preposition is different in each language. So, you should not even attempt to look for equivalence. for instance the word ‘have’ in English has so many different meanings and is used in many different circumstances, whilst Welsh doesn’t really have a word for ‘have’ in the English sense, rather Welsh has different ways of using all the different meanings for ‘have’. Really, as a native speaker I have a conceptualisation of a word such as ‘on’, but my use of ‘on’ is basically learnt from years of practice using yet. For example English speakers say: ‘The paper is on the table’, ‘the train is on time’ ‘the computer is switched on’ ‘I went for a walk on Wednesday’, the exact  meaning of ‘on’ in each sentence is different. It is this concept of non-equivalence is what i really didn’t understand, I wasn’t taught this at school, so it’s no wonder that people, such as myself, come out of British schools with poor language learning skills and have picked up habits that actually make learner a second language harder. You perhaps have to learn like children do, by learning to speak first, before reading and writing, so many language courses focus on reading and writing, before speaking or really understanding the basics of the language as they are used by speakers.