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?

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Awakenings

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

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.

A Sense of Achievement

Towards the end of the year, many people, like myself, reflect on the year that is drawing to it’s close. Often a question asked is what has been achieved?

Conducting this reflection myself I feel I have made substantial progress on the projects I set myself in three areas.

Firstly I had the aim to learn to speak Welsh properly. Whilst I am still a long way off fluency I have passed many milestones and have some competency of the language and feel it is a part of me now.

Secondly, I wanted to make progress in learning and practicing social skills, now that i had overcome anxiety, again i feel I have made substantial progress.

The third thing, was trying to understand why people support right-wing ideas. Whilst a somewhat vague aim, I think I have progressed here too.

I do feel a sense of achievement, a warm fuzzy glow from the realisation that I have exceeded my own expectations. Really, perhaps the main reason why as animals we do things is simply to enjoy these positive feelings.

Another thing people do at the end of the year, is travel home or spend time with their families and do different things, such as watch live TV, which I no longer normally do.

On the telly recently I watched a really interesting documentary about the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. This tribe live in the rainforests of Ecuador, living a basic existence by Western standards. One of the striking things was that the people generally seemed happier than people in Western countries. I wondered what it was that made life somehow better there. Indeed, I experienced this myself when I lived for 3 months in a camp in the forests of Madagascar, a time I was much happier than at home. I think the reason is a lot more than simply living more naturally in some wonderful forest.

It is perhaps to do with this sense of achievement. As humans we essentially do two types of thing. One type of thing is what we have to do to survive (secure food, water and shelter) and things we can do once the survival stuff is done. The non-essential things may involve home improvements, finding way of making our work easier and more efficient and other projects to feel good about being alive, to achieve this sense of achievement, sometimes this sense is heightened when what we have achieved has no effect on surviving, it is done for the pure thrill of doing it.

This men of this Woarani tribe have a ritual where they go out and catch Giant Anacondas. I can understand this, as I loved catching snakes, whilst I was in Madagascar. In the film, the men and indeed the presenter were clearly showing that they felt this sense of achievement. The question then is there a difference in the Woarani experience and Western society?

For the forest tribe, it is clear, where the lines between surviving, improving and fun are, even if many of the things they do combine these elements. It’s the same thing here in Wales, we do a similar mixture of activities, however the lines are not so clear. For example, we play computer games and gain a sense of achievement for finishing a level. Indeed games are designed to give you this sense of achievement. However, at Christmas, a family tradition is to play board games. Arguably this is more fun because it involves the social interactions with other people and in particular people you share long term relationships with.

I know from my experiences in Madagascar that a large part of my own sense of achievement sprang from living in a sealed community of a small number people, where almost all our social interactions were with each other. We were living and working together, suffering problems together, like a tropical monsoon and the river flooding and also sharing our successes. We were emotionally in the same place, most of the time. I imagine life for the Waorani is similar to this. The positivity of the shared success was bolstered because we believed that we were doing something useful. Even though some other people would argue that what we were doing wasn’t useful. The important thing is that we believed in it.

When we play a video game, or go shopping, we do enjoy some sense of achievement. However, this is often not a huge sense as we kind of know that we are not doing anything that benefits anyone else, or indeed ourselves very much. Incidentally, we perhaps enjoy Christmas shopping more as we are doing it for the people we are buying presents for. We don’t really have this big sense of having achieved anything really useful. I believe that doing something useful is a very important part of doing things in general.

I feel a sense of achievement in learning Welsh, not only as a personal accomplishment, but also because I can now contribute to the Welsh speaking community. Similarly with overcoming anxiety, I can now be more helpful to others. Also the same with understanding the right, I feel I can contribute to discussions more usefully when discussing politics. Simply having this sense of usefulness beyond a personal satisfaction is what makes  the sense of achievement feel so much bigger, so much wider.

I often write on this blog about how as a society in Britain, we are not doing well because there is a sense that all our achievements are artificial. It’s a modern curse really,there is rarely a clear link between what we do and a positive outcome. Perhaps too many of our achievements are not useful, not large, not important and this is part of the problem in our society.

The other big change that happened to me this year was taking on what people describe as my first “proper” job. It has been a really fascinating journey so far. I’ve made decisions in my role that have increased the income of the organisation that I work for. It is an organisation that I believe is doing useful things. So I should feel a big sense of achievement. However I only feel the smaller sense, like in a video game, where I receive satisfaction of getting tasks done quickly and finding more efficient ways of doing things. There is a sense that what i do isn’t real, isn’t palpable. I’m not doing my own projects, I’m doing someone elses and I am but a tiny cog in the organisation. I think this disconnect, where the good things resulting from your actions are felt distantly, elsewhere. This sense of an alienation from results affects most modern jobs, especially in offices. In contrast, when i have been doing science and solve a problem or get real results from an experiment i got the big proper sense of achievement. Whilst I am grateful to have a job and be earning a little money above basic need, I feel I should really be getting back to science as soon as I can, even if that means a smaller income.

I think we all want to have moments of feeling a real sense of achievement and it is often better to do those things within our community, with people we interrelate with and share a commonality.

So, this is what I don’t get about, the right and the whole Brexit thing. Across the spectrum of mainstream political thought, is the idea, that most of us relate to, is the idea that we should all contribute to our community, our society. In particular those with more resources should help those who are less able. Like how in the Woarani tribe, when the young men go out to hunt and the old stay in the village to look after the children, similarly we should all have roles in our communities. The right-wing idea that the market, or individual people and organisations should fulfill these roles, by creating wealth, that is then spent charitably, rather than the state is completely understandable, it is one way of getting to this good society that the Western world has struggled to achieve. However, the modern political right in the UK have abandoned the whole community idea, instead to serve a subset of society, or people like ‘us’, people who are conservatives. I just don’t get this and it makes me angry, it’s just so divisive and pits sections of our society against each other, when we should all be working for the good of our communities. I don’t understand why right wing people are not more angry with ‘their’ politicians for dividing society. How can you gain a sense of achievement from making things worse, it’s below the neutrality of a video game, it should be guilt. It is simply harder to gain a full sense of achievement when all you are doing is making a worsening situation just that little bit less bad.

I appreciate that we don’t live in local communities anymore, that we live in our various globally connected niches. However, local communities, where at least geography is shared is so important. It’s why I associate with the Welsh, simply as the people who live in Wales, rather than some weird racial/ religious identity. I think as humanity, we lose a sense of community at our peril. A sense of achievement is greater than hatred of another lot of people.