For 16 years I never heard one word of the Welsh language spoken aloud. That isn’t unusual for the majority of people in the UK. But for someone actually living in Wales you would think that strange in this day and age.
This was back in the 1990s, in the old county of Gwent where I grew up. Welsh language provision in education was in its infancy.
Then I joined the National Youth Theatre of Wales (NYTW) and found myself among fellow theatre-loving young people from across the whole country. We were doing two productions, one in English and the other in Welsh.
I vividly remember standing in the queue at lunch and hearing people speaking Welsh to each other at incredible speed. And I just felt so ignorant. I knew so little of what they were saying, unless they were counting, or talking about motorway services, or saying “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”. Which, unsurprisingly, they weren’t.
I have always been so proud of being Welsh, but suddenly I felt like an imposter in my own country. I tried so hard to pick up a few words from my new Welsh-speaking friends (including some useful swearwords, of course). When I returned to my school I campaigned to start up some Welsh learning there – but to no avail.
For the next three years my summers were spent back in the NYTW with such brilliant friends, one year even performing in a bilingual devised piece. In the mid-1990s I headed to England for college training and found myself settling where my work took me, which was in London theatre. All my dressing rooms were bedecked with a Welsh flag but opportunities to be around Welsh speakers were rare to non-existent.
By now the Welsh language was taught across all schools in Wales. Each time I went home I noticed road signs changing, and spoken Welsh becoming more prevalent in theatres and TV studios. Most importantly, I heard people speaking it together much more, even in what used to be Gwent. It has been amazing to watch all this happen.
Winding journey to Welsh
Yet still, away from all those developments, I spoke and heard no Welsh in my daily life, unless I watched S4C, which I often did. I saw a great show on that channel called Cariad@Iaith, on which friends of mine immersed themselves in the Welsh language for a week and came out speaking Welsh. It was amazing to see. I begged my agent to get me on it and thankfully they did.
Using the teaching method of Suggestopedia, myself and seven other Welsh actors, sportspeople, and presenters absorbed ourselves in Welsh for a week, doing tasks like working on a market stall, raft-building, and even falconry. By the end of the week I could actually speak a few non-sweary sentences in Welsh and came out the winner of the show that year. I was chuffed to bits and am not ashamed to say I was crying tears of pride!
But yet again, I returned to work in London and had nowhere and no way to keep up my learning. Then, as the mum of a toddler, I had very little free time anyway. However, I began teaching my child a few things in Welsh and bought some Welsh children’s books, including Ble Mae Smot? (a Welsh adaptation of the board book Where’s Spot?).
These were pretty much on my level, to be honest. “Ydy e yn y fasged? Nac ydy!” (“Is it in the basket? No.”). My Welsh speaking stalled again.
Never too late to learn
I decided this year to make learning Welsh my New Year’s resolution and, thanks to technology and the advent of Zoom’s popularity since the pandemic, I’ve discovered many new ways of learning at my disposal. The DuoLingo app is my go-to for everyday learning, and I occasionally get the chance to listen to the Say Something in Welsh course, which is both fantastic and terrifying. Unlike Duolingo, it offers you two ways to learn Welsh.
Did you know there are two major branches of Welsh, North and South? And five dialect areas? Now you do.
I’m a real visual learner so learning by ear is a challenge, but I’m persevering. I found out that Popeth Cymraeg now teach via Zoom so am going to enrol on one of their courses too. My aim is to be able to hold a conversation in Welsh by the end of the year.
Luckily, I’m not alone. I’ve found a number of Welsh showbiz friends who are doing the same thing. We have a group chat where we challenge each other to leave voice messages in Welsh every day. It’s great to have that network of support and, with different levels of learning, it encourages and inspires us to keep at it. We may even be brave enough to attend one of the courses at the London Welsh Centre together before too long.