I was born and bred in England and the only Welsh ancestors I have are quite far back in my mum’s family. But I’ve always loved visiting Wales and am a huge fan of Welsh-language bands such as Super Furry Animals and Datblygu. Languages are kind of my thing: I taught English as a foreign language for nine years, and then worked on language-teaching materials for Oxford University Press for another 14, becoming a Managing Editor with responsibility for developing multi-component courses for Italian secondary schools. I’d often wondered while listening to those bands how Welsh worked and whether it had any similarities to any other languages I had studied previously (Italian, Japanese, Latin, French, German). As I was living in Oxford, I did not have easy access to Welsh evening classes or first-language speakers as I might have done in Wales itself, but while browsing online one day, I came across SaySomethinginWelsh and their online audio Welsh course.
Their basic course was free so I downloaded the first MP3, more out of curiosity than anything else. The rest is history. After a couple more lessons, I was completely hooked. I did their lessons every day – with one earphone in while cycling to work while washing up or waiting for a bus, in the car while driving somewhere – and I fell in love with this wonderful language. And it worked: the vocabulary and structures were sticking and despite having no other input at first, I was really learning Welsh.
The way that SaySomethinginWelsh work is that they constantly remind you in the lessons of how far you’ve come already and just how much you’re managing to understand and say. This is enormously empowering: they really transmit an infectious enthusiasm for speaking Welsh and help make you feel that you can just go ahead and try to use what you’ve learnt, rather than worrying about whether you’ve got every last mutation or grammatical structure 100% right. As a language teacher myself, I must confess that I think a lot of traditional language classes and learning materials focus so much on accuracy that learners end up paralysed and fearful of speaking in case they make a mistake – and having now experienced Welsh language classes in Wales, if the Welsh Government is serious about achieving one million Welsh speakers, I think there’s a LOT to learn from SaySomethinginWelsh’s friendly, enthusiastic reinforcement and ‘just get out there in the wild and go for it!’ approach.
Not only the lessons are great in the SaySomethinginWelsh world: but they also have the most incredibly supportive online community. Whether through their own forum or their Facebook page (and probably other platforms I don’t personally use!), it was really easy to connect to other speakers and learners and try a little bit of Welsh in what I knew would be a safe environment – they have a strictly enforced policy to support and encourage rather than point out mistakes. Though still in Oxford and with no Welsh-speaking friends in the area, through SSiW I managed to find another learner who lived nearby.
We started practising together and soon decided to brave an SSiW Bootcamp – no press-ups required, thank goodness, just 24/7 Welsh and no English allowed, even to ask how to say something. Rather than it being hard work and a struggle as I’d expected, the week on that Bootcamp in Tresaith is genuinely one of the happiest and most fun I’ve ever had in my life – I have never ever laughed so much, and I finished the week knowing that, while I was obviously still making lots of mistakes and there was a lot of vocabulary still to learn, I was a Welsh speaker, not just someone who had managed to learn a little bit of Cymraeg. I also came out of it with several friends for life, and for that, I will always be grateful!
Due to the enormously positive experiences that SSiW gave me, both following the audio course and meeting and making friends through Welsh, I found that I was more and more interested in Welsh history and culture and that most of my happiest times were those spent in Wales, in Welsh. I started dreaming of one day living in Wales, getting to use my Welsh every day, and immersing myself in Welsh-language culture. Eventually, the opportunity came, and my SSiW experiences had given me the confidence to do my job interview with publisher Y Lolfa in Welsh. I now head up their English-language publishing and think it would have been impossible for me to find a company whose mission I could get behind more wholeheartedly: to promote Wales, Welsh culture and the Welsh language.
All the books I work on are about Wales, its history, its culture, its landscape and its people, and it’s wonderful to feel that I’m now helping to promote those to people in Wales and beyond. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have a job I love so much. And all communication with my colleagues and any Welsh-speaking authors is done yn Gymraeg, which is the cherry on the cake.
Having now been in Wales for six years, I know I wasn’t born here but I really do feel more Welsh than English at this point (I would never support England over Wales in anything now, be it sport, politics or anything else!). I love Wales with all my heart and feel I’ve finally found where I should be. And that is ALL thanks to SaySomethinginWelsh and their enthusiasm, encouragement and the love for Wales and its language that they promote. I will never be able to thank them enough.