Why SSiW exists

[Content by Aran]

I was brought up (in a bundle of different countries) without any Welsh. My mother had spoken only Welsh until she was about six, but the family had then left for England to look for work, shortly after the Second World War. She was beaten up repeatedly at her new school for not being able to speak English, so her parents decided to use only English at home, and she lost her Welsh. My grandparents never spoke Welsh to me - well, not more than a small handful of words that were just part of English as far as I was concerned - diolch, eistedd, ffenest, cau, agor, llus, nos da.

Because we moved so much (Wales, England, Germany, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Wales) I never had a real sense of belonging anywhere. I'm not even sure why I always considered myself Welsh - my father was English, after all - it was probably just that Nain always used to give us losins (sweets) when we visited, while Granny would (optimistically and almost always unsuccessfully) hide her supply of chocolates.

But when people used to ask me why I thought I was Welsh, since I wasn't born in Wales, didn't speak Welsh, and didn't live in Wales, I never knew what to say. I can remember some cracking fights at school where three or four bigger lads would try to get me to say I was English, which was just never going to happen, bloody nose or not!

Fast forward a bit - and my parents separated, and my mother moved home to her parents just outside Aberystwyth - and shortly afterwards, I got into the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. I even bought a Linguaphone course to learn Welsh, but it was a lot too much like hard work - so with my usual laziness plus a real fear of confronting the fact that I didn't speak Welsh, I left university with no more Welsh than I'd started it, and promptly went off to work in Zimbabwe and then Dubai for the rest of my 20s.

Starting to figure it out

I wised up, shook the sand off my feet and came home when I was 32 - new millennium and all that, and once you've seen one camel you've seen them all. I had a pay off from the school I worked in, had a broken heart that seemed much more serious at the time than it turned out to be, and was at a real loose end.

So, as you do, I did a four week intensive Wlpan course in Aberystwyth. At the end of which, I could sort of speak Welsh - so I immediately went off to stay with my brother, who lived in Essex. No, not the best way to practise my fledgling Welsh, you're right. Then to my surprise I found myself moving to Porthmadog, because something in me had decided that I really, seriously needed to get this language back.

I stopped using English then, pretty much. Carried on doing Wlpan classes, joined a choir, played lots of pool in Welsh, and then a year on from the first, did another four week intensive course in Aberystwyth - at the end of which, I really had to accept that I was a Welsh speaker, and that I didn't belong in classes any more, even if I could only understand about half of what my Welsh-speaking friends said.

Getting a bit worked up

It was about then that I joined Cymuned, the communities and housing and language pressure group. I'd heard Seimon Glyn talk at a Sgwrs and Stori session, and I just couldn't square the very open, friendly, passionate person he seemed to be with the monstrous, English-granny-eating racist monster the press and the Labour party were making him out to be.

Far from being frothing racists, the members of Cymuned I knew were all incredibly kind and patient and willing to help - it was obvious that they really valued my efforts to learn, and it was also increasingly obvious to me that if it hadn't been for people like them over the previous fifty years or so, the language probably wouldn't have still been alive for me to come home to.

And a homecoming it was - for the first time in my life, I had a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of personal identity that wasn't based on getting into fights with the big boys.

Welsh gave me a way to come home; and then it gave me work, at Gwynedd council, and then it really pulled the stops out and gave me a wife, and then it went a bit over the top and gave me children as well. It is no overstatement to say that learning Welsh has changed my life dramatically - and I will never be able to give enough thanks to the huge number of passionate, proud Welsh speakers who made all those wonderful things possible for me - who made it possible for me to find a life that is so full to the brim of happiness and value and belonging that I still find it quite hard to believe.

Pay-back time

Ever since I joined Cymuned, I have become more and more determined to give something back - to give a practical, valuable thanks to all the people who kept this other Wales, this Cymru, alive. My volunteering with Cymuned was and remains part of that.

But then, as you can read on the link to Catrin's post way back up there at the top, three or four years ago several factors came together - a life spent dabbling in languages, the shock of discovering that I had actually become a Welsh speaker, that it was actually possible, the work I was doing with the internet and my interest in ways of sharing online, and the overwhelming desire to give something back - and I started trying to write the lessons that would become SaySomethinginWelsh.

Where I hope we can go next

I hoped that an mp3 course would be easier for people to stick with than a classroom course - I'd seen so many people drop out of those. I also hoped that what I thought I'd learned about language learning would help people start speaking Welsh faster than traditional courses. And I hoped that a free course would take away any excuse for people who moved to Welsh speaking communities not to learn the language.

I hoped it would make a difference; that it would contribute something to the dream of building a real, genuine, successful future for this utterly precious language.

But now, because of you, I'm having to re-assess my hopes.

Because of you, SSiW has already done all those things. 

Now I believe something bigger.

I believe that you, the SSiW community, can and will change the entire game. I believe that you will help create an entirely new dynamic for the future of the language. I believe that you will translate it into dozens of different languages so that more people than anyone would have though possible all round the world will learn Welsh. I believe that will lead to a transformation in the Welsh tourism industry. I believe that you will start and run groups and meetups and make it easy and fun for anyone who wants to become a Welsh speaker, anywhere in the world, to do just that. I believe that all the people learning Welsh through different languages will make it suddenly real and fun to speak Welsh - because huge numbers of them won't be able to speak English, so if you Skype them, you won't have the age-old temptation of slipping back into English! I believe that increasing numbers of you will move to Welsh speaking communities, and will create your own Welsh speaking communities in parts of Wales where the language hasn't been heard on the streets in a hundred years - and in parts of the world where it has never been heard on the streets.

And, above all this, I believe that you will do things to promote the language, and to make it easier and more fun to learn, that I can not even begin to imagine as I sit here typing this.


Because there are thousands of you. And because it matters to you. 

Because you're on the same journey I'm on, and I know what a giddy, staggering, colourful, startling, creative and life-changing experience that journey is.


Catrin's history of SSiW

Well as far as I can remember it...

Back in oooooh errrrm 2007/08 (correct me if I'm wrong Mr Jones), Aran, inspired by his experiences learning Spanish and constantly enthused by his passion for other languages and the acquisition of languages and to an extent his entrepreneurial 'leaning', hit on the idea of writing a speaking and listening language course.

I remember endless conversations about the whys and wherefores, the logistics, the construction, possible success and so on and the big decision of whether it would be worth putting the time and effort in to it.

Would people be interested? Did he have the ability to write an effective enough course that would really work and that people would not only find interesting but also easily learn a language from?

Having learnt Welsh himself he knew what it felt like to be a Welsh learner and knew what was currently availabe in the field of Welsh learning. 

I was excited about the idea and I must have said over and over "Aran, of all the ideas you've had, I think this is the best so go for it!" "Oh and although I know it means endless hours by the computer, buy me wine, chocolate and a soppy DVD and you'll be forgiven" (wasn't 'yet' pregnant then, so could get away with the wine...).

Aran would answer "What do you mean 'of all the ideas i've had?!?" 

Anyway he began writing the course and by the time we came to record it Angharad Lliar was on her way!

At the time we were living with my sister and begun recording in Aran's makeshift office there on his PC. It was a bit hit and miss as we had to experiment with different mikes and recording software and then of course there were 7 dogs, several cockerels, a cat, the weather and a very busy household to contend with. 

So most of the first recordings had to be done over and over because of poor sound quality. 

We then had a few dramas with missing files and things being accidentaly deleted! It also took us a while to get the voices just right as far as tone, speed and delivery was concerned.

Aran used to pull my leg and tell me I was saying it as if I was reading in church because I had a problem with relaxing to begin with and spoke way too formally.

Well in time after a difficult and stop-start time trying to record at my sisters a family friend told us they had a recording studio we could use, we were of course delighted and jumped at the chance! 

By this time, I was heavily pregnant and a little uncomfortable and was at risk of DVT so sitting anywhere for a long time was difficult.

Well we turned up at the studios only to discover that they were in an old draughty outbulding which had been flooded at some point in the past and suffered badly from damp! Also the software and technical set up was a bit hit and miss!

So this is how we used to do it... We woudl turn up with our own radiator and sometimes a blanket; sandwiches and drinks (cause it was always a long haul); some form of heartburn relief for me; cushions, air freshner to relieve the damp smell; the course contents on paper; stroage devices for the recordings and much hope!

The recording was interesting! Depending on how tempremental the equipment was we often had to leave empty handed, then other days we would just flow through it. 

From my point of view it was an adventure. There were frequent trips to the ladies, interesting pauses for the administration of heartburn relieving medicine and moving of legs, and moments of having to re-record/repeat sentences where my voice had suddenly changed pitch to give a little squeal as the baby kicked hard one more time! 

But we got through it!

In the end Aran managed to find suitable enough software to use on his own PC and a better quality mike etc so that we could do it from home which was a relief! Kind as the offer was, I was not sad to see the back of those studios!

Then it began to flow for us... well apart from the time I spilt a whole cup of tea over Aran's keyboard and had to make an emergency 2 hour round trip to Bangor to buy a new one.... 

But we got in to the flow of it with Aran recording his bit then me mine at times that were convenient for us and we begun taking pride in every milestone we reached with the lesson numbers and now we have the recording down to a fine art and are able to fit it in to our daily routines with ease!

Iestyn and Cat...

Well we met the wonderful couple a few years back now... 

It was Aran who first made the connection with Iestyn and they became good friends and would communicate frequently over the Internet and Iestyn and Cat would very kindly offer Aran a bed when he was down south for either meetings or rugby. 

It became clear that they both shared a passion for Wales, its language and indeed the languages of other countries. 

At a later date I met Cat, whom at the time was pregnant with Ioan and very kindly gave Aran and I a home on her sofa and fed us with her home cooked marvels one weekend when we were down south for a rugby international.

From then on we built on what we had and got to know each other well, sharing baby adventures along the way and then had the pleasure of spending a very comfortable and enjoyable week with them and Ioan when we stayed with them for the Cardiff Eisteddfod.

When Aran reached a point of realising that the course needed a southern version there was no doubt in his mind that Iestyn would be the absolute ideal person to 'translate' the course to the south Wales version and record it.

So they then entered in to discussions and away the Southern version flew thanks to Iestyn and Cat's hard work!

Iestyn translated perfectly in to his native dialect and the tone of both his and Cat's voices and their delivery are ideal for the recording.

What's amazing about the southern version iis that Cat recorded all of this being a learner herself! 

She has come on in absolute leaps and bounds with her Welsh since those early days and although I haven't seen her for a while I've learnt from Aran how amazingly well she now speaks and how easy it is to have a perfectly fluent conversation with her. 

But back then, you can imagine it must have been difficult, being a new mum and having all the challenges that comes with that and recording a course for learners (in her living room) in a lnaguage that she was learning herself - so hats off to her!

Da iawn ti Cat - Llongyfarchiadau!

Since then of course they've celebrated the arrival of little Emrys as well and managed to fit in a tour of Europe, trying to work from a laptop with erratic connection!

The SSiW journey certainly has been an interesting one!

I think Aran and Iestyn have made a perfect partnership. They seem to share the same vision, hopes and dreams for SSiW and have found it easy to work together. They both love languages and have an interest in learning them and both are not only passionate about the methods used by SSiW to teach Welsh but also believe that this is the way forward.

I'm constantly amazed at the progress the course has made, how it's touched the lives of so many 1,000's of people, formed a successful and congenial online community and brought many from that community together in person to share and enjoy!

Most of all though I am touched by the fact that it has allowed so many to go out and successfully use the language they share such a great passion for.

I still giggle to myself though when I recollect theose nights in the early days when I went to bed and had dreams about having cheese and bread and meat and giving in to the old dog!

Aran again: How I met Iestyn

I first met Iestyn at a Cymuned annual conference in Penrhyndeudraeth – I met him with particular interest, because he'd driven all the way up from Maesycwmer just for the conference, and was going straight back down immediately it finished, which I thought was more than a little crazy. I suspected he might not be entirely sane.

It turned out later that he'd turned up more or less just to make sure that we weren't a bunch of nutters – he'd been looking at a number of our projects online, and at some of my personal projects (such as a Welsh language online email provider, which Google was kind enough to kill off with Gmail...;-)) - he thought the various projects looked interesting, but wanted to be sure that the people behind them were sane. Well, more or less sane. As sane as he is himself, anyway.

After the annual conference, he threw himself into voluntary work on behalf of Cymuned with what I know now is his customary enthusiasm, passion and intelligence. It was a real pleasure working with him, and the more we got to know each other, the more obvious it became that we had a huge amount in common – not just in terms of interest in and support for the language, but all sorts of other things too, often completely unconnected. We talked through the night on more than one occasion, and I grew to consider Iestyn one of my closest, most interesting, and most inspiring friends.

We went through some real ups and downs with Cymuned – highlights being things like really positive meetings with the CEO of the Principality and with Leanne Wood and other AMs, lowlights being more to do with having to deal with one or two pretty nasty members of Cymuned bullying us and the rest of the Executive Committee – and the experience helped forge an extremely strong bond of support and loyalty between us.

Fresh fields and pastures new

One thing that we were both sure of was that campaigning for the future of the language was hugely important, but that there was a consistent pattern in Wales of people focusing on campaigning rather than on building businesses. We believed (and still believe) that Wales needs more successful home-grown entrepreneurs, and a more entrepreneurial approach to building a successful future for the language. We talked a lot about business building, and projects that could happen in Wales if there was the financial support for them – but most of our ideas needed serious capital to get them going, where what we really needed were ideas for start-ups to get the ball rolling.

When the ideas for an online language course started to crystalise in my head, and I knew that I thought we would need a northern and a southern version, there was only one person I would have considered asking to take care of the southern version. We didn't, at that stage, really see it as a business model. I'd chatted to an entrepreneurial friend of mine about maybe building a Spanish course, but he'd asked around a few investor friends of his and gave the firm feedback that the field was far too crowded and over-competitive, and there was no room for significant improvements on what was already being offered.

With that in mind, it was obvious that SaySomethinginWelsh needed to be built by people who would be willing to put a lot of work in for no pay whatsoever – although even at that early stage, we believed that if we could get the model to work for Welsh, we would be able to do other languages later on, and we thought there might be some mileage there despite the negative feedback from potential investors.

Iestyn was probably the only person I knew who had the necessary mixture of ability, intelligence, risk appetite and passion for the language – which is to say, the only mug big enough to join in the fun of tilting at windmills...

It feels strange looking back – it was an automatic decision to ask Iestyn to be Mr South, and I was delighted when he agreed to do it – because we'd done so much work on so many different projects together, and spent so many late nights discussing a million and one different ideas – and yet all of that work feels like nothing compared to what we've done since then: the journeys we've been on, the learning curves we've surfed, the ideas we've seen become reality, the new friends we've made, the excitement we've been lucky enough to enjoy.

The beginning of the southern version

Iestyn's first challenge was to find a voice for the southern course – he had a couple of leads, and I think he got as far as discussing it with at least one person, but it was tricky finding times and places that would work – and then one day he said that he'd had a chat with Cat, and that she'd agreed to do it. I was amazed at first – when I'd stayed with Iestyn and Cat, I'd always spoken a little Welsh with Cat, and then she'd switched back into English – it wasn't until much later that she told me she'd been too intimidated by my Welsh to feel comfortable talking to me! That seems like such a long time ago now – I can't remember the last time I spoke English to Cat...

Anyway, I was more than a little surprised that she'd agreed to do the recording, and a bit nervous about how it would work out. Iestyn reassured me that he'd be able to help make sure that her pronunciation would be good, and we took the plunge – 15,000 learners and one appearance as a finalist in Dysgwr y Flwyddyn later, it's pretty clear it was the right decision! I wonder sometimes if there can be anyone else who has been the voice of a teacher on a course like this at such an early stage in their own learning – I rather suspect that there can't be, and that Cat is literally unique in what she's achieved with SaySomethinginWelsh.

So, with the two voices ready to go, and a bundle of lessons to start recording, you might think that Iestyn and Cat would have settled down for several hard months of volunteer work. They did, but not in quite the way you might have expected. Instead of slaving over a hot microphone in Maesycwmer, they bought a camper van and set off round Europe for eight months.

If it had been anyone else, I would probably have expected that the southern course would just have to wait until later – but with Iestyn, I knew he'd find a way around all the innumerable challenges that roaming recording was sure to bring.

'I'm just trying to find some wi-fi...'

It was an entertaining time! I would get emails from Iestyn with details I only half-understood about how their dongle was or wasn't working, how he'd found a MacDonald's where if he spent enough time eating rubbish he'd be able to upload files via wi-fi, how he'd been kicked off connections for bandwidth issues, the research he was doing on campsites with internet access, the fun Ioan and Emrys were having at their grandmother's while Iestyn was stuck inside frantically editing and proofing – it made our challenges with damp recording studios seem trivial by comparison. It also gave SSiW an extremely international feel from the very beginning, with new lessons being uploaded all over the place, from France to Slovenia and back again.

Selfishly, I was pretty delighted when Iestyn and Cat and the boys got home, because by that stage the forum was really beginning to take off, and it was a big relief to know that there would be an authentic 'Voice of the South' available to answer those pesky questions that were all Greek to me...;-)

Since then, Iestyn has been the rock of SSiW – he's done all the boring, fiddly but vital bits to do with money, and it's thanks to him that we've even been able to consider trying to go sort of mostly full-time in this interesting patch that we're in the middle of right now. In fact, you kind of know the rest of the story – the huge amount of work that Iestyn and Cat have put into recording, their wonderful Bootcamps, all the stuff they've done to promote SSiW in and around the valleys and in the Eisteddfod.

What you don't see, though, is the double stream of ideas and support that I get continuously from Iestyn. When things are a little tough, he's there with a word of encouragement and some good ideas about the right way forward – when we've got room to breathe a little, he's always bubbling over with ideas (we've got a 'To Do' list that you just wouldn't believe, starting with SSiW and ending up with changing the world!...;-)) and inspiring me to think more widely and creatively myself.

As Catrin said somewhere else, I certainly could not have chosen a better person to try and do all this with – but Iestyn is so much more than a project partner. He's one of the most remarkable people I've met, and I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to count him as one of my closest friends.

So here's a toast to Iestyn, Cat, Ioan, Emrys and Gwenllian – a diolch o waelod calon!