I have many Welsh-speaking friends who were annoyed by a throwaway remark in this publication. A fellow columnist wrote that something they were doing was as pointless as “eating cottage cheese or learning Welsh”. I happen to be very keen on both activities, but I am entirely sure they meant no harm or disrespect. In fact, depending on how you define pointless they have … well, a point.
If the number of people in the world who speak a particular language is your measure, it’s a fair point. If the number of people who speak that language, but not English, is your measure, then you have a fair point, too. I have held both of these opinions for most of my life. Proud as I am of my rather poor Croatian, I am ashamed to say I often wondered if French, Spanish or Mandarin might have had more point to them.
But now I finally get the point of learning a language for its own sake, and that has come through learning Welsh, from scratch, in a short time. I do very few things mindfully, but you cannot learn a language intensively without being completely absorbed in the moment, and I have found the whole process incredibly soothing. Walking around, sitting in cafes, on trains, buses or whatever, listening to my app, muttering to myself in poor Welsh, all the other troubling thoughts that are stinking out my mind vanish.
And then there is the actual communication bit, which almost came to seem like an added bonus rather than the point of the exercise. I have been friends with a Welsh speaker, the football journalist Bryn Law, for more than 30 years now. The other evening, we briefly crossed paths in a London pub. I said something to him in Welsh, he replied in Welsh, and then I actually said something back. And there the exchange ended, but in some small way we were both exhilarated. It was really something: pointless, it definitely wasn’t. As soon as you formulate any sentence in a newly acquired language, I am sure you start seeing the world from a new angle, through a new prism.
And why do we English apparently feel we can mock the Welsh language with impunity? Is it because we think it is pitiably marginal, or because we see it thriving and, for some unknown reason, are threatened by that? As Bryn fulminated (in English): “The test is to swap Irish for Welsh. Would anyone dare say it’s pointless to learn Irish?” And this, undoubtedly, is a fair point.
That said, I am in Australia just now, and sit writing this on Sydney’s Manly ferry. The young man next to me who has just said hello turns out to be a first-language Welsh-speaker from Cardiff called Tomos. I can’t tell you what he is doing here because I asked him in Welsh and he replied in Welsh and I didn’t quite understand what he said. I have told him, in English, what I am writing about, I have pulled my most earnest, concerned face, and asked him if all the piss-taking about Welsh pisses him off.
“Nah mate,” he’s said. “It’s quite funny.”
• Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster and writer
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