‘Talk properly!’ – Struggles with the Welsh language

Since before J-Bone was born, my plan was always to speak to him in Welsh.

There are a few reasons, which I’ve explained in an earlier blog incarnation, mostly revolving around an urge to preserve a (foreign) culture and give J the awareness of its preciousness. It is an enormously pretentious undertaking in many ways, but one that made sense to me: I’d visions of exchanging a few phrases of Welsh for fun and subversive purposes decades into the future. When I last wrote about the situation in March last year, J wasn’t really using any words; now he can hold proper conversations. So whither his Cymric skills?

We’ve bought a few Welsh books since then, most recently on a family trip to Pembrokeshire, which J has enjoyed. The most successful story-book has probably been a translation of Julia Donaldson’s The Smartest Giant in Town. This might be helped by the fact that it involves a bit of singing on my part, but it’s a book he’s asked for by name (‘tand yn y dre’) and doesn’t complain about me reading it wrongly.

It’s also the source of his only Welsh phrase so far – ‘Paid â phoeni’, which means ‘Don’t worry’. (However, he does think that’s the name of the giant, who in this version is called Sion.) Perhaps I should take up the karmic lesson that his first phrase in Welsh is trying to show me and relax about the whole thing. Trying to get someone to speak a language that they must only be dimly aware of would send anyone reaching for metaphors about trying to fit an octopus into a carrier bag. In fact, I just did.

(Dr L is broadly supportive of this ridiculous project, as she values language as much as I do. J did ask her to read him a Welsh book once, but then decided she wasn’t up to it. She was very happy to give it a go, though, and her pronunciation isn’t too bad to my muggle ears, but I guess kids know when words are being guessed at. Maybe they share the language student’s prejudice towards native speakers?)

The other success is a book of Welsh words, which he has loved gazing it for minutes on end – a long time, believe me. He hasn’t even torn any of the pages out, which is a curious habit for a bibliophile like J-Bone but happens a hell of a lot. The preserved state of this book might be due in part to some watchful stewardship on my part and not allowing him to read it in his cot bed before sleep – the graveyard of many a sturdy hardback.

Reading up on cymysgwyr sment

The ‘trafnidaeth’ (transport) section has been his favourite, so it’s obvious that it’s far less about Welsh words than pictures of diggers and trains, but I’ll greedily snaffle that crumb of encouragement. Unfortunately, these positive croutons float in a less encouraging soup of rejection.

On a couple of occasions, J-Bone has protested at Welsh and told me to ‘speak properly’. This has left my heart a little bruised, to be honest, and my (already shaky) enthusiasm and commitment to speaking Welsh has been dented. Some days have gone by in the last couple of months without me speaking a word in Welsh to him. I feel like I’m re-enacting the predicted retreat of the language itself into dessicated pockets of specialist usage, only instead of agriculture and poetry, I wield it around the kitchen.

For some reason, after moving to Leeds, I’ve already found the gravity of Cymric influence much weaker on this side of the Pennines. Wales feels (and is) a place much further away; its domestic pull has grown much weaker and the landscape already fading from my internal backdrop. Even the Welsh beaches have grown quieter in my thoughts: there’s a rival North Sea coast in our imaginations and the salty draw westwards is disrupted. So there was already that. But the fact that Jasper is now aware that it’s a different mode of speech, and that it bothers him, bothers me.

Not everything: I can still give him basic instructions in Welsh (‘come here’, ‘you OK?’, etc.), but his impatience with Welsh at story time is troubling. I was expecting something to happen along these lines, but not before he started pre-school. Although, there will be so many languages there (28, we were told when we visited), fitting in linguistically probably won’t be an issue: Welsh will just be another at-home language among dozens of others.

It could be that he feels frustrated at not understanding me, as he has sometimes asked me to ‘speak slowly’ when I read Welsh to him, perhaps assuming it’s English but I’m garbling the words. Story times can be fraught even in monolingual households if details in well-known books are skipped or short-cuts attempted; these stories are part of a bed-time ritual and cannot be idly messed about by fidgety carers. So perhaps I’m judging his dismissal of Welsh a bit prematurely.

(I haven’t helped by teasingly translating bits of his favourite Thomas stories into Welsh; that gets dealt with very swiftly and angrily.)

But Latin wasn’t built in a day, and I’ll keep plugging away with Welsh phrases as often as I can, clinging to the dream that J might exchange a word or two with his Welsh cousins one day.


Wish me luck. Pob lwc i chi gyd!

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