Welsh class started back Tuesday night and, I have to say, I do love the first class of the year. It is preceded by a long summer holiday during which, I start receiving tentative emails. Hello, I've read on the Welsh Australian that you have Welsh classes at the Celtic Club in Melbourne. Would I be able to join you? I always reply, in what I hope is an encouraging manner, and, sometimes, the enquirer writes back. But often there is a silence. I have to wait until February to see whether people have decided to take up the challenge.
In the days leading up to the first class, I sort through my flash cards and make new ones (remind me to tell you about laminating therapy). My brother, Ian, who is a real language teacher, prefers not to use falsh cards. He uses toys puppets and props with his students. But, you know, it's just me, my bike and my panniers, cycling to the city each week. And of course there are the January joys of cutting, pasting and laminating.
Tuesday night, twenty people turned up for our first class. This included four beginners along with the two others who'd started late in the previous year. Before dividing into groups, we went around in a circle introducing ourselves. We also talked about why we wanted to learn Welsh. This exercise is always heartfelt and amazing – many answers involve a strange intangible yearning to speak a language and that has long been denied. Others have married Welsh people (they have no choice!). Some have no idea why they are learning Welsh, others have been seduced by the poetic beauty of the language.
For my own part, the motivation is complex, though writing a novel with Welsh characters was part of the initial impetus, I had in fact wanted to learn Welsh for as long as I can remember. The root of this desire was maternal. Mae fy mam i yn dod o Aberafan yn wreiddiol – my mum came from Aberafan originally. Growing up in Australia, mum was at pains to emphasise that we were not English. We were British. I didn't know what that meant. Only if I'd made such an utterance my Aussie friends would have laughed out me of the playground. I knew it had something to do with Mum being Welsh. Her mam and sisters spoke with strange sing-song accents. They were also crazy, passionate and often opinionated.
I found them fascinating.
I remember the first time mum told me about the Welsh language. She'd never spoken it fluently, she told me, only a smattering of phrases, but her father and cousins were Cymry Cymaeg (Welsh speaking Welsh people), and sometime, over the years, she'd acquired a tatty old book on the language. I remember her turning its pages and making the oddest sounds. I heard awe in her voice that day too and yearning. I think something of that yearning took root in me – took root so deeply that when I decided to write a nineteenth century immigration novel it had to include Welsh characters. I didn't know much about Wales at that stage – I had vague notions of chapels and massed male voice choirs but, I hope I won't offend anyone, by saying that didn't sound terribly interesting – and they did so need to be interesting, my Welsh characters. Their lives would be the axis on which the protagonist's inner journey would turn. Fortunately, I soon learned that Wales' also had a rich bardic heritage.
Anyway, that's besides the point. This blog is about my Welsh class. But I trust you will have gathered from my convoluted explanations that learning Welsh was never for me been a purely intellectual exercise. It was and still is a homecoming journey. The Welsh word for homesickness is hiraeth. It means long ache. And I don't need to tell you that Tuesday night I heard that same ache in other people's voices.
I have been learning Welsh for almost a decade now and during the first six years, I learned to read and write a number of words and could tell you their meanings but I couldn't structure a sentence or hold a Welsh conversation. Once I discovered Saysomethinginwelsh, the whole learning experience changed for me. One week, I was the class sluggard, the next I'd started spurting out entire paragraphs. As a tutor, I have always encouraged my class to use SSiW lessons but never insisted. For the most part we've followed a written course book. The trouble with using the written materials is that for English speakers Welsh words don't look like they sound. Try saying Machynlleth for example (the name of a town) or tywyllwch (darkness). Added to which, with books in front of them, people don't trust themselves to listen and remember. This year I've therefore decided to try a new approach. This is what I told my Welsh class on Tuesday night.
We are not going to be using books. You will do the free MP3 lessons from Saysomethinginwelsh and in class we will play games.
I saw doubt in people's eyes. I had anticipated this. We therefore listened to the first ten minutes of a SSiW lesson. People laughed in all the right places (Aran, Iestyn you will be pleased to know). I saw wonder in people's faces. Shoulders relaxing. We then played a simple memory game with…that's right, you guessed it. flash cards.
At the end of the evening we watched Rod Gilbert's 2008 Royal variety performance. I told the class, relax. We're going to have fun. We are will play games and more games. Maybe do some play acting. And absolutely no one is going to die trying to learn Welsh. The challenge for me is to come up with enough games and activities to fill the weekly hour and a half lessons. So, if you've got any ideas, please let me know. Especially if they involve cutting, pasting or the therapeutic benefits of molten plastic.