Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

A week of small things

Last Saturday, I told my husband I wouldn’t be speaking English and spent the day chatting in Welsh on Skype, doing SSiW lessons, and listening to Radio Cymru. It was a long, intense, surreal kind of day. As daylight gave way to dusk, I took the dog for one more walk around the block and had the strange sensation of Welsh words jostling to the front of my mind. I thought, this is weird, totally weird. I wonder if anyone else is preparing for Dysgwr y Flwyddyn like this? As I walked around the night black silence of an empty house, I thought: maybe not?

Maybe this is a little crazy?

I didn’t progress to the final round of Dysgwr y Flwyddyn. In retrospect, I never was a serious contender. But I managed to bag myself a greater prize at Welsh class the following Tuesday evening. I had been teaching the beginners class for a couple of months and, on rejoining my intermediate class for the first time in ages, I felt seriously out of touch. But my brain was still in the curious Welsh language hinterland that my day of intensive preparation had produced. I pulled out a stack flash cards and said:

‘We are going to use these images as a springboard for discussion.’

An hour and twenty minutes later, we were still taking. In Welsh. It was the first time any of my classes had broken through the barrier from lessons to conversation. Riding home that night under the rainbow strobe of city lights I thought:

Yes, yes, yes! This makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Thursday, I found myself working a regular library desk shift. From amid the general queries about what book came next in a series, relevant school project materials, and technological issues, came a rough, half shaven, probably-from-the-local-council-estate man, wanting information on butterflies. Not general bookish, kind of information either. Butterfly man wanted to identify a chrysalis he had found and determine when, exactly, his buttefly would emerge. I directed him to the relevant library shelf and helped him connect his tablet to the WIFI. But armed with information and connectivity, he saw no reason to exclude me from the ongoing excitement of the his research. In the course of his hour long residency at the information desk, snippets of butterfly man’s story also emerged. In between serving customers, I marvelled at this socially and economically disadvantaged older man who clearly hadn’t thrived in the education system, rediscovering the wonders of the natural world.

On Friday evening, I visited mum in hospital. She asked me how my Welsh language competition had gone. ‘It went well,’ I replied. ‘I spoke quite fluidly. But I didn’t get through to the final round.’

‘Why not?’ mum asked.

‘Well, I think, perhaps, my Welsh wasn’t good enough.’

‘But you’re my daughter! You can do anything.’

You’re my daughter…

I couldn’t help reflecting on mum’s comments as I lined up for Saturday’s how to be a barrista course. Maybe this attitude lay at the root of all my naive overconfidence? Thinking I could write a novel? Learn a second language? Start teaching it before I could even speak it fully? Believing I could compete against Welsh people in a Welsh language competition. As I looked around the class of wannabe barristas among whom I was the oldest, tallest, most English-as-a-first-languagest, I thought:

Maybe I’m out of my depth here too?

Over the course of the day, my initial suspicions were confirmed. I could set up the machine okay and produce esspresso shots with a nice crema. They tasted good too. I made the mistake of drinking far too many early on. By the end of the day, my class mates were decorating smooth coffees with spirals and seagull patterns while, with my hands burned and my heart racing and my over-caffeinated nerves jangling, I was still struggling to create the requisite micro foam. ‘You’re doing well.’ I said to the girl next to me. ‘Do you work in a cafe?”

‘I have.’ She said. ‘But not as a barista. What about you?’

I looked down into my jug of frothy over boiled milk. ‘I work in a library. And teach Welsh as a hobby. I think that’s where I belong.’

PS: If you’re a cafe in the Corris area, please replace that final sentence with:

But once I get the hang of this I’m going to be the bomb! 🙂


Language – some thoughts on accent, context and comprehension


Language, culture and worldview – an interview with Earl Livings


  1. It’s good to try new things, Liz. Good on you. I think you’re fabulous.

    • ejcorbett@yahoo.com.au

      it was pretty interesting. I have a new respect for baristas.

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