The language teacher who became the student by Theresa Munford

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The language teacher who became the student
by Theresa Munford

I don’t think I have any Welsh blood in my veins, and I don’t live in Wales.  Serendipity and friendship are probably the best ways to explain my journey into Welsh.

I have always loved languages: I studied French, German and Spanish at school and then Chinese at University, eventually becoming a teacher of Mandarin Chinese in Secondary schools. Language teachers are often advised to start learning a language completely new to them. In 2012, I moved to Bath and suddenly realised that there was a whole new language world just a short hop down the M4.

At about the same time, I reconnected with an old friend from 6th form, who had also spent her life in languages and was a teacher. In her case, she had some Welsh roots but almost no knowledge of Welsh. So, we decided to share this new language adventure, and signed up for one-day introductory Welsh course in Cardiff. The first hour was humiliating. How come we were so slow at picking anything up compared to the other participants. It was at coffee break we found out we’d be put in the intermediate class by mistake. But, as teachers, we’d already learnt a valuable lesson….. what it feels like to be bottom of the class and what strategies struggling students use to mask their failure!

Undeterred, we signed up a year or so later for the beginners’ week at Nant Gwrtheyrn. From the moment our taxi wound down the road into the valley and we settled into our little cottage, we knew we were in for a treat. It was a magical week in a magical place. The valley, the beach, the good company, the Scrabble games, the magicians and the hilarious afternoon when we were released among the good people of Pwllheli to practise our simple phrases. From a teacher’s point of view, we marvelled at the exemplary teaching methods, a perfect balance of challenge, of enjoyment and of active learning. I added many new tricks to my own teaching repertoire, though, sadly, school pupils don’t co-operate with language Jenga in the same way that keen adult learners do.

There are many aspects of Welsh I find really hard. I was never very good at spelling in English and spelling Welsh has not been easy, though at least (unlike English) there’s a logic to the phonics. Sentence structure, especially with verbs, was also a huge stumbling block at the beginning. But these difficulties are counterbalanced by the things I love about the language — for example, the wonderfully heterogeneous vocabulary, from almost-cognates (ambiwlans, smwddio) to words shared with Latin languages (llyfr) and words that are unique to Welsh. Bizarrely, as a Chinese speaker, I find some things easy because it is so like Chinese…for example, the way the number system works and even the fact that there are multiple ways of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Since that week in Nant Gwrtheyrn, I have kept my Welsh simmering away with Say Something in Welsh and Duolingo  — the longer my ‘streak’ (686 days to date), the more anxious I get that I might forget my daily duel with the little green owl and be back to zero. However, plans to do a second week at Nant Gwrtheyrn were never realised. Then Covid confined us all and Nant Gwrtheyrn came to my laptop! No beach, no valley this time, but a very similar experience in terms of brilliant teaching and lots of enjoyable interactions with the other participants. I plan to do the next level up soon and hopefully return for real when that magical little valley opens for business again.

In terms of language teaching, it has helped me understand my learners so much better. I can empathise with their frustrations as well as their thrills. I still get a kick from realising I’ve understood a whole sentence on Radio Cymru even though 90% is still lost on me. And in terms of goals, I enjoy reading poetry and my ambition (besides being able to maintain a conversation with someone) is to read and appreciate Welsh poetry. Its reputation of being one of the finest languages in the world for verse is another thing it shares with Chinese.