Friday, June 24, 2016

How (and why) I learned Cymraeg !!

On a scale of 1-10, how unlikely of a Welsh learner am I, with 1 being extremely likely and 10 being extremely unlikely? I’m sure that, if I asked anyone that question, the number they’d answer would be closer to 10 than to 1. But here I am, coming up on my fifth year of being a Welsh learner, and things couldn’t be more exciting for me. So many things have happened throughout my entire journey of learning to speak Welsh that I figured I’d share a little bit about the amazing experiences I’ve had so far.* Mywnhewch (enjoy)!

*To my Welsh speaking friends: Though I did originally want to write a blog like this in Welsh, I realize that I am not nearly as articulate in Welsh as I am in English, yet. But here’s hoping that I will soon be able to write more about my experiences yn y Gymraeg  :)


My introduction to the Welsh language was simple enough – I discovered it after having listened to one of the solo albums of Welsh musician, Gruff Rhys, back in 2010. Gruff writes songs in both Welsh and English, and, since it didn’t take me long to get into his music, I found myself listening to quite a few songs sung in Welsh over time. At some point (I can’t remember exactly when), I started looking up the lyrics to Gruff’s Welsh language songs and thinking that Welsh not only sounded interesting, but looked interesting as well. I thought soon after that it would be cool to see if I could learn a few words or phrases in Welsh, but I had never expected to learn very much outside of that. And it was a full year after I made the decision to try to learn Welsh that I actually did begin learning.

It was a simple decision, really. What is harder to explain is the reason why the Welsh language stood out to me so much that I decided that I wanted to learn a bit of it. Of course I had heard songs in different languages before, but I’d never felt so compelled to learn any of the languages that the songs were in. Besides the fact that I really do enjoy learning languages in general, I think that I must have been so into Gruff’s music, and so interested in a country and a culture that I had barely heard of in the past, that I decided that it would be interesting to learn something new.

("Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru"  – my musical introduction to the Welsh language)

I started officially learning Welsh in October of 2011. I was in my senior year of college, and living in a rural town in southern Ohio. That period of time in my life will always remind me of my beginnings with Welsh learning, as I can still remember listening to Welsh audio lessons while walking up and down the steep hills around campus, and listening almost exclusively to music by Welsh musicians at the time. I started learning Welsh with a free audio course called SaySomethingInWelsh (or SSIW), which is geared toward total beginners, and which is also extremely easy to follow. At the time, all I had to do was download the lessons to my phone, listen to them, and repeat what was said until I was ready to move on to the next lesson. I can’t remember how long the course took me – since I was also a full time student at the time, and I had been taking mostly psychology, Mandarin language, and Spanish language classes, I was very inconsistent. I would start learning Welsh, then stop, and then start again (something that has happened again and again over the past four and a half years). Something that definitely helped me, though, was the fact that I was listening to Welsh language music quite often. There were two albums in particular – Mwng, by Super Furry Animals and Blo, by Dau Cefn – that I played on rotation almost constantly, and they became a kind of a soundtrack to those early Welsh-learning days. What kept me going, then, was the fact that I was able to pick up and actually understand more and more of the Welsh that I heard within the songs on these albums, which encouraged me to continue with the audio lessons. Listening to music by Welsh musicians also led to the discovery of more music by more Welsh musicians, and learning more Welsh helped me to understand the lyrics of the new music and songs, which encouraged me to continue to learn, and so on. 

After making a bit of progress with the SSIW lessons, I found more Welsh-learning resources on the internet, courtesy of BBC. BBC Learn Welsh is an entire page of archived Welsh language learning programs, which range from programs meant for complete beginners to foundation level learners and advanced learners. I still haven’t listened to all of those audio courses, and it will probably take me forever to get through all of them, but at least they don’t seem to be going anywhere. While finishing up with SSIW, I began the BBC Big Welsh Challenge, and, midway through completing that course, I started listening to the BBC Original Catchphrase audio lessons. Luckily for me, these audio lessons included downloadable outlines of all of the grammar and vocabulary that was discussed within the lessons, and they were detailed enough so that I could keep up without needing a teacher or a tutor.

I wish I had kept better track of how much Welsh I was learning, how long it took me to learn certain patterns or parts of the language, or how much time I dedicated to learning the language. I do know that I spent a lot of time learning vocabulary words, and that, eventually, listening to videos in Welsh and Welsh-language radio (BBC Radio Cymru) in addition to Welsh music really helped me learn Welsh. Overall, it was a very solitary process, until recently. Some of my family and friends knew that I had started learning, but I hardly ever shared with them where I was in the process, unless they asked me. Perhaps the weirdest thing was that my Welsh learning was definitely not consistent – I would stop learning Welsh for months at a time, for various reasons, and then come back to it with renewed intensity. Since I didn’t really know anyone else that was learning Welsh, I had no basis of comparison, and there were no expectations about how much studying I was supposed to do, how much learning I should have completed in a certain amount of time, or how well or poorly I was doing with all of it (which turned out to be a good thing, later on). There were no tests to take, essays to write, or presentations to do, and I was free to learn at my own sporadic pace.


Learning Welsh has definitely resulted in me having some of the most interesting and significant experiences of my life.  In fact, so many experiences seem so surreal that I still have to remind myself that they’ve actually happened. Since my Welsh-learning has been so interrelated to me discovering and listening to Welsh music, some of the most exciting experiences of my life have been when I’ve gotten the chance to see some of my favorite Welsh musicians to perform live. The first opportunity I ever got to do this was in August 2012, when Gruff Rhys came to Pittsburgh. At the time, he was also filming his second documentary, American Interior. I didn’t have any way to get to Pittsburgh from Cleveland at the time and I had considered travelling alone by bus, but I was warned against it. Luckily, one of my friends had been willing to go to the show with me, along with one of his friends, who ended up driving us all there.

The venue that we saw Gruff perform at was so small that we were able to sit close to the stage, and even see everything get set up before the show. After the show was over, I knew that I had a chance to speak to Gruff, but I had been so nervous about it that I wasn’t sure if I could work up the nerves to talk to him. I did manage to do it though, because I knew that it might be my only chance to talk to him. We spoke briefly, and I managed to get a picture and an autograph from him, although I was extremely shy about asking for them. The coolest thing that happened, though, was when Gruff’s partner, Catryn, asked my friend and I whether we would like to be interviewed for the documentary that they were filming.  My friend shied away quickly, but I agreed, even though I was still pretty nervous. Catryn led me outside, where the film crew were interviewing others at the time. When it came to be my turn, I was introduced to Dylan Goch and the rest of the film crew, and they asked me a few questions about what I’d thought about the show. Perhaps because I was feeling bolder by then, I mentioned to them that I had been learning Welsh. I hadn’t learned very much Welsh by this time, since it had only been 10 months since I’d started studying it, but I tried to speak a little bit, making Dylan the first person that I ever spoke Welsh face to face with. Little did I know that the footage of this first attempt would be included in the film American Interior (the film was released two years later).

 (note: I look ugly awful in this clip, but I’m proud nonetheless!)

It wasn’t until American Interior was released in 2014 that I was able to see that my first time speaking Welsh in person with someone was actually part of a documentary. I was thrilled, although it’s still hard to believe even now that there’s footage of me in one of my favorite musicians’ films. That in itself felt like an accomplishment, but I was also able to speak to Dylan again after finding this out. Right after watching the film, I tweeted about how shocked I was to have seen myself in the film, trying to speak Welsh with Dylan. After I tweeted that, Dylan saw my tweet, followed me back, and sent me a message about the positive responses the film had gotten after having just been aired on Welsh language television, and how people had really enjoyed seeing that someone from Ohio had learned a little bit of Welsh. At the time, I hadn’t realized that my attempts to learn and speak Welsh would be seen as inspirational, but I was happy to hear that people had enjoyed the brief clip of me. Dylan and I ended up sending a few more messages to each other, and he quickly became someone that helped me immensely with my Welsh learning, as our correspondence gave me a chance to practice my Welsh with a first-language speaker.

Around the same time, I was able to attend another one of Gruff’s live shows, this time in Chicago. The show was particularly significant to me, because Gruff had basically been explaining the results of his initial tour that he had done two years earlier, and, for me, it had been nice to see everything come full circle. Because I had come to this show with one of my closest friends and she had wanted to meet Gruff, we hung around the venue after the show was over in attempt to talk to him. Being that it was another small venue, we didn’t have much trouble getting in contact with him, and when we saw him come back out onto the stage, he actually recognized me and approached us both. I remember Gruff telling me that he hoped that I didn’t mind that they’d included footage of me in the film, but I told him that of course I didn’t mind, and that I had been extremely surprised to see myself in it. Looking back now, I regret not speaking Welsh with Gruff – I had wanted to, and I’d almost worked up the guts to at least say “thank you” to him in Welsh, but the words just wouldn’t come out. Gruff, however, did remember that I was a Welsh learner, and signed my American Interior book by first starting to write the word “Enjoy” and then crossing it out, remarking that he should probably write it in Welsh. He then wrote “Mwynha! POB HYWL! -Gruff”, drew a picture, and handed it back to me, with a big smile on his face.

(Chicago, November 2014)

Not long after I got back in touch with Dylan, and right after I saw Gruff’s show in Chicago, Dylan told me that he’d mentioned me to one of his friends, an editor for a Welsh-language magazine dedicated to Welsh learners, Lingo Newydd. His friend ended up asking me if I would be willing to be interviewed for an article for the magazine. I readily agreed, and the article was published in the spring of 2015. At the time, being in a magazine felt like the most surreal thing that had ever happened to me, since I had never really received any kind of attention or recognition like that. Little did I know that this would change drastically in the future.

(Lingo Newydd, April/May 2015)

After all of the excitement had happened with the magazine, things went more or less back to the way they were – I continued to learn Welsh sporadically, with no idea whether or not I was doing well, but I sensed that I was improving. I noticed that it was becoming easier and easier for me to understand Welsh-language radio, Welsh-language songs, and Welsh-language videos on YouTube, so I felt pretty encouraged to keep it up. Depending on the time of year, however, I was either in school or working full time, so it wasn’t easy for me to study at a steady pace.  Fortunately, though, I was lucky enough to not only meet another one of my favorite Welsh musicians, but to practice my Welsh with her and build my confidence.

In October 2015, I traveled back home to Cleveland to see Cate Le Bon when she was on tour with her new band, DRINKS, with Tim Presley. I was beyond excited to get a chance to see Cate perform live,  because she was another one of those musicians whose music had soundtracked so much of my life, especially back when I’d begun learning Welsh. For some reason, I hadn’t expected to ever be able to see her perform live, so I readily jumped on the chance when I found out that she was coming to my hometown. My “plan” was simple – I would attend the show, even though I hadn’t been to the venue before, and I didn’t necessarily have a way to get there. I’d figured that I’d ask a family member to take me, or take a taxi there, or something. My dad ended up agreeing to drop me off at the venue and, although he’d originally planned to pick me up after the show was over, he decided to stay with me for the entire duration.

My dad and I came to the venue early enough to find a place to sit without even getting our tickets checked at the doors. I think that it took less than five minutes for us to get settled before I realized that Cate and her bandmates were sitting in the booth directly behind my father and I. I whispered to my dad quietly (but kind of frantically) that Cate was sitting right behind us. My dad told me to introduce myself, but I was too nervous, so he did it for me. He, being so friendly and not shy at all, broke the ice so well that Cate and Tim decided to join my dad and I at our booth and eat dinner with us. And since Cate and Tim were so friendly, it didn’t take me long to mention to Cate that I’d been learning Welsh. I’d felt like I just had to mention it, but at the same time, I’d felt nervous about mentioning it at all. But when I did mention it, Cate seemed surprised, and asked me how much Welsh I knew. I told her that I knew “about four years worth?”, and then she asked me what my name was in Welsh. And when I answered in Welsh, it all went from there.

It's hard to remember everything that we spoke about, but I do remember just how comfortable everything felt. Cate and Tim were so down to earth that talking with them felt like talking with friends. Cate and I spoke about everything from traveling to music (and other Welsh musicians in particular), and of course about me learning to speak Welsh, the process of how I had done it, and the experiences I'd had as a result. I'll never forget the moment when Cate called over to her bandmates and exclaimed, “Geordan speaks Welsh! And she knows some of my best friends!” And of course it was nice to share this experience with my dad, who, at one point in time looked at Cate and I in shock as he realized that we had been speaking to each other in  different language.

After eating, talking, and watching the opening acts together for what seemed like forever, it was time for Cate and Tim to go onstage and perform. The show was amazing, and just when I thought that the experience couldn't have been better, Tîm and Cate dedicated the last song of the show to me.

(Cleveland, October 2015)

The events of the night that I met Cate and Tim will likely be a highlight of my life forever, simply because of how kind they were, and because I got to share the moment with my dad. But the experience of meeting Cate and speaking to her in Welsh for a significant amount of time gave me a huge boost of confidence, for more than one reason. At the time that I met her, it had been four years to the date that I had started learning Welsh, and I'd finally gotten a chance to have a real conversation with someone that was fluent in the language. The excitement that we had both felt over having someone to speak Welsh with, even for just a little while, was an amazing feeling. The confidence that I gained from my conversations with Cate was also what gave me the initiative to try something a little different in regard to my Welsh learning. I had been toying around with the idea of making a video of myself speaking Welsh for some time, but had never gotten around to it, and I’d thought that maybe it would be nice to upload a video of myself practicing the language in the hopes of connecting with other learners or speakers. So, I decided to go for it.

I distinctly remember putting off a homework assignment and instead jotting some notes down about what I wanted to say in the video. What resulted was just a three and a half minute video of me talking a little bit about the reasons why I began to learn Welsh and the fact that not many people knew that I spoke it, but that I wanted to connect with other people. I uploaded it to YouTube and later shared it on Facebook. My friends and family seemed to think it was really interesting, even though they didn't understand what I was saying in the video, and many of them had no idea that I’d learned Welsh. I also shared the video on Twitter, but it didn't get nearly as much attention (which I was fine with). However, since I’d been using my Twitter account to practice Welsh occasionally, I'd already had a few followers from Wales that I would interact with occasionally. And one day, I tweeted something about how I had been more dedicated to learning Welsh at the time than I was to learning Spanish or Mandarin, because of the connections I’d made and the encouragement I had gotten from other Welsh speakers. This must have caught someone’s attention and/or prompted someone to visit my Twitter page, because right after that, the video I’d made of myself got retweeted. And, moments later, it got retweeted again. And again.

I have to admit that I felt excited that a few people had seen my video, and I honestly thought that it would end there, after a few retweets and comments. But I received much more attention than I’d expected to get. Retweets kept happening, and comments started to flood in, and people started following me on Twitter at a rate that I was definitely not used to. All of this happened at the tail end of March of this year, a full month after I had recorded the video, and on a weekend where I had been travelling home to surprise my dad for his birthday. I had been travelling by bus at the time, and I spent the entirety of the bus ride to and from home receiving messages from Welsh speakers that had seen the video and had wanted to congratulate me on having learned to speak Welsh. The messages continued to pour in over the course of that weekend, on Twitter, YouTube, and even in some other areas of the internet, such as the SaySomethingInWelsh forums and on Facebook pages where the video had been shared. 

The circulation of the video over the next month (April) resulted in a number of things happening extremely quickly. Only a couple of days after it started making its way around the Welsh-speaking onlmine community, I was contacted by a reporter for Golwg 360 (a Welsh-language news website) and a reporter for BBC Cymru. Both of them wanted to publish an article about me and my Welsh learning endeavors, which felt completely surreal to me. I was also contacted by someone that wanted to interview me via phone, and that interview ended up on BBC Radio Cymru. Needless to say, I really couldn't believe the attention I was getting! But even more exciting was the news that I received about having been nominated to participate in the Dysgwr y Flwyddyn (Learner of the Year) competition that occurs each year at the National Eisteddfod (a festival of Welsh culture). At the exact same time, I received a message from someone that said that they were trying to raise money for me to be able to attend the upcoming Eisteddfod of this year. Ultimately, I found out that I would be unable to attend (due to time conflicts), but I was able to keep my Dysgwr y Flwyddyn nomination and I am fairly sure that I will be able to attend the 2017 Eisteddfod.

In hindsight, I realize that maybe I should have told Cate about all of the things that had happened as a result of me making that video of myself speaking Welsh. Even on the night, I had been planning to try to mention it, but my nerves got the best of me. Overall, though, it was still another amazing experience that I'll remember for years to come.

"Methu Stopio Dysgu Cymraeg!" (BBC Cymru article)
"Dysgu Cymraeg dros yr Iwerydd" (BBC Radio Cymru interview)

To add to all of the excitement of April, I found out soon after all of these interviews happened that Cate Le Bon was going on tour, and coming to Columbus, which was only an hour away from where I was attending graduate school. I bought my ticket as soon as I found out, although it wasn't guaranteed that I would be able to attend, due to work obligations. I got lucky again though, and was able to attend the show after buying a round trip bus ticket and finding a place to stay overnight. This time, traveling was actually a bit risky, because I'd decided to do everything on my own, unlike before. But, I managed to time everything pretty well, until I realized that I had shown up to see the show an entire two hours earlier than necessary. The venue was almost completely empty when I got there, but that meant that I got to sit and enjoy watching the set-up and soundchecks. Had I been feeling brave, I probably would have spoken to one of Cate's bandmates as soon as I saw him, seeing as I'd recognized him as being yet another person whose music I'd been listening to over the years (Stephen Black, aka Sweet Baboo). All I managed to do though was smile and say "Hi" to him, and nothing else. And during Cate's soundcheck, I opted not to approach her, and instead stayed near the back of the venue at the bar. 

It's tempting to say that I don't know what came over me, or why I had been so shy that night, but I'd halfway expected my shyness to completely take over. And, although I do regret not being more outgoing, I still had a great time at the show. When Cate and her band came onstage, I was flooded with excitement and emotion, being happy to see her again and also happy that I'd managed to make it in the first place. Besides that, the music was incredible, and since the show took place at another small venue, I was able to stand right near the stage. After the show, I was able to walk over to where Cate was sitting and selling band merch. Fortunately for me, she recognized me right away and we were able to talk with each other, albeit briefly. I told her that I'd traveled alone this time, although my dad would have loved to come to the show but had been unable to. After I mentioned my dad, Cate asked me how he was, and asked me to tell him that she said hi. But what touched me most was when she let me have a copy of her new album, Crab Day, for free, because I had no cash with me (I only had a debit card). And, when I left, she was sure to tell me to travel safely and that she would see me next time.


Of all of the different events and occurrences that have happened over the past four and a half years as a result of me having attempted to learn Welsh, I have to say that the greatest outcome has been the people that I've been able to meet. Even before I met the majority of my new Welsh-speaking friends (as a result of having been discovered through that video), I found support from other Welsh speakers and Welsh learners almost immediately after I started learning. I'll always be grateful to those people that I met online that responded to me with such enthusiasm when I managed to piece together a couple of words in Welsh and share it on Twitter. However, in the past three months, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of encouragement and support I've gotten from Welsh speakers – particularly those that come from Wales and are first-language Welsh speakers. Although I have studied other languages before and have been met with enthusiasm for trying to learn them, I've never really seen anything like the responses I've gotten from Welsh speakers. I can still hardly believe the amount of messages I have received, and the kind things that people have said to me. People have told me that I am an inspiration to other learners and an example that learning Welsh is, in fact, possible. Others have told me that I speak Welsh very well, that I sound like I am a first-language speaker, or that I speak it better than some people that they know. A few Welsh learners have said that seeing my attempts at learning Welsh has encouraged them to continue to learn the language, or start learning it again after having stopped for whatever reason. And so many people have said that, if I ever come to Wales, they would be willing to let me stay with them, or that they'd love to meet up for a coffee and have a chat. 

Besides the messages I have received, I've also immensely enjoyed getting a chance to connect with Welsh speakers from Wales and from around the world. So many people have been kind enough to let my practice Welsh with them, offer tips or advice, or gently correct my grammar. Some of them have encouraged others to follow me and speak to me. Some have even gone out of their way to help me, by helping me with the grammar patterns I am working on or sending me grammar resources. Outside of language/grammar related things, people have also been kind enough to share songs and poetry with me, share Welsh history or stories with me, or simply send me pictures of their favorite places in Wales, or the places that they live. 
The connections I've made to people in Wales have really made me feel connected to Wales, itself. Through learning more and more of the language, it has been inevitable that I've learned more and more about the culture, even though I can't explain exactly what Welsh culture is. I realize that I am still an outsider, but learning Welsh has exposed me to so much of the culture that I can't help but feel like Wales is now part of me, and I now have a yearning to go there. And, by now, the question isn't whether I am coming to Wales, but when (as many people have asked me).

Knowledge of a new language isn't the only thing that I ended up with as a result of learning Welsh over the past years. Learning a language such as Welsh, which is considered a minority language, has opened my eyes to an issue that affects far too many people. Before, I had hardly stopped to consider just how much one's language could mean to them, or how it could make such an impact on the connection someone could feel to their country or heritage. I did know that this already, but I definitely feel that I have a better understanding now. Before, I didn't really understand the overwhelmingly positive response that I'd gotten from people, or all of the attention that had come my way, simply for learning a language. But, I understand now why it has been such a "big deal" to some that I have learned this language. In the relatively short time that the language has been a part of my life, I have noticed that there has existed (and still exists) a less than positive attitude toward the Welsh language. I've read such ignorant things said about the language  (I won't go into detail, but if you want to get an idea of what I am talking about, visit this Twitter account). I've also learned a bit about the history of the Welsh language, and the fact that it was actively discouraged, that people used to get punished and publicly humiliated for speaking their own language, that entire generations have missed out on the opportunity to learn their native tongue, that people had to fight (and still have to fight) to be able to get services in the Welsh language or simply have their language represented. I could go on. And, it makes me angry, not only because I've become attached to Wales and the people there, but because this is a universal problem – thousands of minority languages and cultures have faced this problem, and I'd imagine that there are many that still do, today. It's no wonder then that an the efforts of an "outsider" to learn about the language and culture would be celebrated, or looked at in an extremely positive light. I myself feel underwhelmed by my own abilities, but I can say that learning Welsh has definitely shifted from just a "weird" hobby or a sort of random endeavor to something I'm completely dedicated to. Besides the fact that I've enjoyed every minute of learning Welsh and I've always wanted to be fluent in another language, I feel now like maybe I will be able to make a contribution in some way, even if it's just a small one.

I would love to be able to become fluent in Welsh and then help other people to learn it. I've always enjoyed learning languages and have never felt intimidated by them, but I've learned that many people do feel intimidated by learning and practicing new languages. I'd love to be someone that can encourage others and show them that they definitely can learn Welsh. If given the opportunity, I would love to become a Welsh tutor or teacher some day. But whatever happens in the future, I know that Wales and the Welsh language will be a part of my life forever, and I can't wait to see what new adventures and experiences I will have and what people I will meet as a result of learning this beautiful language.


  1. Gwych Geordan....jyst gwych Selfelin

  2. Gwych Geordan....jyst gwych Selfelin

  3. Ysbrydoledig! Da iawn ti - dal ati! Huw

  4. Dw i'n dysgu siarad Cymraeg hefyd. You are an inspiration. Diolch yn fawr.