Why are some Welsh speakers aggressive? I’ve had a recent experience when a first language Welsh speaker chose to speak Welsh to her friend in my presence, knowing I would thereby be excluded from the conversation. An English couple I knew who opened a BandB in Betwys tried really hard to learn Welsh, only to have first language Welsh speakers refuse to engage in Welsh conversation with them. A man in my Welsh class told me that Snowdonia first language speakers he knows get really uptight if someone uses South Walian to them. Bad manners aside, is there an underlying problem here?
With respect, this mostly sounds like issues of perception (although of course there are aggressive Welsh speakers out there, just as there are unfortunately aggressive people in every community).
I live in Eryri (Snowdonia) and I have never seen this happen or heard of it happening. Your fellow learner might have misinterpreted the long-running ‘Oh, can’t understand those southerners/northerners’ joke… or he might happen to know some people with real social issues… or he might have run into one person having a bad day for some entirely unconnected reason, and then over-extrapolated from that.
Is it a social norm here? No.
Again, this needs a bit of drilling down. Did they get to the point where they could hold competent Welsh conversations, and then have Welsh speakers refuse to speak any Welsh to them? That would be one of the most staggering things I’ve ever heard.
Or did they, perhaps, while still not very confident in their spoken Welsh, find that Welsh speakers kept switching back into English with them? That’s very common, and comes from a combination of a) having been told for decades that speaking Welsh to people who don’t speak Welsh is ‘racist’, and b) a (misguided) desire to help.
Do you know this Welsh speaker well enough to be entirely confident of her motives?
I ask because while it is of course normal for you to be focused on whether or not you could understand the conversation, her focus wasn’t necessarily on you.
If she had something to say to someone she usually spoke Welsh to and (for whatever reason) wasn’t directing that piece of communication at you, then speaking Welsh might have been the entirely natural default setting for her, and there might have been absolutely no specific intent not to include you.
Catrin and I, for example, will often speak to each other in Welsh when my mother is in the room, even though my mother’s Welsh isn’t fluent - not to exclude, but because it’s our ‘normal’, so unless we’re specifically looking for her input or responding to her, it’s entirely normal for us to speak Welsh to each other.
I suspect it’s pretty normal for people who find that others in their social environment are using a different language to feel that it must be deliberate - but the more you move in multilingual circles, the more ordinary you realise it is. I’ve been in social settings where 20 or 30 people have been using a combination of English, Welsh, Spanish, Basque, Galician and French - with the languages changing depending on the mixture of the sub-groups, and everybody expecting to hear all the different languages flowing around them - and flagging it up if something hasn’t been communicated (so I might shift in my chair, find myself in the middle of a group speaking Basque (which I don’t), and then either move on, or ask something in Welsh or Spanish, or get asked a question in Basque and explain that I didn’t understand in Spanish, etc).
Of course, this is all moot if you know that particular person is a nasty person and was being deliberately nasty to you - but again, no, that is not a social norm, it is a nasty person.
It’s not my personal experience that there are more or less nasty people amongst Welsh speakers than there are anywhere else…
Shw mae, @annemarcellarayment?
I hope you don’t mind, I’ve moved your post to a separate topic, so that people can continue to chat about “becoming” Welsh speakers without being derailed.
However, your question is valid and important.
And the simple answer is “yes”. Long-term Welsh speakers carry a lot of baggage with them, because there is a long history between the Welsh and English languages, and different people react to that history, and the current situation in different ways.
Imagine living in a community where everyone speaks Welsh, and then in the course of 20 years, half the population (or more) of the community being replaced by non Welsh-speakers. This is a reality in many parts of “Welsh speaking” Wales, and different people react to it differently. One serious problem, though, is that we are not allowed to talk about it openly, and when any discussions do make it into any kind of public forum, they are often only there because frustration has turned to anger. That anger can in turn lead to the use of stereotypes and labeling that makes the whole conversation toxic. Or, maybe worse, the discussion is started in a way that is constructive and genuine, but is hijacked and made out to be bigoted or even racist.
Or imagine speaking a language where, in your personal world, it has gone from the language of everyone to a language that you often can’t speak because the constant presence of non Welsh-speakers makes you (appear?) rude and exclusive.
Imagine feeling that your language is dying, and seeing someone who looks like they are the cause.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking into the field of “language shift” where one language (usually a minority language) is replaced by another (usually a majority language), and I understand some of the processes and pressures, and that generally no individual nor even groups of individuals are to blame. I can see some of the big picture that comes of knowing the academic work behind the scenes, and yet even I sometimes feel angry and frustrated by the situation, and sometimes allow that feeling to lead to bad decisions. I’m lucky in that I can usually see and catch my bad decisions before anyone gets hurt (!). I can concentrate on all the people who *are" learning Welsh, rather than on the often lovely people who have, for instance, lived here for 25 years and can’t even pronounce the village name correctly, and in some cases actually genuinely don’t understand “diolch” or “shw mae”.
But other people who haven’t had the positive experiences that I have had with so many beautiful “outsiders” (ie people from outside of the Welsh speaking community) see only the bad. As in most of life, if they want to look for things to get angry about, they will find plenty!
So, yes, we Welsh speakers carry a lot of baggage with us, and some of us carry it badly.
As a positive note, though, the number of people who have a problem with learners is exceedingly small, and reducing, so please accept that some people just don’t play nice (true for any language), and if you experience one, move out of their way. Its their loss!
But let’s also look at the wider social setting, as well.
Everything I’ve said already aside, it is also the case that the Welsh language is under pressure, and that it’s not possible to live normally as a Welsh speaker in the ways you would expect to live normally as an English speaker.
Just the other day, I was taking my mother to see a film with the kids, and when I tried to explain that Catrin and the kids would be catching us up, but that I had their tickets, and I needed to get my mother seated - the usher responded by saying quite aggressively ‘You have to say it in ENGLISH!’.
I don’t know of any English speakers in English speaking countries who get ‘un-normalised’ like that.
And that leads to complicated and varying responses.
Many - far too many - Welsh speakers buy into the mindset of the colonised (plenty of very good research on this, particularly in French, I’m told) - they believe that speaking Welsh is embarrassing and racist and second-class, and that you always ought to speak English to anyone you don’t know for certain speaks Welsh. They will often become the famous Welsh-speakers-who-talk-English-to-learners-who-want-to-practise-Welsh.
Others get defensive - I didn’t lose my temper with the usher, but I did tell her I thought she was being rude - I find it hard to express how offensive it is to me that I should be ordered to speak English - and I’m a pretty easy-going guy in the usual run of things.
So yes, there are complexities here.
But I’ve never met a friendly Welsh speaker who didn’t appreciate the efforts that learners make…
Aran and Iestyn have both given you pretty comprehensive answers, but I felt compelled to add my two cents too. In my experience - and I’ve met quite a few Welsh speakers, both within the SSiW community and without - I have never met a Welsh speaker who was hostile to me when I spoke Welsh to them. I have had people not realise that I wanted to practice, and therefore switch back to English, but they were always thrilled to talk to me about my journey learning Welsh. But really, the only negative reactions I’ve had are from people who don’t speak the language being completely bewildered as to why I’d ‘waste my time’ with a ‘useless’ language. It sounds to me as though you may have just been really unlucky with the people you’ve met - certainly if you don’t let it dint your confidence too much, and continue to try your Welsh out with others, you’ll find lots of supportive native speakers too!
Are you sure she actually did that consciously? I’m not sure if I’ve told the Forum about a time when I was staying with some Sikh friends in south London. Another couple, also Sikhs dropped by. Conversation blossomed. I made a contribution in English. There was a sudden shocked hush. All of them stared. “You speak Punjabi!” said one of the visitors. “No,” I grinned, “but there was enough English for me to follow what you were saying!” My friend told me that he was so very sorry that they had lapsed into Punjabi. None of them had noticed! I knew that and I pointed out that it was their home and they and their Sikh friends always spoke Punjabi, so I wasn’t at all surprised when they did, only a bit surprised by the amount of English that had crept in!
So, your friends may not even realise they are speaking Welsh. If you don’t understand something, can you not say, “Mae’n ddrwg gen i. My Welsh is very new and young and slow. Could you speak yn araf iawn. And could you possibly say that last bit in English?”
p.s. The sad thing is that when I was living on the border of Powis and visiting Gwent a lot, anyone I hard speaking Welsh did so the way those Sikhs spoke Punjabi, with so much English it was perfectly comprehensible to an English speaker. That is how languages are lost!
@annemarcellarayment, I don’t know whether you are familiar with the term “microaggressions”? It refers to the constant little snubs, put downs, digs, adverse comments that are aimed at certain groups. It’s most often used in terms of racism and sexism and explains why someone can explode in anger at something that, taken by itself, is a minor thing. Then they get accused of over-reacting, but it was in fact the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, just one microaggression too many. The same can happen with native Welsh speakers and that can make them seem aggressive, when they’re actually being defensive.
Regarding speaking Welsh in front of you, once you get used to living in a bilingual society, you’ll realise that the language in use within a group will change and shift and you can even get conversations where half the people are speaking Welsh and others are speaking English, each person speaking in the language they find most comfortable. The students I used to teach did this sometimes. Two of them were first language speakers, the other two spoke Welsh but understood much better than they spoke. It’s possible that the Welsh speaker forgot that you didn’t speak Welsh well enough to follow what was being said and didn’t realise you were being excluded.
There are several reasons why Welsh native speakers don’t like speaking Welsh to learners. Depending on when and where the couple with the B&B learned Welsh, they may have spoken too formally. Many native Welsh speakers feel that their Welsh isn’t “good enough” because they throw in English words and use colloquial language. They say things like, “Oh, your Welsh is so good.” I soon realised that that was a danger sign, not a compliment. They are also often terrified that learners will ask them questions that they don’t know how to answer about grammar and mutations. I have also seen more than one learner criticise native speakers for using English loan words instead of the “correct” Welsh word. This is rude in the extreme! I think they thought they were making a joke of it, but telling a native speaker that it should be ‘selsig’ not ‘sossij’ is unhelpful.
Accent can be another problem. Traditional Welsh courses often don’t correct students’ pronunciation enough and though they may be quite fluent speakers, a strong English accent can make it difficult for native speakers to understand. It is tiring speaking to someone who doesn’t speak your language well and Welsh speakers who deal with the public are there to do their job, not be Welsh tutors. The problem with Welsh being a minority language is that the desire for clear and accurate communication often trumps the desire to use Welsh. If you have a queue of people waiting to be served, it’s more important to deal with them quickly and efficiently than that you let a learner practice speaking Welsh. This is why I’ve always felt reluctant to use Welsh “in the wild”. Perhaps because it was instilled in me at a young age that one of the worst sins I could commit was “being a nuisance”?
These are just some of the reasons, but this is already enough of an essay so I’ll leave it there.
Early on I met one of ‘those people’ and it was a setback for me. But since then I have spoken slow, faltering Welsh to hundreds of native speakers and every one has been supportive and encouraging. Yes, they are there but so are the others - and they are still waiting for you to speak Welsh with them.
I think sometimes it’s very easy and perhaps part of human nature, to project our fears, feelings of inadequacy or frustrations onto other things or other people.
Thanks to all for a wide range of perspectives and answers. I didn’t expect so many people to take an interest in my question. Between them I can put together a picture of how things are, which may be different sometimes from how they appear. I think I can draw a conclusion now you have helped me build up a bigger picture. I wanted to get the perspective of Welsh speakers, and I have.
I can’t comment in detail on the bandb couple or the man in Welsh class as I am only repeating what they said and how they felt - the man in Welsh class felt that the Snowdonians were being fiercely protective of their culture, the bandb couple felt that the people in the town just didn’t want them there. Whether they were interpreting their situation correctly I cannot say. I can only comment on what happened to me, and on reflection this woman’s social skills may have been to blame. And the fact that she didn’t like me. Or both. Either way, the Welsh language thing wasn’t really the issue.
But there are ‘issues’ sometimes with some people, or perhaps ‘reasons’. And those background niggles may rise to the surface and (sometimes inadvertently) give offence to someone who will not understand the underlying reason, and draw a conclusion about it based on what they understand, or think they understand. Well, that’s life I guess. We see according to how we are.
Apart from the aforementioned personal bad experience, all the other first language Welsh people I have met have been perfectly nice, and eager to share their language and culture in a positive way. If that were not so, I wouldn’t be bothering to learn their language!
I’m confident this will continue to be the most common experience for you with learning Welsh - and I hope you saw this (partly triggered by your question):
Today I went to the National Library of Wales, hoping to enjoy an hour’s listening in Welsh by doing the guided tour. There were 6 of us - two native Welsh speakers, two keen Welsh learners and two non-Welsh speakers. So the guide spoke in English to us all. I think this experience is far more typical than people speaking Welsh in order to exclude a non Welsh speaker.
Aran and Iestyn know, and feel strongly about, the issues faced by those busting a gut to keep their language and culture strong in the face of very strong counter-pressures. But as a learner, I can honestly say that I have received enormous kindness and encouragement even when able to do little more than say ‘Sh’mae’ and ‘Diolch’.
Good luck, Anne, with learning Welsh - I hope you feel the happiness and satisfaction I do as you start to be able to understand and join in those conversations!
I don’t think Welsh speakers purposely try and exclude people from discussions - but for a lot of people, speaking in Welsh is just natural.
I’ve only been speaking for about 13 months, but I’ve got a group of friends who only really know me as a bona fide Welsh speaker - so to speak English with any of them would feel kind of weird.
Let me give a better example. Last Friday we went out in Aber - there were a good 5/6 of us, so whenever we went to the bar - 2 of us always went up. The bar we went to was a “generally English speaking” bar, there’s one guy we know of who speaks Welsh but he wasn’t working that night.
When we get to the bar, I’ll generally say to my friend - whilst the barman isn’t necessarily engaging with us yet “Be’ ti’n moyn 'te?” (What do you want? - but I now shorten everything to within an inch of its life!), he’ll answer me back in Welsh. Then as soon as we’ve got the barman’s attention - we’ll switch to English in order to get the drink order across - then when he goes off to pull the pints, me and my mate return back to Welsh to chat for a minute. Then when the barman comes back, we’ll say “thanks” “cheers”, “that’s great ta!” “How much is that” etc all in English. Then when we’re juggling the pints on the way back to the table, we’ll go back to Welsh.
Now I can see how non-Welsh speakers who were nearby can easily think “They switched to Welsh” when I came in - because in their eyes, they just saw two guys flipping between languages at will.
Likewise, my wife and I now pretty much only speak Welsh to each other - but if we’re visiting her mother’s house, we’ll switch back to English so that her mother is included - however if I want to say something just to my wife (i.e “Have you remembered to book us in at the Doctors next week?” or “Do you want to get some chips on the way home?”) then generally I’ll say that in Welsh - just because it feels so normal nowadays. It’s not to exclude her, it’s just that she’s not coming back to Aber with us for chips.
On the North v. South thing - generally I’ve found it’s all quite playful. I did have one ex-friend back in my early days who was very Anti-Northern, but he’s no longer a friend - and generally I accepted that he was just a rude person.
In the same way you’ll also get Londoners who think the Scouse accent is “common” and you’ll get Liverpudlians who think anyone with a “posh twang” is a terrible person.
It’s all largely swings and roundabouts.
All really interesting and revealing stories! Thank you!
I spent a week in North Wales last September and I used my obviously very limited Welsh on many occasions - whether by starting a conversation in a shop, wishing the bus driver “bore da / s’mae”, greeting a locomotive driver on the Rheilffordd Llyn Padarn, or paying to use the (clean) public loo in Betws-y-Coed. I do not recall a single time when my effort was not really appreciated. Sometimes my Welsh was better than that of the locals: “sori, I don’t speak Welsh, but the person on the next check-out till does”. Sometimes I was given an impromptu lesson in Welsh; other times a brief “bore da”.
Correct; in all societies there are less pleasant people, or maybe someone just having a bad day (should always be borne in mind). Trouble is, we tend to remember meeting those people and not the nice ones.
Sorry @annemarcellarayment if you had a negative experience; it’s not nice, but I do hope that it’s also atypical. Best of luck in everything.
My tuppen’orth is don’t dwell on one bad experience that may not have been what it seemed like, often you focus on that negative response and find explanations for it that are not true. That is simply anxiety and we all have experienced anxiety when we start speaking Welsh. Just like the phenomena of ‘I went into the pub and they all started speaking Welsh’ , it’s deciding on a negative explanation that isn’t really true.
The vast vast majority of 1st language Welsh speakers I have met have always been incredibly encouraging and positive. You do meet the odd person who doesn’t want to talk with you, but remember that happens in English and every other language to. I understand Iestyn’s point about responses to English taking over as the community language in some places, which is partly a response to the aggressiveness of a few to the Welsh language. Most of Britain has been a monolingual culture for so long, as Aran was saying, it isn’t used to hearing different languages spoken especially when they know that ‘they can speak English’. I went to a course in Germany, I was the only native English speaker and 99% of the time everyone spoke in English, despite everyone apart from me being comfortable in German or French, people forget how lucky British folk are that you can get by in so much of the world without leaving English and so many do not know what it is like to be learning a new language.
I have met someone who didn’t want to speak Welsh to a learner as they couldn’t understand why on Earth anyone would want to learn to speak Welsh who hadn’t picked it up from childhood and they didn’t want to encourage it! He just thought I was daft and not hostile towards me at all, but I could easily have reached that conclusion if I had been feeling anxious at the time… Such people are a tiny minority. you get every type of person in Welsh as you do in any other language and i suspect that he would have happily chatted with me if my Welsh was faster. Just look forward to the next chance you get to speak to someone who wants to talk with you.
Hi Karla, you raise an interesting point and one that I can relate to personally. The ‘useless language’ idea is something I have encountered within my own family. I am of mainly Irish extraction, and my grandmother would have been fluent in both Irish and English. However, my grandfather (also Irish) regarded the Irish language as useless, and a waste of time to learn. He was so hostile to it that he forbade his children from sitting exams in the subject, which led (according to the educational structures of the time) to all his children leaving school with no leaving certificate. He was an ambitious businessman with social aspirations who regarded the Irish language as belonging to bog-trotters and other ‘backward’ people. Yet he was a patriotic Irishman from a family committed to the Republican cause. Life is certainly not black and white, dydy?
Hi Bronwen, I thoroughly enjoy learning Welsh. The challenge is great for mental exercise and I get a real sense of achievement especially when I can attempt a bit of creative writing using the extremely limited vocabulary I have gathered over my 4 months as a learner. SSiW has been of enormous benefit in building my knowledge and confidence, and in the class I attend the teacher’s enthusiasm and skill in communication are first class.
Hi Aran[quote=“aran, post:4, topic:10808”]
the usher responded by saying quite aggressively ‘You have to say it in ENGLISH!’.
Yes that’s interesting, because you don’t know what was going on in her head when she said it, and what her level of understanding of Welsh was. You took offence at her, but maybe none was intended, and she was just expressing her own sense of inadequacy. It just goes to show that misunderstandings can cut both ways.
Yes, I am very often humbly grateful when travelling abroad that all the world pretty much can speak my native tongue, and I’m also glad that I didn’t have to learn English as a second language, because I think it must be very difficult for others to learn, with all its strange quirks and irregularities. I daren’t complain about Welsh being difficult!