by Suw on June 24, 2003

Nwdls left a comment on the post about me possibly doing a linguistics degree, but my response got so big I thought I’d put it in as a proper post instead. This is what Nwdls said:

You're right about uninspiring teaching. The whole reasoning for me getting into language was a teacher in school who managed to communicate French to me in such an effortless way that I felt obliged to find other languages to learn. I've haven't found anyone that competent after. It's difficult to learn something in isolation too, I mean I learnt Spanish twice a week for six months and now I'm going there in two weeks I'm bricking it! There's none of that immersion you have when you're a kid, totally surrounded by it. Kids tend not to get embarrassed about trying stuff either.

In my opinion everybody has different systems that they use to learn language most efficiently. I prefer to memorise grammar and verbs then do writing exercises or read to get my vocabulary up. I'm so crap at the oral stuff (ooer!). Maybe my mind is just a bit too slow for that thinking on the spot stuff! Call me Linguasloth. Tan toc.

Funny, Nwdls, I had exactly the opposite experience with French, although it wasn't my teacher's fault. I changed schools and so 'lost' a year's worth of French lessons. Hence I felt unutterably crap in my new school and gave the language up at the earliest possible opportunity, despite my French teacher begging me not to. He said I had a natural aptitude for languages, which I completely refused to believe at the time.

Ironic, really. I wonder what he'd say now if he knew I was doing for a living. Probably 'I told you so'.

Anyway we had to do one language at school, so I took Latin instead which I much preferred. Not that I did particularly well with Latin – I had to resit it, and eventually got a B at O-Level. (Yes, I am that old.) I’ve a shite memory, and am not so good at remember conjugations and declensions, although I can still recite ?amo? if the desire so takes me.

I also have to agree that learning in isolation is a real pig. I've spent five years learning Welsh from books and friends over the internet. I’ve had maybe a dozen or so private lessons, and three one-day intensive courses. The rest of my knowledge has come from the written word and getting drunk at the Eisteddfod. Hence my spoken Welsh is a bit crap really, but written I can blag it ok.

I'd like to spend some time up at Nant Gwrtheyrn perhaps, or maybe go to Yr Wladfa where I'd be forced to suddenly get very good. But I foresee neither of those eventualities happening any time soon, due to lack of funds and time.

One of the biggest problems I have with language learning, though, is that so much material is a one-horse race. You get books or software or CDs where there is one single core teaching concept, and it gets so damn dull after a while. Why have educators not figured out that variety actually is the spice of life, and that those of us with a painfully short attention span need to be kept engaged in the subject matter?

I got the Michel Thomas tapes for learning French a few months ago, and whilst they’re great to begin with because you feel like you’re making real progress, after a while they’re just tedious. Same with the two Dutch courses I have, the Linguaphone Russian course, and the Polish and Cornish course books I have.

The reason I was successful (to some extent) with Welsh is because I have Welsh speaking friends who, for the last five years, have bombarded me with the language via email on a regular basis, thus forcing me to learn. It’s certainly not down to Gareth King’s Colloquial Welsh, although I have to confess that sadly the dialect I speak is Kingian.

(I’ve been trying really hard to teach myself to speak Gog instead, but Hwntw phrases still slip out, damnit.)

As for learning methodology, personally I'm crap at generalising from grammatical rules. I need to see examples, yet more examples, with a further helping of even more examples before I'm happy that I've learnt anything at all. I just don't like it when someone gives me a rule and expects me then to 'get it' and be able to apply it forevermore. I may know it logically, but it won't be embedded in my psyche, where it needs to be, until I've been through a heap load of examples.

I think that in this way I learn in a very child-like way. There's just no point trying to teach a child language using rules. They ignore you and learn from the very example of your speech instead. I’m like that, and I’ve watched myself over the last five years go through the classic U-shape development that children go through.

First they do really well cos they’re just mimicking what they hear. Then they start generalising from the rules that they have subconsciously learnt and start to make a mess of it because they’re over-generalising. Then they get enough examples to refine the rules they’ve learnt and start getting things right again.

I can see that I’ve been through that precise pattern of development, especially with mutations. In fact, I think I’m still going through it. I am now starting to ?feel? when mutations are right or wrong rather than thinking about them logically, but I do still over-generalise and camdrieglo from time to time. (Er, ok, quite often.)

I suppose it's no wonder I like Pinker, really.

Ha, it’s funny, but I was going to have a whine on here about the lack of decent Welsh grammar books tonight anyway. Gareth King has been driving me nuts today. I spent two hours this morning trying to figure out the truth from his inconsistent and entirely unclear explanations of how to link subordinate clauses that use if/whether. In Modern Welsh he gives one set of rules of the circumstances under which ?a? is and isn’t used as the linking word, but in Intermediate Welsh he gives examples which completely contradict those rules.

So I’ve been trying to find an alternative source. The only thing I can come up with so far is A Comprehensive Welsh Grammar by David A Thorne, which appears to be out of print. Most of the web sites like Amazon say it’ll take them six weeks to find it, but I don’t believe them. I’ve heard that tale from them before, and after three months trying to locate two Elliott Smith singles that they kept saying they could supply, they gave up on me.

Anyway, it seems that the really big Waterstones on Gower Street in London can get it within two weeks, so I’ve ordered it from them. I really need to have a grammar source that is not written by Gareth King. King is fine up to a point, and I really respect the work that he’s done, but I’m starting to distrust him as I see more and more inaccuracies and omissions not only in Modern Welsh but also in his Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary (for which you would have to have really big pockets!).

Maybe I’ve been primed for this though. I had a conversation with Ceri Jones, the Welsh tutor/writer, at the beginning of the year and we were then both bemoaning the lack of decent teaching material for Welsh – he from the point of view of the tutor, me from the point of view of the fairly advanced (ish) learner. So much of the stuff that is produced is really quite substandard, and I believe that the language is suffering because of it.

I do have Heini Gruffudd’s Cymraeg Da, but what a waste of space that it. It’s supposed to be “a Welsh grammar for learners”, as it says on its cover, but it’s in Welsh! I mean, if my Welsh was good enough that I could understand complex grammatical explanations in my target language, why would I be needing to buy a book on grammar anyway?

I really think that Y Lolfa missed the point completely on that one. Either that or they were trying to make some sort of political point that I’m just not getting.

See, this is where being a learner who (effectively) teaches is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I have an invaluable understanding of the learning process and of what it takes to learn a new language from scratch as an adult. On the other hand, putting these Welsh worksheets together is a bit like having a wisdom tooth pulled with no anaesthetic.

That said, I do wonder whether I am actually at such a disadvantage, considering that I do the Welsh worksheet in half the time that my translation agency takes to migrate the Welsh worksheets into French. And there’s like four of them on the team, and really only one of me (plus a translator to proof everything).

Ah, but that’s getting into a whole new rant that I really shouldn’t get into here.

For those of you not conversant with Welsh stuff:

Eisteddfod – big yearly allegedly cultural gathering, stuffed full of a) bigwigs looking poncy and b) students getting hammered on the 'maes ieuenctid' (the youth field).
Nant Gwrtheyrn – does residential Welsh courses for adults, up in North Wales. Very beautiful round there.
Yr Wladfa – name of the Welsh colony in Patagonia. No, really.
Gog – North Wales dialect/person.
Hwntw – South Wales dialect/person.
mutation – in some grammatical circumstances, the initial letter of certain Welsh words can change, or 'mutate', e.g. 'cath' (cat) becomes 'y gath' (the cat).
camdreiglo – to fuck up a mutation by mutating something you shouldn't have.
Y Lolfa – usually very good Welsh publishing company.

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