- SPEAKING WELSH for the first time with Richard Simcott and Having Fun in 13 LANGUAGES at Polyglot Gathering 🇵🇱 Day 2 - 09/08/2022
- Why is it SO DAMN HARD to Learn Welsh? How Not to Revitalise Your Language - 06/08/2022
- I’ve reached Advanced C1 level Polish in one year!? Polyglot Gathering in Warsaw, Day 1 - 07/07/2022
I really want to learn Welsh.
I don’t know why—I just started ‘vibing’ with the language, after a few months of dabbling. And the native speakers I’ve spoken to so far have been very enthusiastic about sharing their language and culture. It’s one of my favourite things about studying a minority language.
And after all this, I can tell you: it’s hard to learn.
But not for the reasons you’re thinking!
The language itself is not hard. I made a little meme about the mutations when I first read about them, but since then, I’d like to officially rescind it.
The grammar is okay, especially after Polish. It has quite a lot of unique vocabulary, especially where most European languages share a Latin loanword, but it also has a crap ton of modern English loans.
What makes it so hard?
Resources. (The right ones. Or: lack thereof.)
Allow me to explain.
What resources do you need to learn a language?
Learning a language, whether on your own or with guidance, is an incredibly long journey.
To be successful, you need a variety of learning resources, tailored to each level, skill, and learner.
In the absolute beginning, you need textbook-style resources to familiarise yourself with the language. Afterwards, you need resources that build your vocabulary and ease of commanding the language.
My learning philosophy and method are centred around input. Why? Because that’s how I learnt English, without even realising it.
After I get a sense of how a language works, I want to find quasi-authentic materials, with plenty of context. While I obviously cannot comprehend native-level content yet, I appreciate content that is made to resemble that. For example, that can be stories or dialogues that put words into context sentences, and sentences into real-life situations. The overall context is what guides me through the usage examples and ties everything together.
Another crucial element is discovery. The process of figuring out a structure—turning something incomprehensible into comprehensible—is in itself an important factor in making the language stick. I don’t want to be told something and given single sentences as examples; I want to figure something out through finding real examples.
Therefore, this article will primarily discuss learning resources in terms of the range of content available for input-based learning. Because for any successful language learner, wide-ranging input will make up the bulk of their process and teach them most of the words and structures they use, while output is mostly consolidating what they already know.
Back to Welsh.
What does Welsh offer learners?
First of all, there is no shortage of Welsh learning resources. With plenty of passionate speakers and conservationists, and with the Welsh government aiming for 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, there is an abundance of effort and money poured into creating resources for first- and second-language learners.
There just…isn’t enough variety.
I get the feeling that they are trying very hard to promote learning the language, but the only way they know how is through schools and classes.
Whenever I talk to learners, teachers, or anyone connected to promoting Welsh learning, they always say ‘just find someone and speak to them’!
But as many a seasoned language learner will tell you, in most cases, that’s neither the best use of your time and money, nor the best way make sure the language ‘sticks’ in your head. Unless you form a deep and long-lasting connection with a native speaker, chatting up random people will only help you practise surface-level conversation.
Meanwhile, the resources seem to be completely invested in the oral teaching method, and not things to help you improve outside the classroom. I have nothing against classroom teaching, and in fact, I’m very excited that these courses are widely available, especially the online courses, at a very affordable cost. There are even half price offers that are often available, if you look out for them!
My issue is with a imposed dependence on a small range of resources, and a lack of resources to complement the learning.
The Welsh-learning resource landscape (as I know it) currently suffers from a huge chasm between beginner resources and advanced content.
Currently, it is easy to find learning materials with the ‘traditional’ teaching methods, but not anything that’s suitable for the Internet-era self-learning methods.
‘Traditional’ VS ‘Modern’ Learning Resources
At this point, you might think that I’m one of the goshdarn millenials who can’t stand a book and need everything in an app.
Well, no. I like a good textbook. But learning a language is a complex undertaking, and you need all types of resources on the way. That includes ‘traditional’ instructional texts, telling you about the language, and ‘modern’ ones, such as systems to drill vocabulary, practise putting words and phrases in context, libraries of short-form reading/listening materials, etc.
You should never expect to pick up one book (or any single resource) and become fluent just from it.
My favourite tools in the beginner stages are LingQ and Drops. They allow me to build a foundation of vocabulary and comprehension that facilitates further acquisition. But of course, Welsh is too niche to be included in these programs. I’ve seen things like Samoan and Yoga Sanskrit on there—but I don’t want to sound like any language is more worth learning than another; the more, the merrier. Either way, I understand that it’s these companies’ prerogative to make their own business decisions and include or exclude certain languages.
I also do enjoy Glossika, which (!!!) provides Welsh for free, but I consider that less as language acquisition and more as drilling.
Now let’s talk about the most important player in this field.
When I first looked for Welsh learning resources, I often come across one particular set of textbooks (apart from, curiously, English-language Welsh websites for children to learn about natural resources).
In fact, it’s the first result when you google ‘welsh learning resources’.
These books adhere to an official curriculum, and are available for free if you print them yourself.
These are excellent resources, and it’s amazing that they’re offered for free! Most of the activities are varied and cover a lot of ground, from dialogues to cloze passages. There is also an online interactive course on the website, but it seems to be more like a companion to the books.
Since I have a good grasp on the grammar (through Duolingo), I’m currently trying to speed through the books and absorb of the authentic content as much as I can, skipping the drills. So what I do is I listen to a dialogue, then read through it, then listen however many times it takes until I understand everything without thinking much. Finally, I shadow the audio to imitate the melody of the language.
I love that the dialogues are in a natural speaking pace, while also clearer than speaking in real life. Using the online interface, it’s easy to rewind and loop difficult bits.
They occasionally include activities that are explicitly designed for classroom teaching, and not self-learning. This means the contents expect you to be interacting with the teacher and fellow students while using them, such as asking each other about themselves. So the activities don’t work at all for a solo learner.
Besides, while they cover a variety of levels, these books follow the same grammar-based teaching method. That means a lot of hand-holding, explanations, and building blocks. It’s a bit afraid to let you dive in the deep end and figure out a text. It’s always telling you about the language, not showing you how it’s really used.
What about YouTube?
So after checking the first few results on Google, I went to YouTube and searched for similar things.
I found Dysgu Cymraeg, a substantial and popular channel with a large number of learner-focused videos! This is very exciting.
But once I click on any of their purple thumbnails, it soon dawned on me: it’s the same textbook, but in video form!
As you might guess from the systematic, consistent thumbnails and titles, these are organised exactly how the books are: by level, by dialect, and by unit.
I do appreciate this presentation of the content, which is more lively, relatable, and helps the language reach more people, compared to the static books and online self-learning courses.
It’s helpful to hear the content and examples demonstrated live and said aloud, so you can repeat and internalise it.
But keep in mind that this is the third format that I’ve seen the same content in.
What about Duolingo?
You wouldn’t believe it: even Duolingo’s Welsh course is designed around the very same classroom curriculum. It is emphasised many times in the course notes.
The course creators intended it this way so that Duolingo complements the publicly available Welsh classes and reinforces the materials taught in class. I assume they expect most people to learn this way, and I can appreciate the reasoning behind it.
But as I stressed in my full review again and again (you should read it—it’s a detailed dive into its strengths and problems that grew out of this very article!), while reviewing and reinforcing the same ideas and content again and again is a good way to learn, it’s even better to revisit the same concepts from different perspectives, different explanations and different examples.
So if I had the choice, I’d always prefer to speed through 2 different beginner textbooks, rather than dive deep into one book two times.
So far, I’ve found a set of textbook, a self-learning system that’s a digitised version of the books, a YouTube channel that’s the books taught by a teacher, and a Duolingo course that’s the books but with more bells and whistles and jingles and jokes.
It’s like every single learner is expected to go to a class and adhere strictly to the curriculum and the content it includes. Everyone is constantly aware of and discussing their official level and what they have and haven’t learnt in class. If not for the availability of online classes nowadays, a lot of learners would have been shut out of the system.
This isn’t an ideal situation when you’re looking a variety of resources, nor is it a situation that I’ve encountered before.
What about S4C?
If you search ‘dysgu cymraeg’ on YouTube, after the aforementioned channel, the second result you get is the S4C Dysgu Cymraeg.
It’s a series of videos in different levels of Welsh, aimed at learners. They are, if you ask me, way more colourful and interesting to watch.
There are cooking videos, videos about festivals, vlogs, etc. They don’t publish videos very often, if you compare them to any other public broadcasters, but most importantly, they’re relatively interesting. And compelling content is a pillar of language learning.
How could this channel be made even better? Well…
A fair few of the videos happen to be vocabulary lists, i.e. single words on top of a short clip. In my personal opinion, if I wanted a vocabulary list, I could just read one. When I watch a video, I hope to see those words used in sentences and real-life/realistic situations.
So ideally, after introducing the word, they could tell me something about it or show me a brief scene where it’s used. The best example I can give is this Easy Turkish video about different words for emotions!
My only concern with S4C Dysgu Cymraeg is subtitles. When a video does show Welsh being used naturally, there are monolingual Welsh subtitles.
Once I start watching the videos, I notice that the subtitles don’t match up. I would hear one sentence that’s reflected in the subtitles, and then hear a lot more words that are nowhere to be found in them. Occasionally, the speaker expresses a similar meaning as the subtitles show, but using completely different wordings. The subtitles are a summary of the speech.
Some of the words that are missing in the subs would be shown in a vocabulary list on the upper corner, but in short, there is a lot of guessing involved.
For subtitles in content aimed at native speakers, this usually happens in order to save screen space and keep the subs succinct. It’s also because the subs are (supposedly) meant for people who are hard of hearing, which are a separate user base from people listening to the audio.
However, in learner content, the audio and the subs are meant for the same people. They should definitely match.
In these videos, I would rewatch the same sentence several times and look up words that I think I heard, and in the end, I’m still not sure what was said.
This is not only a waste of time and effort, but also hugely impacts the level of interest in the video and the flow of enjoying the content, both of which are crucial to internalising the words and structures.
S4C Dysgu Cymraeg on S4C Clic
That was S4C Dysgu Cymraeg on YouTube. But if you go to the Dysgu Cymraeg category on S4C Clic (the on-demand service), it’s a totally different story.
Instead of short videos with questionable subtitles, the category consists of authentic content in the form of TV programmes. Granted, the level might be slightly higher, but from what I see, they’re still aimed at non-native speakers, and the subtitles seem to be bilingual and completely accurate.
What about native content?
We’ve talked about S4C’s learner content. On the other side of things, there is native content. Now, since Welsh is sadly still a minority language, it’s completely natural that authentic content isn’t exactly everywhere.
When it comes to television, there’s S4C, the Welsh channel…which I love! It’s invigorating to see users of a minority language enjoy their own mass media. But what do they offer?
In my past experience learning other languages, I enjoy watching or listening to the news. Because there’s new content every day and it’s relevant to you.
When I tried to watch the news on S4C, I realised it’s not available on catch-up.
For some reason, the channel has decided that news programmes are only available if you watch them live, in contrast to, say, BBC News.
Not only can you not watch it in your free time, but as a non-native speaker, you have one chance to catch everything that’s being said. No slowing down, no rewinding, no looking things up. You listen to complex topics at native speed, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Similarly, a lot of good shows expire quickly on the service. You’ll easily find the latest series of popular shows, but lack the context of earlier seasons to help familiarise yourself with the setting and the language used. I remember seeing an interesting show, thinking ‘I’ll get back to this when I’m at the right level, only to realise it’ll have expired by then.
Not exactly ideal for learning. How I wish these programmes were more easily accessible – even if I had to pay for it! Compare this to Taiwanese public broadcasters like 公視台語台, which broadcasts in the Taiwanese (Hokkien) language, a minority native language. They update their YouTube channels (one for news programmes, one for the rest) with a wealth of content, all of which you can watch any time, at your own pace. My only gripe is that the subtitles are in Mandarin. Which brings me to…
It’s the same story again
In my other languages, sometimes I try to tackle content beyond my level. Either I look up too many words, or I tolerate the ambiguity and try to get a general idea, with the aim of enjoying the content.
But in these cases, one thing is crucial (once again): subtitles. Here is how I wish the channel’s online service could be improved.
First of all, you’re left to depend on your ears, despite the existence of subtitles.
On the S4C website, if you’re lucky, you get to read Welsh or English subtitles (only one at a time though). Otherwise, you only get Welsh subtitles, or worse, you only get English subtitles, on certain programmes.
In the worst case scenario, I’ve had to read the English, and then, knowing what the message is, listen to the Welsh and try to guess every word that’s being said.
It’s like the channel only expects two groups of viewers: Welsh native speakers (with no hearing loss, mind you!) and non Welsh speakers, and nothing in between. The English subtitles do help viewers understand the show, presumably people with no intention of learning Welsh.
But to learners, the monolingual English subs do the opposite of teaching them. They have to make an extra effort to guess what it’s saying, so it doesn’t help them learn what they don’t already know.
Meanwhile, the Welsh subtitles (if there’s any) are generally not very accurate to what’s being spoken. Granted, exact transcriptions are rarely found in subtitles…unless you’re watching my Cantonese-language vlogs 🙂
A certain level of paraphrasing is normal in subtitles, but the difference between speech and subs in the S4C programmes I’ve seen so far is too big to be effective for learners. Like with S4C Dysgu Cymraeg, the subtitles summarise, rather than reflect, what’s being spoken.
I’ve even seen subtitles that have a combination of these two big problems: one line of English subtitles, summarising a whole 10 seconds (2–4 sentences) of Welsh speech. A lot of information is left out.
Sadly, this is not unlike Taiwanese television teaching Taiwanese using Chinese (Mandarin) subtitles. I keep getting the feeling that these channels are tailored to heritage speakers, not learners. Culturally, the Taiwanese language has long been treated as a oral-only language, so you often see Chinese subs or no subs at all. Welsh, on the other hand, has a long written tradition. It should not be facing the same problems as Taiwanese. Right?
I don’t expect the channel to do things a certain way, because I admire their creative output and respect their decisions on how to use their resources. But it’s now widely reported that more and more viewers prefer subtitles, even in their native language, which might factor into channels’ future decisions.
Besides, if they’re making subtitles anyway, why not make them better at conveying the information? That would also help Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers enjoy the programmes as they are meant to be!
Is there content on other platforms?
Because of copyright issues, S4C’s content is only available on their own site and BBC iPlayer, both of which have their own video players, and are not at all available on YouTube or Netflix.
Not only are those players not as user-friendly or reliable, but they also prevent me from using tools such as Language Reactor to streamline the process of working through difficult content. In contrast, most languages have content on Netflix or YouTube, where I can use extension to read two subtitle tracks at the same time. (Incidentally, this doesn’t work with S4C Dysgu Cymraeg on YouTube either, because it doesn’t use YouTube’s CC soft captions.)
Fun fact: there is a Welsh language show, Hinterland/Y Gwyll, that is SAID to be available on UK Netflix. As it turns out, they filmed the show in both Welsh and English, and only the latter is available on Netflix. The Welsh version is only on S4C, where, like all the catch-up TV services, it’s expired and is no longer available.
If you take a peek at the sister language…
Not unlike my Duolingo Welsh review, I’m tempted to draw a comparison with Scottish Gaelic again. SpeakGaelic, an entire system and platform of materials, resources, and classes launched relatively recently, does it excellently, from what I’ve heard.
If you check out the YouTube channel, they have a regular learner’s show, complete with a host, guests, and different segments including realistic scenarios, sketches, thematic vocabulary lists in context, cultural segments, and interviews with learners. The show is produced and updated constantly, so it interacts with the SpeakGaelic courses and their learners, instead of adhering to one fixed curriculum and set of content. Of course, it’s all fully subtitled, or alternatively available as a separate transcript.
It’s literally a TV show, a podcast and a website thing put together…Gaelic learner
Gaelic is a lot more endangered than Welsh is. But despite the small number of speakers, the organisation makes good use of the resources and contributors they have, and through good design and planning, continues to create compelling and useful learning materials to revitalise their language.
How could the resources be better suited for learners?
From my experience with subtitles in Welsh, I’m under the impression that some creators are convinced that you learn a language by ear, and only by ear. Which is not true.
Increasingly, both research and anecdotes from the best and most successful language learners around the world have shown that the most efficient and effective way to acquire a language is through a large amount of comprehensible input. That means both accessible at different levels and equipped with tools to help learners comprehend the content.
This doesn’t negate the need for classroom learning. In fact, it enhances it, because it helps learners internalise the language more effectively and tailor their learning to themselves, hence also enhancing the quality of student discussions in class, and encourages learners to enjoy interacting in Welsh and learn new things from the speaking activities, rather than just treat them as drills. (I’ve had classes in other languages where my classmates spoke like machines. That’s not an encouraging environment!)
I hope this idea will soon take root among organisations that promote learning Welsh. They don’t even need to invest more time and resources into increasing the amount of content; whether it’s content from broadcasters or institutions, all that is necessary are small tweaks to remove learning obstacles and make the regular content more accessible.
Other excellent sources of materials
To successfully revitalise and popularise a minority language like Welsh, there needs to be plenty of reading and listening materials at every level.
Even now—I’m not even far into the learning process—I would really appreciate some beginner-ish self-learning materials, where I can see vocabulary and grammar items ‘in the wild’, and form connections in my brain using the context within these narratives.
I’ve tried Clozemaster, which is always my go-to in any language, and provides exercises on vocabulary in context.
Sadly, because Welsh doesn’t receive as much attention as bigger languages, the only game mode available is ‘random’, which means you get sentences in wildly different levels of difficulty. Not ideal for a semi-beginner.
Thankfully, I’ve managed to find some resources to aid my studies! And with some workarounds, I can still make less ideal resources work.
I would like to give props to some independent content creators, such as Marian, who makes interesting and personal videos targeting learners (and incidentally also speaks the dialect I’m aiming to learn). She makes plenty of content at a beginner-ish level, with simple sentences and repeated vocabulary, in real-life situations. It’s the perfect bridge between a textbook and the more natural dialogues on S4C Dysgu Cymraeg, for example.
More importantly, Marian usually includes (mostly accurate) Welsh subtitles, sometimes English and/or Spanish. I just wish it was bilingual all the time. But as a YouTuber who subtitles my own videos for Cantonese learners, I know how much effort that takes.
Can you believe an independent YouTuber is doing such a better job (at a simple thing, might I add) than the big broadcasters and organisations?
Another great one is Hansh, which is a channel for native and advanced speakers (and part of S4C as well). Unfortunately, most of their videos suffer from the same problems with subtitles, or lack thereof. But they make up for it with high-quality, lively, regular, relevant, and comprelling content, on a huge variety of subjects, providing you with a range of vocabulary.
What’s even better? In some videos, such as the recent documentary series on cheerleading, they’ve added subtitles. In English. AND Welsh (pretty much perfectly accurate)! AND they’re YouTube soft captions, which means you can use Language Reactor to read both subtitles at the same time and compare them!
If you look at other languages, they tend to make have high-quality content easily available on the Internet. Easy Languages, for example, has expanded to cover a large variety of languages, with plenty of lesser-studied ones.
Thankfully, there are a few episodes dedicated to Welsh! The very same Marian recently took over and started making new episodes.
Let’s hope for more non-textbooky and learner-friendly content, of any sort!
Forget about videos…let’s just read
If we look at text-only materials, there’s plenty. Golwg360‘s news site has a vocabulary tool that makes it easy to look up words on the spot, not to mention the learner-focused articles with dedicated vocab lists. If you happen to find interesting texts elsewhere, you can also use hir-iaith hi-lite as an easy and convenient way to look up and save words.
The only thing that’s lacking, here, is audio. I can already hear Steve Kaufmann’s voice ringing in my ears: the best way to acquire a language is to read and listen at the same time. Outside of video content, the only audio you’ll find that accompanies texts is, in most cases, computer voices, which isn’t the best for a learner.
Outside the online world, there are a lot of great reading materials for all levels. I recently purchased Parsnips and Owls by Stephen Owen Rule, which is excellently written set of short stories for post-Duolingo learners. I can’t list everything, but I’m sure you can easily find something suitable for you, whether from these free children’s books, or in your nearest Welsh bookstore. But once again, I end up listening to my own voice, instead of a native speaker.
Conclusion: What can we do?
From the perspective of a seasoned language learner, learning Welsh so far has been an uphill battle. I’m not expecting the same amount of resources as big languages, but rather, I’m just shocked at how much of the resources available require extra steps on the learner’s part to make learning possible. Especially the resources that are meant for learners — they should be optimised for us!
With the huge push for ‘one million Welsh speakers by 2050’, you’d expect more and more effective and helpful learning resources to come out of the community. But that’s not the case.
Most beginner content is just the same content reiterated in different formats. At the higher levels, there is an abundance of interesting content, just not sufficiently tailored for learners to make the most out of them.
It is a peculiar and unique problem that I’ve never seen with learner materials in other languages, not even minority languages like Taiwanese.
And the worst part is—which is the source of frustration that prompted me to write this long article—most of it is an easy fix! Take the same kinds of content that they’re already making, leave the dialogue as it is, and put it in the subtitles or a transcript.
You’ll even save the extra effort of rephrasing what’s being said. I know this because I make two sets of subtitles in my Cantonese videos: first, I transcribe the speech accurately for learners, and then rephrase it and trim it down into more concise language for non-learners. And I can tell you the latter takes more brainpower.
You don’t need to worry about overwhelming the viewer, because for one, the words are in the audio anyway, so you’re not avoiding the complexity of the spoken language. Besides, the viewer, when given easy access to the entirety of the content, will be able to figure out what’s worth learning and what isn’t.
After all, when faced with the task to create Cantonese learning materials for himself, accomplished polyglot Olly Richards followed the very same principles: record language as it is used, and make it accessible.
There is also a lot of existing content that would benefit from being made more literally accessible. It would be really helpful if the news was available on catch-up, and shows were (somehow) readily available rather than expiring quickly! But then we’re getting into legal territory.
If any creator or educator sees this, I hope this extended piece of critique provides some suggestions on how to improve access to their work. It comes from a place of genuine admiration and constructive criticism, and I truly hope I haven’t given off the wrong impression.
I love the Welsh language. And I know that if the day ever comes, when I have mastered this tongue and can command it fluently, I hope to help and create resources for struggling learners like me at the current stage.
Welsh is currently a minority language, and there’s already a laudable amount of resources available. But my question is: if there are groups of people passionate about teaching and promoting this language and willing to put in time and resources—especially with government bodies and funding involved—why not do it better?
So that’s it. This is a long article, and I’m just throwing this out there, in hopes that somehow, we’ll get together and find materials that are compelling and suited for the effective input-based learning methods.