A stressful time in anyone’s language

I’ll be honest. One of the reasons that I enjoy writing so much is that I can relax and think things through in English, my first language. While my life is now lived 90% through the medium of Welsh, there is still an extra layer of concentration needed to speak with my new tongue. I now converse fluently enough that people presume I’m just a bit dull and not very bright Welsh-speaker rather than somebody who has recently converted from English, but it‘s still a bit of a struggle.

I still remember the first time I heard the Welsh language. The teacher was a young blonde haired west-Walian and she gave me my first lesson as a nine year old in Fairwater Primary School in Cardiff. I don’t even think I knew there was a different language, and I certainly had no idea that people spoke it to each other naturally in other parts of the country. Miss Jones had a boyfriend and she trained us all to call him a “Gog” when he arrived to pick her up after school in his green mini metro.

I took to the language very quickly, and kept it up until my O Level, which I passed. Unfortunately I was reluctant to do anything more than absorb the bits that came naturally to me, and I failed my A Level. I actually failed it.  I was a bit embarrassed by this, and I felt that I’d let down my Welsh teacher, Jill Edwards at Cantonian High School, who I adored. I was also cocky enough to think that I could get an extra “A” level with not much work. I’d got a place at Cardiff University to study music, and I decided to resit my Welsh A Level at the same time. To help me achieve this, I booked a room in the Welsh language block of the halls of residence at Llys Tal-y-Bont.

I was unpacking my “Welsh-in-a-week” text book when I heard a knock on my door and in walked a long-haired, check-shirted scruff bag with a light moustache.

“S’mae was’i – o lle da chi’n dwad? Wedi cael uffar I siwrne ‘sti..’swn I gallu myrdro peint”

“I’m sorry”, I replied. “But I think the Czechoslavakian block is across the road”.

I had met my first north-Walian – Endaf from Penrhyndeudraeth. He was quickly followed by John from Pwllheli and Rhodri from Bangor. After an hour of hearing them converse, I decided to give back my text books. This was no language that I’d ever heard. My south-Walian vocabulary edition was next to useless.
The “Welsh language block” was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, everybody who lived there could speak Welsh, but my circle of friends were from Bridgend, Llanharri, and Llanelli, and stuck to their Wenglish. I also mixed with the Glantaf crowd, who similarly enjoyed Welsh popular culture but studiously boycotted Cymraeg until they had their own children and became all Ffred Ffrancis about things. We would go to eisteddfodau, Welsh language gigs and events, and we would all speak in English. I learnt nothing in my three years at college. Not a word, apart from Twmffat and Ffwlbart, which would be fine if I wanted to buy a funnel from a polecat.

But one thing happened which changed my life. My mate Arfon took me home for a weekend to his parents‘ house on Anglesey. I still remember the impact of that  awesome drive through the mountains. I was twenty years old and had never been north of Brecon. Unbelievably, Arfon actually lived in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and he could see Snowdon from his kitchen sink. The time spent in north Wales that weekend set in place a conviction that I should live here – but it would be another fifteen years before that came possible.

I heard my wife before I saw her. I was lazing in bed one morning when she came to visit my housemates. She spoke in a piercing shriek in what I thought was an impossibly thick joskin accent, but after a few years living here, I now realise is actually quite posh. We got together seriously a few years after we left college, though we never spoke any Welsh together. We met and lived exclusively in English until we made a commitment to each other on New Years Eve 1999 when we were expecting our first child. It is extremely difficult for a couple to change language. I believe that people change personality when they change dialect. I had a French girlfriend once who dumped me after hearing me speak English with my friends. We had spoken only French until that point, and she was disappointed to find out that I was not , after all, the Maurice Chevalier of Gilfach Goch. Likewise, the people of Felinheli have yet to experience my flamboyant south Wales valleys charm and wit – in Welsh I have all the personality of a flat tyre.

But since that night at the Millennium Stadium in 1999, Mair and I have spoken Welsh to each other. In times of stress, anger and grumpiness, I sometimes change back to English in a “bollocks-to-this” protest, and I also prefer to discuss legalities and finance in English, but then so does most of Caernarfon.

I haven’t had any lessons since school, nor have I undertaken any sort of course. I’ve just moved into a community which operates 90% through the medium of Welsh and obsorbed the language through osmosis. I spent a few weeks simply sitting in the bar of Tafarn y Fic trying to pick up the local patois. If anybody taught me Welsh, it was a barely decipherable local character called Wil Wern. If you could understand Wil, you could understand anyone.

So what has all this got to do with 2 clots? Well, while I was poorly bad  in hospital, it took a big effort to talk, let alone discuss embolisms in my second language. But this was Ysbyty Gwynedd and I naturally took part in general conversations in the local dialect. It happens with less effort now, and I’m lucky that I sometimes don’t even notice which language I’m speaking. But at times of extreme stress, it is only natural to revert to your mother tongue.

There were some seriously ill people in there with me, and some older people especially who could have done without the extra stress required to change language. These were people who had spoken Welsh throughout their lives and were genuinely uncomfortable in tricky discussions about their health with non-Welsh speakers. At least two patients needed to use their nurse as an interpreter.

There was one incident which demonstrated the problems that can be caused by misunderstanding. The thrombosis experts at Ysbyty Gwynedd are mainly Welsh speaking, and I was being asked if I had been “tagu-ing  since suffering breathlessness that morning. Well yes I had – I had retched with nerves after reading about the mortality statistics associated with my condition.  I thought that “tagu” meant “retch”, when really it means “cough”. Luckily Mair was with me to explain that I meant “cyfogi” which although similar, indicated a completely different symptom and scenario.

I don’t think I had realised how important it was that people in hospital should be able to communicate in their own language. My difficulties in Welsh mirror the problems that some Welsh-speakers have in English. When the body is fragile, any extra stress reveals itself physically without much prompting. And certainly in this part of Wales, the young and the aged should be allowed to suffer in Cymraeg.


About 2clots

47-year old Welsh cyclist. I suffered a dual pulmonary embolism in March 2011, following an attack of transverse myelinitis in 1994. Apart from that, I'm fine. Author of Red Dragons: The Story of Welsh Football.
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7 Responses to A stressful time in anyone’s language

  1. Carl Morris says:

    Cracking post.

    I went to Cantonian too! But I dropped Welsh like a turd. It was absolutely my least favourite subject and totally irrelevant to my life. Being the mid-1990s I didn’t have to do the GCSE, that policy came later.

    Well a few years went by, a few things happened and it’s now one of my favourite things (I blogged some of this so I won’t elaborate too much). I’m very active in the language here in Cardiff and online.

    I think you’re “ahead” of me but I can identify with some of your struggles. Learning Welsh is a humbling experience and worth the effort.

    Your observation about the alternative personality is fairly bang on. Language, identity and personality are closely connected in a complex and fascinating way.

    Maybe we should popularise the word “mabwysiadwyr”.

  2. Rhodri ap Dyfrig says:

    Seeing the frustration and loneliness in my grandmother that came from not being able to communicate in their own language with doctors and nurses was a shock for me. I’d never really considered hospitals and language before that. I guess nobody really considers hospitals that much until they become a part of their lives in some way. It made me realise the deep importance of a holistic approach to medical matters, which includes looking at language.

    The ability to communicate in Welsh is so valuable in health matters. It makes the difference between a positive experience and a negative one, and we always hear that positivity improves health and recovery. I know from recent childbirth experiences that having somebody that can communicate with you in your first language plays a huge part in creating the optimal environment for a procedure without complications. I am so, so grateful that there were midwives that were able to speak Welsh. And if somebody doesn’t feel confident in talking in their second language, then that might be bottled up.

    Diolch am sgwennu hwn.

    Brysia wella Phil.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Very intersting post! Of course health proffessionals should also be aware of the effects of Strokes and Alzeimers which can deprive people of their 2nd language and leave them with only their first langauge as a means of communication. This has obvious implications for language communities such as the Cymry Cymraeg in Wales and Punjbi speakers (800,000 of them!) in the rest of the British Isles.

  4. Nic Dafis says:

    Diolch yn fawr am hyn Phil, a brysia wella.

  5. rude bwoy says:

    phil–do you ride out with anyone at the moment,or do you only want to be on your own? i am also getting back on my bike,if you want any help/advice get in touch—there is a training ride that replicates half the alp’d–do it twice and you’ve done the meterage but not the altitude thing,which ain’t as bad as you may think!

    • 2clots says:

      Cheers Dylan. I’m afraid that’s a long way off. I can manage a light stroll but nothing more at the moment. I can’t do any riding until I get my cartilage fixed and I don’t even have a date for an mri scan yet. I think it might be Autumn before I start work on the roadbike sadly.

      • rude bwoy says:

        a long time to ponder and dream ,but a great ambition phil, as you know time soon passes,especially as we get older!

        will see you soon and converse in the flesh! but the route from clwt-y-bont via Fachwen up to the surge pool in Dinorwic is half an AlpD’– with hairpins and similar gradients—one thing i can assure you about the bike thing is you only really need the Will—-avec courage as they say en francais. allez

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