The sound of Welsh31-May-2013
I recently decided to try to learn Welsh. Being impatient and not having all that much time to attend a class, about a minute after deciding to learn, I downloaded an app. A few minutes after that, I could say, ‘I am trying to speak Welsh’ in Welsh. I would write this down here, in actual Welsh, but unfortunately I have absolutely no idea what it would look like. As an editor and writer (and reader) my preferred method for communicating and learning is often the written form, so I was amazed when Aaron, the voice on my app, said, ‘DO NOT WRITE ANYTHING DOWN’.
I know that I am mostly a visual learner’ and I also know that I have a terrible short-term verbal memory, so my first thought was that this method would definitely not work for me – I usually have to write everything down. But Aaron was insistent. He didn’t say why it was such a bad idea to write the words but I assumed it because the spellings were tricky. Slightly intimidated but also intrigued, I obeyed. (I left the pen and paper on the table in front of me for emergencies.) I listened, repeated, listened, repeated and after only a few minutes I was master of several useful phrases.
A bit about the app: it’s called Say something in Welsh. The voice says a word in English and then in Welsh. Then there’s a pause for me to practise. Several words are read out this way and then it’s time to mix it up; putting the words together in various orders to make interesting sentences.
I wasn’t sure if I would remember these words for much longer than a couple of hours without writing them down but later I found that I could not only still remember the words but also the multiple sentences that I made up using them. It was time for some research. A quick internet search about language learning without writing produced the following words of wisdom, and many other similar phrases:
“Nothing will help you form sentences in a foreign language more than writing it.”
“Anything that has the language in its written form will benefit your learning of the language.”
So, I didn’t find that much to support my new-found method. I was torn. Not writing felt unnatural but it seemed to be working. By now I was on lesson three and could use the future tense to say things like, ‘You are going to like speaking Welsh.’
I did, however, notice that I was listening more carefully. As a visual leaner it was inevitable that I would try to ‘picture’ the word in my head. Without knowing what the word looked like I had to make it up from my knowledge of English and other languages. In order to produce these images I found myself listening very carefully to the voice on the app and my own practising voice. Was that a ‘d’ sound or a ‘t’ sound? I wouldn’t have paid this much attention had I been able to see the word – I would have assumed that I knew how to pronounce it based on my existing knowledge and probably got it wrong.
The second thing that I noticed was that I paid careful attention to the stresses, not only in each separate word but also the differences when the words were put together in the various orders. After a time, the way in which words should be stressed became automatic. The extra processes involved in learning just by listening meant that the material was truly sinking in.
It makes sense, really. When children are one or two years old, they pick up a few words and learn how to pronounce and use them. It’s not usual for the parents of a two-year-old to give their child a pencil and a piece of paper in order to practise. OK, so this is perhaps more to do with motor abilities than language acquisition but it’s still a consideration. We don’t learn to write our first language before we can speak it.
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I just had to look up some of the words I learned. I was surprised to recognize most of the words straight away. It’s hard to know now but if I had read the words before hearing and speaking them I may not have had the same command of them. For now, I’m going to continue listening to Aaron and leave the writing and reading out. But I hope at some point I’ll be able to pick up a pen again. When I do it is likely to be a reinforcement of what I’ve already learned rather than a completely new thing to learn. I’ll need to be able to read words like this: