Welsh Poet Robert Powell: How do we learn a new language?

‘I’m hopeless at learning languages!’ ‘I’m too stupid to learn another language!’ How many times have you heard this? Very often, probably. But those people are wrong. No one is too stupid to learn another language. There are half a million people in Wales speaking two languages. They are not all Einsteins! What is important is to learn a language in the right way- under the right conditions. Here, Robat Powell, the first Welsh adult learner to win a chair in the National Eisteddfod (Rhyl, 1985) explains more…

There are four steps in the process of learning another language. The four Cs, I call them: Cymhelliad — Cyfle — Cyswllt — Cadw ati. (Motivation — Opportunity — Contact — Perseverance). Let us take a look at these four steps.

  1. Motivation. There must be a good reason for you to learn another language. Not just interest. Perhaps you want to live in another country. Want to marry someone who speaks the language. Want to pass an exam. Want a job that requires you to know another language. But without a strong reason you will in the end do no more than play at the language. The strongest reason of all is the wish to become a full member of another group, for example to become a Welsh-speaking person instead of remaining a Welsh person with no Welsh.
  2. Opportunity. There must be an opportunity to hear and see the target language. An opportunity to speak the language with someone else. Going to a class is a great help. But it is also possible to follow an online course in the language or buy a course with a book and CD or DVD. The most important thing is to have an opportunity to hear the spoken language. These days the Internet provides an excellent opportunity to hear another language every day.
  3. Contact. You need contact to the spoken language and also to the written. Contact with a real person is best. People in a class or friends. If you are learning French in France, for example, you will have contact with speakers around you — in the shops, at work, on the bus, everywhere. But you can learn quite well without contact with people. You can listen to the language on the Internet, on the radio, or on a CD language course. You can talk to yourself when driving the car or waiting for the bus. But it is up to you to look for the contact! Speakers of the language aren’t going to come to you.
  4. Perseverance. You should use the target language every day, even if only to read for five minutes. If you do this, you can learn the basics of a new language quite well within a few months. But nobody masters a language in two or three months. You must keep at it! That means keeping in contact with the language every day for two, three or four years or more. In fact, we never finish learning a language, even our mother tongue. To approach the standard of a first-language speaker one needs around 1000 hours of contact to the language — conversing, reading or listening to it. If the other language uses a different script, like Arabic or Japanese, you will need much more than 1000 hours to learn to read and write it, as well as to speak it. So, perseverance is a must!

My experience of learning Welsh

These four steps could clearly be seen in my own story when I began to learn Welsh in the 1960s. When I, having no Welsh, went to London University I heard other Welsh people there speaking the language with one another. I felt very strongly that I had to learn the language to become a complete Welsh person, and that was the motivation.

Formal opportunities to learn the language in London were thin on the ground. There were no classes then. I had to make the opportunity by buying resources. I remember buying ‘Teach Yourself Welsh’ by Bowen and Jones, although the books I found most effective were ‘Welsh Made Easy’ by Caradar. I also bought the old Linguaphone course — on 33rpm records. The sound quality was not good, but the 30 lessons were a great help to me, especially at home in Ebbw Vale when there was nobody else to practise the language with.

My initial contacts with the language were other students from Wales. In the first year there were three living in the same hall of residence as me in London. Then they moved out, but I would go to see other students from Wales in other halls. I began to go to two pubs where the Welsh would meet on a Saturday and Sunday night. I had to seek out the contact, but the company — and the beer — was very good.

Then, I kept at it over the years. At that time there were almost no books in easy Welsh for learners. But reading was important for expanding vocabulary. I used to read the ‘Cymro’ and ‘Faner’ newspapers. It was very slow going, and I had to look up so many words in the dictionary! But the more I read, the easier it all became.

And two things to finish. When you are learning another language, the speakers of the language will be very ready to help you. But the onus is on you! It is up to you to feel the motivation. It is up to you to look for the opportunity and the contact, and it is up to you to have the perseverance. Nobody else can do these things for you.

And there is one final thing, and it is the most important. Learning another language is fun! It gives great enjoyment. The more you learn, all the more pleasure you will get from using the language. And you will win respect from people who speak the language, whatever that language is, be it Welsh, French or Punjabi.

There is a new country waiting for you to discover- the country of your new language. Good luck on the journey!

A bilingual Welsh-English version of this story was originally published: https://parallel.cymru/robat-powell-sut-mae-dysgu-iaith/