I went to an interesting discussion last night entitled cariad@iaith (love4language) which featured two English writers, Simon Thirsk and Mike Parker, who have lived in Wales for many years, learnt Welsh and written books based on their experiences. It was mostly in Welsh and was chaired by the Welsh author, Bethan Gwanas. Simon and Mike talked about how they learned Welsh, about being accepted, or not, in their local communities, and about their books.

The audience was made up of Welsh learners and native Welsh speakers, and one good question that came up was how native Welsh speakers can make things linguistically easier for Welsh learners. After some discussion we concluded that the most helpful thing the native speakers can do is to stick to Welsh and not to switch to English even when learners are struggling. Other helpful things would be for native speakers to speak a bit more slowly and to avoid using too much slang.

Native speakers of languages that many people learn, like French, German and Spanish, might be more accustomed to encountering learners and might be relatively willing and able to modify the way they speak, but for lesser-studied languages, like Welsh, the story can be different. This partly depends on whether or not the native speakers of lesser-studied languages speak another major language like English, French or Spanish.

When you speak in your foreign languages to native speakers of those languages, do the native speakers make any allowances for you as a learner (if you’re not at near-native level)?

Do speakers of some languages do this more than for other languages?

If you are a native speaker of a lesser-studied / minority language, are you happy to speak to learners in your language and to accommodate to them by slowing down and simplifying things? Or do you quickly switch to English or another major language?

This entry was posted in English, Language, Language learning, Welsh.

5 Responses to Cariad@iaith

  1. David Eger says:

    In the part of Wales where I live, native Welsh speakers are few and far between and, of those that there are, I think, most do not feel comfortable speaking Welsh to those outside their close-knit community – or it would just never occur to them to do so. On occasions when I have initiated conversation in Welsh with Welsh-speaking locals, it has never taken them long to revert to English. After all, they are all fluent in English as well, and it takes considerably less effort for them to speak English than to make a conscious effort to slow down and simplfy their Welsh.

    I have found, in general, that the easiest people to learn languages from, whatever the language are:
    1. People with a particular interest in languages;
    2. Language teachers (not necessarily of the language being spoken – often English teachers);
    3. People for whom that language is not their mother tongue.

    I do not possess a great gift for languages – I could count the number of languages that I speak fluently on one finger – but on most of the occasions when I have felt that my skills in a foreign language have made quantum leaps, I have been speaking to someone who fits into one of the above 3 categories.

    I did find that, in Latvia, people were often keen to help me learn Latvian – perhaps feeling that it was a victory over their perceived* oppressors, the Russians. Conversely, I wonder whether, in some parts of Wales, when English ‘incomers’ learn Welsh, some Welsh people see it as an intrusion. As a general rule, I think it is true that people who are not accustomed to foreigners speaking their language are less inclined – or able – to make allowances for the learner. I am reminded of a young Quebecoise woman I met in France, who came from a remote monoglot community; having begun to ‘tune in’ to the French spoken around me, I thought I was doing alright until I tried to understand this lady – the idea of pronouncing words slowly and clearly was an entirely foreign concept to her.

    *I say ‘perceived’ oppressors because, in post-Soviet Latvia, many Russians born or resident there perceived Latvians to be *their* oppressors.

  2. Enrico says:

    I agree with David Eger above, regarding the three kinds of people who are easy to learn a language from. They’re also the kinds of people who usually make “allowances”, as you mentioned in the article, like speaking more slowly, using simpler words, etc.

    I don’t have too much experience with speaking foreign languages, because being introverted I tend to read, write and listen much much more than I speak. Also, I don’t travel often, and there aren’t many non-Italian speakers around here.

    I never had many problems in English, being quite fluent. One occasion I remember was the other way around — I was trying to tell a group of Americans that what I had ordered contained “boar meat”, and my somewhat-thick British accent prevented them from understanding what I was talking about.
    At least, I think it was the British accent, but it could have just as easily been my Italian accent creeping it (although it rarely does, luckily). Anyway, I had to repeat it a few times, and when they still didn’t get it I had to settle for “warthog” (close enough, eh? =P).

    With Japanese, on the other hand, I “received” many allowances over the years. I spoke it mainly with my teachers (usually not during lessons, which I seldom attended), and at first they had to repeat things quite often and talk slower.
    One particularly embarrassing occasion early on in my studies saw one of my professor asking me three times over what I had done in the summer, before I told her in broken Japanese to please speak more slowly.
    As I got better, though, it didn’t happen nearly as often. =) But probably, being teachers, they’re used to making allowances and so it’s their default speaking mode, who knows.

  3. Jerry says:

    Never looked at it that way, but I agree with that list of three types of people.

    At the office, my English (all non-native speakers) is above average. For some reason, when people hear my English is (even only slightly) better than theirs, they think it is almost flawless. (Which of course it is not.)

    But to my surprise, some English colleagues thought along the same lines. They were definitely not one of the three types listed above – we’re mostly geeks. I heard them talk to some of my Dutch colleagues and they were speaking more slowly and articulate then when they were talking to me. I had to work really hard to understand all their words at the speed they spoke them.

    Makes good practice though!

  4. Zac says:

    I feel like this depends. I am an American English speaker. I speak Spanish, maybe not as well as a native speaker but well enough that I have a job that requires me to be bilingual. Over the phone people grant me little to no leeway if I am having trouble speaking. Polite people will either be silent or simply tell me they don’t understand, although I have had people scream at me: “Habla me en castellano, gringo.” Well, senor, I was speaking castellano… que yo sepa. Anyway, it depends. The least forgiving Spanish speakers for me so far have been those who have little to no access to eduation or English speakers. However, interestingly enough when I am speaking Spanish in person I am immediately praised and deemed intelligent, precocious, culturally mature etc. People who constantly complain about everything being in Spanish, and Spanish is taking over and SpanishSPANISHSPANISH, this is ‘murrica, actually praise me for speaking it. Because I am white, or look mostly white, I think. When I was hired for this job they tried to turn me away because I didn’t speak Spanish. BEFORE I EVEN WAS GIVEN A CHANCE, simply because I am too white and blond and green eyed, I couldn’t be a Spanish speaker. I spent my first few weeks proving to all the white non-Spanish speakers that I was actually bilingual. Native speakers though think its adorable as far as I can tell. They are infinitely patient and willing to gently correct me when necessary, usually because I get flustered really easily. It really facilitates learning, I think, and most people do use less slang and speak slowly in person. Over the phone though they are never as helpful. Just confused.

    In French, most French people have at best, a pleasantly patronizing attitude. I do not have as much proficiency in French, fairly, but they are usually quite rude. Haitian French speakers are usually a delight to speak to, however because of dialectical issues I have had some confusion. Canadian French speakers are usually the most helpful as far as I am concerned, at least as far as learning goes. Even online European French people are snooty. The only other French I have encountered online is Moroccan, who spoke Arabic and French. She was the single most helpful person I have ever met in all my language learning adventures, and while her French wasn’t considered “correct” by European standards, it was immensely easier to understand and use and between Arabic and French we were able to communicate; I helped her with English and she helped me with both French and Arabic.

  5. Zac says:

    Oh and I forgot Kreyol. Haitian people seem to be at a total loss as to how to explain their language. I have since found helpful online material, but when I was initially learning Haitian from friends who were native speakers they could not tell me basic things, or really anything about their grammar. To be fair, my friends were students, educated in French, and while all three were trilingual, none of them were particularly interested in language or teaching and it was their mother tongue. They all spoke French as well and were much more helpful with that. Again, their dialect was off though, at least as far as with what I was familiar.

%d bloggers like this: