Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sandi Thomas' You Don't Speak Welsh: Book Review

I could certainly relate to my fellow Californian craving spicy Mexican cuisine, enduring uncomprehending stares as she tried to explain why she was attempting to articulate baby-level sentences in a Celtic language, and generally making herself a giddy wreck in a class hours a day wondering if she'd ever make sense of mutations, tongue-twisting sounds, and smug polyglots.

While my Oideas Gael stint last summer was but a fortnight compared to her month at Pryfisgol Cymru, she did start from scratch. I wondered if my American classmates who had done the same came out better than me; they did seem much more at ease in class, and they had crammed in mere weeks with better blás (accent) what took me desultory years of self-taught detritus. And, I still cannot make myself understood 'as gaeilge.' Like Thomas with her Celtic, I love words. It's the grammar that confounds me, and the speech that stymies me. While "Cymry" means "the people," and carries an intimate tribal adoption absent from "Éireannach," there's the same tie between
tír agus teanga, land and language. So, like her, there's an atavistic but vibrantly resonant imperative that impels me to stumble on, if not always forward.

She discusses her writing of the book and later work with Welsh at the learner's site Clwb Malu Cachu (I will leave the site's name untranslated, but it's the same as
các 'as gaeilge')

No website for her, surprisingly. I wish her luck. Here's my Amazon review of her own story.

This Californian writer gives an unpretentious, straightforward, if occasionally vague account of her month in Abersytwyth studying from the absolute beginner's stage at an "Wlpan" intensive course. Most of the brisk narrative relates this with lots of meticulous self-reflection, in a manner that seems as if reworked from a journal she kept. Nothing wrong with this, but you do tend when reading to lack the wider context. I wondered how much the course cost, how more specifically the other learners and she bonded in and out of class in relation to the more advanced students, and especially the account would have been more useful if she had provided more about the exact tapes and lessons. Such details about learning materials might have helped curious learners understand more vividly how the grueling drills or entertaining lessons played out in class each day for six hours.

The middle of her story follows her as she dashes off on weekends for quick visits to the countryside. She's observant on how Americans appear to stand out without intending to do so, and as she notes, while she never was made to feel unwelcome, she was often treated with extreme scrutiny for her attempts to speak the bit of Welsh she knew or for her justification that she possessed as much as any Welsh native the right to reclaim an ancient heritage and vibrant tongue that many in Wales denigrate. This complexity reaches its peak in the incident that gives the book its title, when she meets her idol, folksinger and activist Dafydd Iwan, who tells her-- not meaning to insult her, but acknowledging the sad fact that so many of his countrymen and women lack their inherited language-- the damning phrase.

Thomas discusses this episode, and explains the tangle. One can reside in Wales but be regarded as a Saxon, "Saes," for not speaking Welsh. One can be from abroad yet learn the language to become one of the "Cymry"-- and a part of the fellowship, the people themselves. Out of such intricate markers of identity, as Iwan emphasizes, the Welsh have managed to convince not only half a million of their fellow citizens but intrepid intellectual adventurers such as Thomas and her cosmopolitan classmates. While she does tend to gush and overuse capitals in attempting to share her enthusiasm for the nation and its language, one may forgive her this bond, which pulls her through considerable challenges as mutations, strange sounds, shifting structures, and twisting orthography all threaten to daunt her initial optimism. For any language learner, the discipline and frustration she relates breathlessly, caught up in her own energy and its own rush and ebb, will be very familiar.

(For an Irish-language learner's memoir of a somewhat parallel travelogue and adult school stint, see my Amazon and blog reviews of Steve Fallon's "Home With Alice.")

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