Clare Mackinstosh: Bad language

Welcome to Wales (c) Becky Staes / Shutterstock

Welcome to Wales (c) Becky Staes / Shutterstock - Credit: Becky Stares/Shutterstock

‘Blessed with an excellent short-term memory (and a terrible long-term one) I can mimic my way through greetings and small talk in a foreign language without understanding a word I’m saying’

I grew up in a family of language lovers. Entire Sunday lunches were spent devouring Fowlers’ Modern English Usage in an attempt to settle an argument about the Oxford Comma, or to debate the origins of the phrase ‘beyond the pale’; and woe betide any child of my father’s who mistakenly used ‘me’ instead of ‘I’, or ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’.

I took to French and German like a particularly linguistic duck to water, spending two years in Paris to perfect my grasp of my favourite tongue. La vie était indeed belle. Over subsequent years I flirted with Italian and Spanish, and although I’d struggle now to hold a conversation in either language, I can understand much of what I read or hear.

Where numbers swim in front of my eyes, making no sense at all, words seem to take shape of their own accord. I am one of those people who – chameleon-like – begin to take on the accent of whoever they are in conversation with. This has its downsides (an hour-long recording for Radio 4 saw me digging my nails into my palms in an effort to halt the entirely unintended absorption of my fellow interviewee’s Birmingham accent) but does mean I can achieve a passable accent in pretty much any language without much effort. Blessed with an excellent short-term memory (and a terrible long-term one) I can mimic my way through greetings and small talk in a foreign language without understanding a word I’m saying.

When we moved to North Wales last year there was no question that we’d be learning the language. We live in a pocket of the country where Welsh is not only the primary language spoken, but is – quite rightly – proudly upheld and protected. It is entirely possible to get by without knowing a single word of Welsh – everyone speaks English, and anything written down is accompanied by a translation – but to do so would feel rude in the extreme.

And so we went back to school. Our sponge-like children were fluent within weeks, although for weeks they refused to open their mouths unless forced to do so. My husband enrolled in a weekly class, coming home each Monday with a worksheet of homework and another list of vocabulary to add to his arsenal. I didn’t sign up for classes. I was too busy, and besides: I was a linguist! I’d be fluent in no time. Except that I wasn’t.

I bore da’d my way through morning greetings, and gleaned how to order a cup of tea with milk but no sugar, and fooled numerous people into thinking I spoke more than I did. As a tactic, that works fine when I drop into Barcelona, or Munich, or Rome, for a whirlwind book signing, but it as a long-term strategy it achieves little. At the start of the year I was still limited to hello, goodbye and Glaw eto! (rain again!) Dog walkers began to steel themselves as I approached, ready for our daily Ground Hog Day conversation, and I decided it was time for professional help.

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I signed up to weekly classes; a term behind my husband, but confident I’d catch up in no time. For a time things went well. ‘Mae’n hyfryd heddiw yn tydi?’ I sang out to the dog walkers, who – too relieved by the variety to point out the looming clouds – agreed that it was, indeed, lovely today. My weather-related vocabulary improved. I learned to talk about my family; to ask about your holiday. I committed to starting every conversation in Welsh; gradually managing a little more small talk before dropping back to English. This was it! The road to fluency! And then I missed a lesson.

Coming back into class the following week I was momentarily disorientated. What on earth were they talking about? When did we cover the past tense? How was that combination of consonants even possible? The following month I missed two classes, as travel commitments took over and my book deadline drew nearer. Dust settled on my course book, and a new term came and went. I gave up. Learning is harder as an adult. Not only because the old grey matter takes time to warm up, and because new information seems to fall out as quickly as it drops in, but because school is no longer the only obligation in our lives. We have jobs, we have families, we have housework and hobbies and friends to see and a million and one things to do every day. But I still want to speak Welsh.

And so, as the start of a new academic year beckons, and my children ready themselves to go back to school, I am readying myself to do the same. And this time I’m staying there.

Clare’s bestseller I See You, published by Sphere is out now in paperback. For more information or more from Clare Mackintosh, visit her website or follow her on Twitter! @claremackint0sh