Between

When people meet me and realise I’m Welsh and that I speak Welsh, then once we’re past the jibes about rain, sheep, dirt and druids, they almost always say one of a set range of phrases.

1. “Oh. I thought Welsh was a dead language.”
Not much I can do about people thinking that, really. I’m not sure how those people would answer the question: if there’s a Welsh speaker standing in front of you, does that make the Welsh language a) dead, or b) alive? Please tick one box only.
Apart from that, and depending on who’s saying it, I might argue from census figures, from the existence of S4C, from the growth in Welsh-medium education, or the flourishing Welsh-language hip-hop scene. But unsurprisingly, I’m not sure any of that has persuaded the other person.

2. “Oh yes. I was on holiday in Snowdonia once, and I walked into a sandwich shop in Bangor, and everyone there was speaking Welsh!”
Yeah, I know. We were all speaking English before you walked in. We do it just for the tourists. Try the savoury cheese rolls next time, by the way – they’re very good.

3. “Welsh hasn’t got any swearwords has it? Apart from the ones it takes from English.”
Look, mate, you try broadcasting Dafydd ap Gwilym’s ruder stuff on S4C. Doubt it’d get past Compliance unless it was way after 10pm with dire warnings about bad language. And that was six centuries ago: fancy having a look at the Welsh Profanisaurus?

4. “Oh! So you speak two languages! Are you better at Welsh or English?”
No, not really. Or rather, yes, but I can’t tell you which, because it depends on the hour, the day, the people I’m talking to, what exactly I’m doing and the state of my brain.

I suspect that what most people want to hear in response to the last question is that I always think, dream, play and work in Welsh or in English. But the problem is, I don’t. I’m not aware that my brain has to go through any sort of mental gear change to switch from one language to the other. Most people who are fluent in more than one language don’t do that sort of thing. We switch frequently, often in mid-sentence, from one language to the other, and a lot of people do find this amusing. Or fascinating: the technical term for that is ‘code-switching’, and hundreds of academics around the world build careers around researching why and how it happens.

So what goes on inside the language bits of a multilingual brain? No one’s entirely sure, of course. I’ve been looking for years for something visual that explains it well, even to some degree. And the closest I’ve found is this, a gorgeous promo for the more technical side of what S4C does. Click here to see what the inside of my brain actually looks like.

Provided it’s not raining, of course.

4 thoughts on “Between

  1. Excellent post. I often get the same questions, and depending on my mood, I’m either thrilled to be able to ‘educate’ (without patronising) someone and hoping they’ll go away with a new insight, or I’ll get really arsed off at having to explain my own existences AGAIN!

    The promo looks really cool, although I’m not sure about the use of the owl as a symbol for bi/multilingual options.
    I remember reading an article about internationalization and localisation and how careful one should be using symbols to represent things. Where as the Owl represents wisdom in some cultures, in Catalan culture it represents death!

  2. Fair point on using symbols (I’d add that using flags for languages is a similar no-no, for all sorts of political reasons).

    I’ll cut S4C some slack on the owl, as this promo’s unlikely to be shown outside the UK. But the highly informal evidence I’ve seen shows that a lot of people aren’t aware that ‘owl’ means ‘English subtitles’. Though given that S4C subtitle a significant part of their output anyway, most people who need them probably just assume that subtitles will be available for whatever they want to watch.

    (And for those wondering, yes, Rhys and me have been seen in the same room at the same time. There are photos…)

  3. Thank you:
    a) For the stimulating blog post;
    b) For graciously answering all of the above questions from me over the years, and
    c) (With S4C’s help) For developing my understanding of what happens when you mix a bilingual person with a large dose of hallucegenics.

  4. The odd thing about that little clip is that I had to watch it twice to see where the languages changed – I simply didn’t notice that I started by hearing english with welsh subtitles, then read the english with welsh spoken, and then both. (Or possibly vice versa – I can’t even remember which way round it was.) I guess that is illustrative of what you were saying about how your biligualism works.

    I don’t speak Welsh beyond colours & numbers and some animals, although now Groover is in Cylch Meithrin he’ll be overtaking me soon so I need to start learning properly.

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