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.