17 December, 2007

Language Loveliness

I find it difficult to overstate my interest in language, how it works, the relationships between different ones, how we can learn them, similar words with different meanings, and vice versa. One of the fascinating things, therefore, about being here is the interplay between the two languages, English and Welsh, and the people who use them under what circumstances, and, especially, the process of learning the second.

With regard to the latter, Jacob is of particular interest. When we arrived, we were told that although it is really an English-speaking school, the local primary school uses Welsh as the medium of instruction; obviously, this concerned us a little, because we were arriving in the middle of the school year, and Jacob had absolutely no Welsh. We were assured that he would learn it, that there were a few pupils new in the system each year and the council provided a language centre which he would attend for several months. And, indeed, he did. The remarkable thing now is that he is fluent ~ which by my definition means that he can communicate with anyone at any time, with the means to ask them to repeat or rephrase if he happens not to understand something. So much so, in fact, that there are things he now knows in Welsh that he does not know in English!

An interesting illustration of his fluency, the totality with which he thinks in Welsh, arose the other day. I am taking lessons, struggling to learn it, a bit at a time and, to help, have a simple children's picture book that i'm getting Jacob to read with me. We came across the word roedd as we were reading, and i asked what it was, as it wasn't in my vocabulary. The closest he could get to telling me was that it is a word that means that something happened or existed, in the past. I asked if it were like once upon a time, an almost meaningless phrase just used to indicate a story in the past; he agreed, but said it meant a bit more, happened a bit more often, but he couldn't give me a more precise meaning. It turns out that roedd is the third person singular imperfect indicative active of the verb bod (to be), which is absolutely essential; it translates almost exactly as (he or she) was. Try telling a story without using was and you'll see its importance. Yet to Jacob it was just a word that he knew, without being able to be more specific. To me, that is a sign of fluency!

There is far more to comment on, especially the interplay between the language, so i'll hold off now, since i'm getting close to my (self-imposed) post limit, and write more another time.