Why do people learn Welsh?

Why do people learn the Welsh language as a second language?

In the first semester of my distance-learning MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL I completed two modules. The first of these was in Second Language Acquisition, which covered both how people learn a second language, and why they do – and how the two are intertwined in terms of the effectiveness of the learning.

I found the issue of motivation to be the most interesting, particularly in the sense of how learning a language is tied up with a sense of personal identity. For many learners, of course, learning a language is purely functional: the language is a tool, acquired for its perceived usefulness. For other people, though, learning a language is the expression of a desire to become, in some way, a new and different person, and a member of a new community.

I decided to explore this through an exploration of why people decide to learn the Welsh language (something I did myself in my 20s, so I had a particular interest in the matter!).

This involved first of all reviewing the literature on the relationship between language and identity, motives for Second Language Acquisition (SLA), imagined communities, authority in language communities, and learner assets.

I then moved on to the academic literature on the specific topic of SLA of Welsh. I was disappointed at how little of this there was. There are a few very detailed papers, which were sufficient for me to work with but, given how important it is to ensure the survival of the Welsh language, and given how the incorporation of adult learners into the Welsh-speaking community is as a component of this, I was very surprised that this has not received greater attention.

One element I found rather worrying was that Welsh academics, and academics studying Welsh (two different, though overlapping, communities) showed a clear preference for publishing books or book chapters rather than papers in scholarly journals. Identifying the reasons for this would no doubt be an interesting research project in its own right, but it does make me wonder about the degree to which Wales and Welsh studies are a closed group rather than engaging with the broader academic world.

My findings were frankly troubling. According to the available literature, adult learners are coming to the language largely because of a conservative view of the language, looking backwards to a perception of the Welsh-speaking community as it was in the past, rather than what it is today or what it is becoming in the future. While I’m sure that this doesn’t fully reflect the situation – and my personal experience also suggests this – there really doesn’t appear to be sufficient research happening on this. Without this research, it’s going to be difficult for language planners, campaigners, and the Welsh for Adults sector to plan appropriately.

Image credits: Cymraeg Graffiti by Walt Jabsco on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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