Is Welsh difficult to learn?

Is Welsh a difficult language? No, but it’s a very different language to English. Most English speakers who try to master a second language usually pick or are taught one which has something in common with their own, such as German, or French. Welsh has grown on a completely different branch of the language family tree, closely related to Cornish, Breton, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic.

The different consonants and mutations in the Welsh language can seem completely alien to the English ear. This has given rise to the idea that it is an unreasonably difficult language to master – which is also a convenient excuse for those who can’t be bothered doing so!

Welsh is as easy and as difficult to learn as any other language. And as with any other language, the best way to go about it is just to throw yourself in the deep end. Even if you can’t physically be amongst Welsh speakers, popular websites such as Say Something in Welsh allow you to be talk to other learners and fluent speakers every day.

Don’t worry too much if you make mistakes, either. Not everyone English speaker speaks the Queen’s English, but everyone speaks the language to the best of his or her ability and is generally understood. In the same way, not getting your mutations right or not being able to pronounce ‘Ll’ isn’t going to lead to a huge misunderstanding amongst other Welsh speakers. The important thing is that you can communicate confidently, and the rest will flow from there. And don’t let Welsh speakers try to switch to English – they’re just trying to be polite, but they’re not helping.

12 thoughts on “Is Welsh difficult to learn?

  1. Not only does Welsh belong to different language group from English as the article suggests but unlike English and many other European languages it does not draw most of its conceptual words from Latin or Greek either directly or indirectly. When attempting to use other languages non native speakers are often able to make guesses based on their knowledge of their own or their second or third language.This process rarely works for Welsh. Welsh, unlike English has largely tended to generate these conceptual words internally.rather than take them mainly via French and this really is a special difficulty for people for whom Welsh is not their first language.

    • That’s untrue. Occupation by the Normans and Romans has left a good number of Romance words in Welsh – Ffenestr (window, compare with French Fenestre), Llyfr (book, compare with French Livre), Llaeth (Milk, compare with French Lait), Eglws (church, compare with Latin Ecclesia and French eglise), Pont (bridge, compare with Latin Pons and French Pont) to name but five. There are many others.

    • In rather the same way that English borrowed a load of Norman French words after 1066, at a much earlier period, the Ancient Brits borrowed many Latin words from the Romans when Britain was part of the empire, and a few more later on with the coming of Christianity. These words were thoroughly naturalised and later inherited by the descendants of British; Welsh, Cornish and Breton. They may not all be immediately recognisable though unless you understand the type of changes that affected them. The interesting question really is why the Brits carried on speaking their own language throughout the 400-odd years of Roman occupation, whereas the Gauls, who spoke a very similar language, seemed to drop it at the first sight of a Roman sandal.

  2. “And as with any other language, the best way to go about it is just to throw yourself in the deep end.” Correct – but unfortunately I have not been able to find a Welsh language course that allows me to do this. As a language teacher (TEFL) I know that the best way to learn a language is through that language. I’ve also done it myself: this is how I learned both German and Dutch. However, the only Welsh absolute beginners courses I could find on the internet teach Welsh through English. Have I overlooked some???

    • Welsh is always taught through English, apart from immersion schooling for young children. You may find grammar resources and suchlike in Welsh, and possibly the odd course in another European language, German? Spanish? Breton?? Your best approach might be to use bilingual material, of which there is plenty, using the English text as a key to the Welsh. However you still need to understand the bare bones of grammar and syntax before you can start to get any real traction. E.g. Welsh word order is quite different from English. You’ll also need to appreciate how initial mutations work since we’re conditioned (at least from mainstream European languages), to regard the beginnings of words as fixed points of reference, rather than varying according to context as in Welsh.

      • The things you say I’ll need to learn I accept – but the question is how to learn these things. My understanding and experience is that all of these (and more) can be best learned through the language itself. For example, German word order is different from that of English – but that quickly emerged.
        Children can only learn through the language itself and they always manage it.

      • Richard Gault @
        I’m not really familiar with the method you’re after. Clearly you’ve used it to teach English, but then English is widely know, so are you really ever dealing with ‘absolute beginners’ when teaching English? As for you learning Dutch or German, these languages are related to English (as are French and Spanish through heavy borrowing), so you will see many familiar words, enough to get your bearings and provide a context to guess the unknown items. With Welsh though, I imagine that apart from the occasional transparent English loan, and a few recognisable Latin loans, you’d be all at sea. Welsh doesn’t even have ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Maybe you should find some subtitled movies or TV series (if there are any) that are interesting enough in themselves to keep your attention. If you watch the same parts more than once, common words and phrases should begin to crystalise out of the jumble of sound. However you’d still be advises to look up some of the words you think you’ve heard, and learn the basic pronouns, word order and so on.

  3. No excuse from me except laziness, arogance, stupidity and being busy. I read theology at Lampeter and didn’t take up my offer at Oxford because I had fallen in love with West Wales. My only regret is that I did not make the time to learn Welsh and submerge myself in what I had learn to love; the Welsh culture, way of life, spirit and general genius of the Welsh people. When I return I will not procratinate or make any other excuse but will do myself the favour of enlightening my soul and spirit by learning something that is realy worthwhile and beautiful – the language that makes my heart and soul satisfied Cumry. Dioch.

  4. There’s another aspect of “Welsh being difficult to learn” that only occured to me the other day. Since the start of SaySomethinginWelsh, there has been a growing realisation that the reason most people fail to learn Welsh is that the method they use isn;t suited to them, rather than that the language is intrinsically difficult. Also, because Welsh speakers nearly all speak English as well, it is more difficult to get “practice” (it’s easy to speak Welsh once you are confident, you just go out and speak Welsh to Welsh speakers, but getting to confidence is a difficulty).

    But there is another element to “learning a language” that *is* more difficult in Welsh than in any major foreign language, and that is “getting to a point where you use Welsh in preference to another language”. I speak reasonable French. I can get away with speaking French in most circumstances, including family gatherings and village events at my in-laws’ (in France). When in France, I rarely speak English. But, when faced with a French person who is *truly* fluent in English, unless they are 100% supportive of my workable-but-not-perfect French, we will tend to speak English.

    To my mind, I “have learnt French”. Yes, I can improve, but I have a good enough grasp of the language, that I would never be lost because of a lack of language. But in exactly the same circumstances in Welsh, I suspect that I would still be beating myself up about my lack of ability, and not really using my Welsh much, apart from “restaurant Welsh” because every conversation was poorer than it would be in English.

    So Welsh isn;t more difficult to learn than French (well, ok yes it is, but not the “impossibility difficult” that some people claim), but it’s more difficult to get to a position where your Welsh becomes the default language of speech in any given circumstance. That, of course, is the holy grail of language learning, and something that needs a whole lot more work on our part!

    • And then you have the additional factor that many native Welsh speakers are less than fully confident in their ability to use Welsh, so perhaps making them less likely to speak Welsh to a stranger. The equivalent is hard to imagine for any mainstream European language.

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