Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why and How I'm Studying Welsh

First, let me explain that I'm posting a piece like this as the result of pre-show insomnia. I work so hard and make so many decisions to get ready for a show that my brain just won't shut off to let me get any real sleep on the last night before I leave.

Then, let me say that I know this "learning a new language" thing sounds crazy, especially given how ridiculously busy I am right now. But it's really a strange form of vacation for me. I love to learn, and few things are more challenging than a new language.

Why Welsh? Well, the family name on my father's side is Pembroke. My grandfather's story is that his relatives were Dutch, and that it's a bastardization of Pijumbroka or something like that. It just doesn't make sense to me, especially given that Pembroke is a well-known Welsh name. It seems more likely that one of my ancestors lived in or passed through the Netherlands and had their English name localized before moving on to the New World. I look almost exactly like my dad, who resembled his dad. And we all look like Welsh men.

In my spiritual studies, I come across Welsh in a lot of liturgy. There are few in the US who can even pronounce the words, much less understand what they mean. I've been wanting to learn it for years.

And, I'll admit that my impetus to learn it right now is somewhat impulsive. I follow a blog called "Get Rich Slowly" and this week they posted a guest article:

How to Learn a Foreign Language Without Spending a Cent

A few things struck me about this. One was the optimism. You mean I could really learn Welsh in my spare time without spending a ton of money? I'll try it!

In a few months I'll have time to try out some of his suggestions for finding people with whom to practice, but for now I'm focused on three major aspects of this language: recognizing and replicating the sounds that make up the language, learning how those sounds are reflected in writing, and learning vocabulary.

I'm not obsessive about making sure that I spend no money whatsoever on this project, but I do want to keep the cost to a minimum. To learn the strange sounds of Welsh, I decided to spring for an iPhone app: Cwrs Mynediad.

It is intended to serve as a companion to classes based on a book by the same name. I decided to buy it because of its features in drilling the sounds on the language. In the sound-based exercises you can record yourself and compare your pronunciation to a recording of the instructor's voice. And, of course, the program covers way more than that.

In order to become comfortable with the sounds and cadence of the language, I've begun listening to a BBC radio station called Radio Cymru. Again, I use an iPhone app called TuneIn Radio. It lets me stream Welsh to my iPod while I work. After a week or so, it doesn't sound like high-speed craziness anymore. I can now understand all of the sounds that I'm hearing, even if the words mean nothing to me yet.

And, in order to learn the vocabulary that I'll need when I get to that point, I'm learning 10 new words a day using a web-based program called Anki. In order to keep it free, there's some funky setup required. First, I needed to download the desktop application for my Mac. Then, I could access the flashcard decks available to download for free. I chose the one with the largest number of words and phrases, over 2,000. Thankfully, this deck was designed for an absolute beginner.

Then, I synced the program with the web-based program and made a bookmark on my iPod for that web page. Voilá! 10 new words a day.

Anki uses a well-known system of spaced repetition to make sure the words you learn today don't drop out of your brain tomorrow. When presented with a card, you think of the answer. If you're wrong, you put the card back on the deck for immediate review. If you're right, you have three options to tell the system how you're learning. You mark a card as hard, moderate, or easy. This puts the card away and tells the system how soon you need to see it again. You'll review hard cards within a day or two to reinforce them in your memory. Moderate and easy cards will be tested at successively longer intervals.

This is the system used by most language programs because it works. And, as you build the pathways in your brain to store the new information, it sticks easier.

I've hit and overcome the first set of hurdles in vocabulary acquisition: false security. I thought I was learning really fast until my second review of the first words I learned. By then, I'd learned many more words and realized that the first ones weren't really learned at all. I had stored them as multiple choice responses because there were few enough options in my mind that I could do that. Soon, that didn't work and I had to really learn the words.

Every day now, I'm learning 10 new words and reviewing 35-60 old words. It takes about half an hour after dinner. Believe it or not, I'll have a vocabulary of over 2,000 words by March.

One thing about spaced repetition, though... You can't cheat. If I skip a day, I'll have many more cards to review the next day. It's based on how the brain actually learns, so "taking a break" doesn't really happen.

I'm excited by the prospect of finding a Welsh-speaking Skype buddy in a little while so I can really get going with conversation in my new language.


humblebumble said...

as far as the celtic languages go, welsh is pretty healthy. not as healthy as Irish gaelic like, but it's certainly not stuck in the past. Lovely language as well, sound well nice

Anonymous said...

Good luck Blossom. When my father was in the RAF we were stationed in Wales and I had to learn it at school. Can't remember a single word other than iechyd da (pron. yaki dah). So iechyd da to you! (good health). Bea