Last week, I attended Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s production of Y Fenyw Ddaeth o’r Môr, Menna Elfyn’s Welsh translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play Fruen fra havet – more commonly known to English-speaking audiences as The Lady From the Sea. Not only was this the first play I’d ever attended in Welsh – it was my very first monolingual Welsh event. I was invited along by a friend, another student in Aber who’s also learning Welsh, and I went because I like plays, and I like Ibsen, and I liked the idea of immersing myself completely in Welsh without having to verbally interact in it.
Please don’t misunderstand – I don’t dislike speaking Welsh. I don’t find the language difficult or the grammar too hard, and I certainly don’t attend class twice a week viewing my classmates as “fellow victims,” as my course book, rather perplexingly, tells me I should. I enjoy the bare, mechanical bones of language – but a reading knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and a working knowledge of Welsh are not the same animal. I know that I could exist here without ever engaging with Welsh language or culture in any real way at all. I could simply turn left when I encounter the unfamiliar, and move back into my monoglot English-speaking comfort zone. But knowing that I could is part of the very motivation for not wanting to – because I also know that there is more. I know that there are things, peoples, places, events, whole worlds of perspective that I am missing out on. If poetry is driven by perception and perspective, then really – I can’t afford to miss a thing.
This is not to say that that desire to engage has made the last seven months of study easy. They haven’t been. However, what I find most difficult about learning Welsh has nothing at all to do with the language and everything to do with me: I’m not very good at being bad at words. I have been interacting with the English language for over 30 years. I’ve used it to communicate with family, friends, and lovers, to write college applications and shopping lists and eulogies. I’ve used it for work, for play, for singing and shouting at sporting events; I’ve written technical manuals and love poems. English is a power tool and a paint brush, and an old, old friend. Words are what I do, and what I am…so I hope you can understand (as I’m sure you can, if you’ve ever learned a second language), the sheer frustration and the weird sense of betrayal that befall a person who works so closely with words when it takes two weeks to stumble through telling someone that I live in Aberystwyth, but I come from Tennessee originally, I am student here, and yes, please, I would like some tea. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent these last seven months playing an absurd game of hide and seek – it’s all well and good to write in Welsh, where I have time to consult grammar books and dictionaries, but conversational situations? What if I get it wrong? What if I look dumb? What if I take too long to make a sentence and people are staring at me expectantly, like we’re in a play and I’ve forgotten all my lines? Better to wait, and write, and listen.
It was with this mindset – and the uneasy knowledge that I needed to change it somehow – that I went to see a play with my friends. I had been willing to just spend the evening being a bit lost, but as it turned out, I wouldn’t have to – Y Theatr Genedlaethol were promoting their new app for Welsh learners and non-Welsh speakers: Sibrwd. Sibrwd is an iPhone and Android app that runs in conjunction with Theatr Genedlaethol productions – and rather than giving a running, word-for-word translation, the app does just as its name implies: it whispers in your ear. At key moments during each scene, Sibrwd gives a brief synopsis of what is happening, sometimes quoting important lines from characters on stage. The text, which is never more than a paragraph’s length, is also displayed on your phone or ipod screen. I took my iPhone along to the performance, linked up with Sibrwd’s wifi frequency, and sat back to enjoy the show in a passive way – letting the language wash over me, getting updates from Sibrwd on what I was seeing.
Unfortunately, after the first scene, those updates stopped coming. It wasn’t a problem with the app – I learned later that I had just lost connection with the wi-fi signal – but without the friendly voice in my ear, I was on my own. Adrift. I honed in on what was happening in front of me, putting together the what I could glean from the spoken lines with the body language and vocal tone of the very talented actors. I was amazed to find that, by intermission, when I checked in with my boyfriend who is a first-language Welsh speaker, I still had a fairly firm grasp of what had transpired. For the second half of the play, the Theatr staff helped me reconnect to the wi-fi, and I was reunited with the Sibrwd narrator – but after concentrating so fully on the stage in silence, the little voice in my ear, though necessary, was a trifle intrusive. I decided to try an experiment – I left the Sibrwd app running and set my phone on my knee so that I could see when the text changed, but I left my earbuds out. I continued doing as I had before, gleaning as much as I could on my own, but continued to check in with Sibrwd. Sometimes I’d gotten totally lost and needed the app’s helpful updates, but more often I found myself using Sibrwd’s text to confirm that yes, I had been more or less able to follow what was happening on stage using just my own eyes and ears. Sibrwd was invaluable for getting the most possible enjoyment and understanding out of the play I attended, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to follow nearly as well without it, but the app also gave me the chance to navigate those unfamiliar waters on my own. I was free to follow along as best I could, knowing that I wouldn’t get too lost with my Sibrwd safety line waiting to tow me back in.
And the consequences of that linguistic symbiosis reached father than just getting to enjoy a play with my friends. Two days later, I attended a Welsh-speaking lunch with my Welsh classmates. It’s a thing they’ve been doing for a few weeks – anyone who is able to meets on campus for lunch on Thursdays, and for an hour no one speaks anything but Welsh. I’d never gone. To be perfectly honest, I was afraid to. But last week I thought surely if I could follow a play, I could manage a lunch; so I went, and had an hour’s worth of spontaneous conversation over nice food with fun people and it didn’t hurt a bit. In fact, that Thursday became the very first day on which I spoke more Welsh than English. I spoke it in conversation with friends, in Facebook statuses, in emails, on the phone. I used it in tweets, and at home with my boyfriend. I even wrote a contribution in Welsh for my boyfriend’s review of the play and the Sibrwd app on his weekly blog. The blog runs in conjunction with his work with Sefydliad Mercator at Aberystwyth University, and their current project, funded by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, to compile an online catalogue of translations into Welsh.
Every day won’t be like that one. I’ll get things wrong, probably often and in public, and I will likely still have days of feeling discouraged. If my experience with the Sibrwd app taught me anything, though, it’s that untested skills will never improve. If you don’t know where you are, how can you push yourself further? I don’t think I’ve had, until now, a genuine understanding of what ‘immersion’ really means. It is not a passive thing. You cannot immerse yourself in the ocean thinking, ‘I will wait until I have learned you completely before I swim,’ and expect to do anything but drown. So for now I will paddle along, happy to have apps like Sibrwd helping to keep me afloat.