Dysgu Cymraeg – Learning Welsh

The word Dylexia surrounded by a jumble of words making it difficult to read

Bore da! Sut wyt ti?

I have been learning Welsh. I’d wanted to for years, I live in Wales, after all. With courses moved to Zoom over lockdown and the course being half price – I could never afford the original £90,  I am now dysgu Cymraeg.

Learning a new language is challenging for everyone I guess, but as a dyslexic learner, it is tough.

The words dancing on lines in English can be hard, especially when I’m tired or not well, but my brain recognises the shapes of the words, and I can get the gist. I read early as a child, memorising the shapes of words not their sounds.

Reading in English, I reckon I get it wrong a third of the time. Impossible to see that similar words are wrong, I struggle to check my work. If I read ‘the man has a red tractor on his head’ I know that is probably not the case and go back and carefully read again, willing the words to stay put, not sneak up to the line above then grab a word from the line below.

Sometimes its laugh out loud funny – the mix-up, especially with headlines – only now I can’t think of a funny example.

It’s less funny in Welsh. I haven’t memorised all the words. It’s impossible to recognise the dancing out of order as I don’t know the order in the first place.  I can’t sound it out as I don’t recognise the sounds. Reading takes me longer, and I struggle to retain what we have learned.

But learning Welsh, or trying to, has helped me understand my dyslexia in unexpected ways.

First comes the blind panic, something I no longer experience in my first language.  In Welsh, the words jumbling on the page causes a flush of anxiety that flares across my skin. Widening my eyes, from fear and concentration, I try to follow what the tutor is saying. 

Shame at my stupidity and embarrassment as I lose my place, a tight knot forms in my throat. My eyes swim with tears as I try to concentrate on the screen. This feeling , old as stone, sits like a pebble in my mouth. More panic when everyone is turning the page, moving on, laughing at the joke in the text while I am still stuck, letters swimming in nonsense.

I have no idea what we are meant to be learning.

My mind shuts down, no longer able to process the information, an internal dialogue of ‘try harder’ ‘stupid girl’ ‘pay attention’  ‘lazy’  runs on a loop until the tutor, noticing my silence asks me a question.

‘I don’t know,’ I mumble, forgetting how to say it in Welsh.

It is not the voice of a  50+woman.  A woman with degrees and post-grad qualifications coming out of her ears, an award-winning writer no less.

It is the voice of the funny little girl I was. The funny little girl, berated by teachers, exercise books thrown at her in disgust as the rest of the class sniggered in alarm. The funny little girl made to sit at the front so the teacher could slap at the desk with a ruler every time she caught her ‘being lazy.’ The funny little girl, who had wonderful ideas and dreams and stories but became silent and anxious when faced with the urgency of filling the blank page.

The shame, of my stupidity, of my indolence, of my inability to ‘just try harder,’ never left.

Except.

Now.

Learning Welsh.

Now I can see how hard that funny little girl must have had to work. It’s no wonder she left school with no qualifications. No wonder she thought she was thick, no wonder she still worries about spelling and commas and where the speech marks go.

I can see how hard it was for her. How hard it was to understand that it wasn’t her, well it was, but not in a bad way, not in the way she thought.

That poor funny little girl, always a bit weird, always on the outside, never quite following what was going on, always escaping into a book.

It’s ok now because I’m here. I’m no longer that funny little girl – I’m now this funny grown-up woman.

In my Welsh class, I take a deep breath and holding my funny girl’s hand in mine, we raise our hands together and simply say ‘ I don’t get it.’

The tutor smiles, apologises for rushing on.

Me and my funny girl let out that last held breath, our fingers moving slowly along the page and say loud and proud,

Maya dw i. Dw i’n hoffi dysgu Cymraeg, ond dw’n dal angen ymarfer.

(I’m Maya. I like learning Welsh, but I still need to practice. )

P.S I was at a training course for Dyslexia and they used a great exercise to show what dyslexia can feel like for some students. Give it a try if you like.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen and copy the following statement. You have three minutes. If your paper is lined, turn it landscape and write across the lines.

Oh, you must replace every letter A with ( . Every letter E with % and every letter Y with *. When you come to the letter N you must insert a word from the line above. You can only read these instructions once.

Good Luck

Not only is Maya funny, witty, and charming. Not only is she a mother of six children, yes six! Yes, I know that’s a lot. Yes it was busy, yes it was very noisy and yes I was insane. Not only is Maya an award-winning writer, but she is also dyslexic, dyscalculic and dysgraphic. This means, despite being a seriously kick-ass sock knitter, she cant read kitting patterns so she memorises stich-patterns instead.

HURRY – GO FASTER.

Enjoy!

Becoming an astronaut.

I once said to Michael Sheen – you don’t get to say that very often, do you? I once said to Michael Sheen that saying you wanted to be a writer when I was growing up was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut.

For a girl, growing up in the relentless poverty of the ’80s, the dole not stretching to heat and food, the Provi-man’s knocking at the door for repayment of loans my parents could never afford, saying you wanted to be a writer was mad, like saying you wanted to be an astronaut.

I didn’t know any writers. Writers were posh, went to posh school that I’d go to with my mum to clean after school.  What did a writer do anyway?  Sit in their special writing room, sharpening their pencils before having cocktails on the lawn as the sun went down. (I watched a lot of old movies so my references may have been Noel Coward and Agatha Christie????)

Never mind that my school had written me off already. Never mind that I didn’t attend school for the lack of school shoes.  Never mind if I didn’t go to school, I didn’t get my free school dinner, with that shameful little token that, some days, was my only meal.

In all of this I still wrote stories, still made them up on my long walks across the fields, feet wet, trying to keep out of everyone’s way.

Trust me, where I came from people didn’t become writers and the knowledge, knowing that I could never be an astronaut, ground down deep into my bones, staining the very marrow. A childish dream from a hungry girl.

We all have to grow up and get proper jobs, feed our kids, struggle to make sure they never go hungry.

Well, last night I was launched into space.

Along with 10 other fabulously talented writers taking part in A Writing Chance with New Writing North, Michael ‘bleeding’ Sheen – I think he could change his name to that, I’ve said it like that enough. Michael ‘bleeding’ Sheen performed our work on stage in Cardiff.

When I was chatting to Michael, trying to explain what a difference being part of this programme had made to me, how it had shifted my whole feeling about myself, about who I was, about how I had become a writer, Michael Sheen asked me what it was like to become an astronaut?

Then he went on stage and performed my words

The section he performed is from the beginning of my novel in progress about a woman who has forgotten she is the goddess of the River Severn. It begins with the myth of how the rivers of Wales got their goddesses. A reinvention of a tiny three-line myth I found in my research, Michael made it sound like a story of old.

I cannot tell you how amazing it was to hear words I’d written in the dark of early morning come to light on the stage.

Well, I don’t need to tell you as you can listen to those words being performed in ‘Margins to Mainstream’ on St David’s Day, Tuesday 1st March 2022 at 6.30 pm on BBC Radio Wales. (If you are outside Wales, go to the BBC Sounds App and type in ‘Margins to Mainstream’.)

BBC Radio Wales – Margins to Mainstream: St David’s Day Special

Oooh this is me!

Remember me going on about winning A Writing Chance Award with New Writing North and the very lovely Michael Sheen ? No? Well you cant have been listening!

Back in the summer I won a place on a writing program for underrepresented writers and this weekend we are all heading off to the BBC in Cardiff where Michael Sheen is going to be performing an extract from the novel I am currently adding the finishing touches to.

Full link here

https://www.bbc.com/mediacentre/2022/bbc-cyrmu-wales-st-davids-day