German and Exotic

So, why did I, a German coming from England to Wales, feel the need to learn Welsh? I could easily have thought ‘well, I’ve already had to learn English — that will do’. I think there was a part of me that regarded it as just going through the same process of learning and integration as I had when I was dropped into an English primary school, like a goldfish into a tank of piranhas. Perhaps something deeper in me identified with the underdog. In Germany we kids had played ‘cowboys and Indians’, rather than ‘war’ as they did in England at the time. I always identified with the Indians: their interesting dress, their brave resistance against the odds, their incredible horsemanship and their closeness to nature. In Wales, I saw something intriguing and exotic in this strange language that had survived under the nose of the most powerful empire in History. Also, I made a connection between the Welsh and the Jews, as minorities that others had tried to obliterate, if not physically in the case of the Welsh, then at least culturally. As a German intent on being the opposite of a Nazi, it was obvious to me that I should take up their language, and their cause. I would say that the language is so central to Welsh culture, that it is their cause, certainly in Welsh speaking areas.

In those areas the Welsh-English divide has been the major cultural issue in the time I have lived there and probably for centuries. The Welsh speakers there mostly see the language as crucial to their identity, whereas the non-Welsh speakers are often painfully aware that they lack the deep connection to place and history that the language provides. (The situation is probably somewhat different in areas where Welsh is not spoken as much). Coming into this context meant that being German took on a different significance. Rather than being a contemporary representative of the enemy of Wars and football games, I was now something rather exotic myself; a German Welsh learner. Any incomer who embraced the language and actually used it for real was something of a rarity, but someone from outside the UK who did so was seen as something close to a miracle by Welsh people. Furthermore, I could be weaponised against those English people who did not show a similar respect for, and interest in, Welsh. Mostly, Welsh people reacted to me with fascination and approval, rather than the mild shock, unease and even prejudice I had been used to in England.