Second Time Immigrant – Wales

It is not just Germans who can be ambivalent about their background. Questions of identity are among the most vexing and widely debated of our time. One of the distinctions that could be drawn is between people who look to affirm their inherited identity, and those who are more interested in a fluid existence amongst multiple identities. A number of well-established dichotomies can be set alongside this; remainers and leavers, locals and cosmopolitans, somewheres and anywheres. I am not trying to put a value judgement on either side of these divides, since neither perspective has a monopoly on virtue or evil. When indigenous communities are bulldozed aside by a more numerous and ‘modern’ culture, I find myself on the side of the ‘locals’. When people are suspicious of anyone different and treat them unfairly, I side firmly with those who are mobile, whether by choice or by circumstance. Perhaps the mobile, cosmopolitan, hybrid people can be divided again into those who are happy as a composite of a number of cultures, and those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into a single culture that is not the one in which they grew up. But then the division is probably never that neat, and once you begin to consider it more carefully it begins to disintegrate. 

I have been something of a cultural butterfly, perhaps I got a taste for it by being moved as a child and never quite stopped. Perhaps I’m just inquisitive by nature. In any case, for one reason or another I found myself at university in Bangor, in a strongly Welsh-speaking area of Wales. Most of the students there are from England and I blended in quite well with them. But I was intrigued by the strange looking Welsh-English bilingual signs and the snatches of Welsh one heard spoken around the town and the University. I think partly I was going into immigrant mode, i.e. remembering how I came to England and had to learn English in a hurry, and thinking: I’m in Wales now, so I should learn Welsh. I know this is not how most English people react when they arrive there. I think they tend to think of Wales as part of England and can be a little surprised and even irritated by this strange tongue they find there. In any case, even though I was interested from the start, I found it was not nearly as easy or quick to learn Welsh as it had been to learn English. For a start, the Welsh students were engaged in a political struggle to promote the language and tended to keep themselves apart. Then there is the fact that Welsh speakers are bilingual and will tend to speak English to you if they think you are not local. I did go to a couple of lessons in the beginning, but soon got distracted by the local music scene and student life. I had a Welsh friend at the time but he seemed to be as keen to hide his identity as many Germans are to hide theirs.

It was not until I had finished my degree that I renewed my efforts to learn Welsh. I had bought a house with my partner so we were already quite settled and began to make Welsh friends at the local pub. When a band project I had been working towards fell through and I used the demo songs to get music commissions for the newly set up Welsh TV channel S4C, I also came into contact with the language professionally. By now I had realised that learning Welsh would be nothing like learning English had been for me. For one thing, I was older, and it is more difficult to learn a language as an adult. Furthermore, it was difficult to replicate the same level of immersion and imperative to learn as I had experienced as a child in an all-English playground. But learning became an obsession. People would tell me ‘oh, you’re good at languages’ implying that it was easy for me. No. It is hard. I think my determination was the main factor in succeeding. One thing I needed to accept was that to learn a language as an adult is a journey rather than a destination. I am fluent and comfortable in Welsh. But I know I am not perfect. Very few adult learners of a language ever entirely lose their accent or make no grammatical mistakes. It goes to show how deeply the culture we learn a children marks us.

This brings me back to being German. After all, this blog series is about my experience of living in the UK as a German rather than about learning Welsh per se. It is just that Wales became my home and Welsh became a key part of my experience. In going to Wales and learning Welsh I became an immigrant for the second time. Of course, many English people live in Wales and don’t really engage with Welsh language and culture, but once you do, you are embarking on a significant process of integration which is by no means straight forward. Here I have to emphasise the distinction between learning a language and actually interacting with the people who speak that language naturally in their mother tongue. Many people take lessons or courses in a language, or practice it using an app. But only a fraction of these actually use it in everyday life. The second of these steps is harder, it takes some courage in terms of getting out of your social comfort zone and being prepared to make an idiot of yourself, but ultimately it is the best, I would say the only way, to really get to grips with a language. And, it is great fun and very rewarding when you make progress.

One thought on “Second Time Immigrant – Wales

  1. Neil Browning

    Great to read this, Jochen!
    The first half of my life was in Southern England, and the second half (as you know) has been in North Wales where I too learnt Welsh.
    One result has been a better understanding of the question of identity: I no longer think of myself as ‘English’, and neither as ‘Welsh’. It’s more complicated than that. A very worthwhile lesson!

Comments are closed.