He came from Texas… and learnt Welsh
Did you hear the one about the Texan who learnt fluent Welsh? That’s the unlikely life story of Chris Cope, who actually moved here and ended up teaching the language. ‘I still can’t quite explain why it hooked me,’ he says. Better be careful – it might hook you, too...
A secret Wales
A night-time beach BBQ in Wales by Chris Cope
The first time I heard it, the Welsh language felt equally made up. I was doing an exchange year in England and a friend had come to visit. Keen to expose him to Britain’s natural beauty I had decided we would hitchhike to Snowdonia National Park. People don’t tend to offer rides to random men standing at the roadside. So, my friend and I found ourselves relying on the thankfully extensive network of tourist information centres, which guided us along with train and bus routes.
And it was on one of these buses that I first heard Welsh being spoken. I thought it was German. Then we got off the bus and I heard it being spoken all around me. Yes, I’ll admit there was a moment when I thought, ‘Man, there sure are a lot of Germans in this town!’ but it did eventually dawn on me that the language being spoken was the same I had seen on road signs.
A life-changing experience
Chris Cope walking in Wales by Chris Cope
This revelation was life-changing. I felt my friend and I had found a secret place. It was like discovering a trapdoor in your house that leads down a stairwell to some magical hidden city.
The experience stayed with me when I moved back to the United States. So much so that I eventually taught myself to speak Welsh using online tools. It was a hobby at first, but the thing just grew and grew until I felt I had to move to Wales. I had to be a part of that secret place. Since then, I’ve earned a bachelors degree and a masters degree in Welsh. I’ve written a book in Welsh and even worked as a Welsh teacher for a number of years.
Despite that, I still can’t quite explain what hooked me on the language. After all, it’s not the first choice if you’re keen on being an international businessman. But something hooked me. Maybe it was the idea of being a part of a world that could be so unknown to a kid from Texas.
Cwrw am Ddim – free beer!
American-born Chris Cope hiking in Wales by Chris Cope
A critic might say one of the reasons Welsh is so unknown is that many of its speakers are insular. I prefer to say they are stubborn. Admirably so. While England was spreading its influence around the world, the Welsh were right next door and somehow managed to hold onto their ancient language.
As a fluent speaker of that language, I can assure you: native Welsh speakers appreciate the effort. Last week, I met a woman who was so overwhelmed by the idea of some guy from Texas taking time to learn the language she had spoken from birth that she threw her arms around me and started crying. In fairness, she had enjoyed a few glasses of wine beforehand, but hers was a sentiment I’d experienced before. The title of my Welsh-language book is Cwrw am Ddim, or ‘Free Beer’. It is a reference to the kindness I often enjoy in the company of Welsh speakers.
Just get to it
Texan-born Cardiff resident Chris Cope by Chris Cope
Obviously, I can’t promise that learning Welsh will result in your having to buy fewer rounds, but I still encourage anyone to give it a go. My main advice in learning is to remember that it is a language – a human thing. It is not maths or chemistry; there is no precision. Learners often get themselves in knots over questions of dialect and formality, as if saying ‘sgwennu’ instead of ‘ysgrifennu’ (both ways of saying ‘to write’) is somehow going to make them unintelligible. Don’t worry. When I taught Welsh, I’d ask my students: ‘Have you ever heard a Yorkshireman speak? Have you ever heard a Texan speak? Do you imagine the two could carry on a conversation with each other?’ Of course they can. So, don’t worry. Just get to it. You’ll be glad you did.
More information on the Welsh language