Language Confusion

It started as a normal day for me here in Wales – listening to Radio Cymru, reading a little from Golwg and doing my best to think in Welsh as much as possible. But, I had an Esperanto-speaking visitor on the way.

Esperanto – the international language

I learnt Esperanto back in 1997 when I was living in Australia. I attended the only Universal Congress (annual international get-together for Esperanto-speakers) ever held on Australian soil in Adelaide, and I was hooked on the language. How could I not be when I was surrounded by people from all over the world, from all sorts of different language backgrounds, freely and fluently communicating in a neutral, international language. The atmosphere of amazing and although I hadn’t been learning Esperanto very long myself, I found I understood a lot of what was being said. Flying home to Perth I cried. I didn’t want to leave!

Esperanto in Wales

But Esperanto isn’t hugely popular in Wales. There is a small group that gets together in Cardiff once a month (see Esperanto in Cardiff for a calendar of their activities) to socialise in Esperanto but as I was concentrating on learning Welsh at the time, I found I inserted more and more Welsh words into my Esperanto conversations – to the amusement of those that could understand Welsh and the confusion of those that couldn’t!

Visitor from Korea

A very useful service exists for travellers in the Esperanto world – Pasporta Servo. It maintains a list of Esperanto speakers around the world who are willing to give a few days’ accommodation to Esperanto-speaking guests. When I lived in Perth, Western Australia, I hosted a number of guests from countries as diverse as Ghana, Argentina, The Netherlands and the US. It was a great experience! I also stayed with Esperanto-speakers when I travelled in Vietnam and I learned a lot more about the everyday life of the people than a tourist normally would.

So, I recently put my name back in the Pasporta Servo to see if I would get any enquiries from Esperantists keen to learn about Wales. It wasn’t long before I had an email from a woman from South Korea – Minmin – and she arrived last Sunday.

Brain freeze

What happened next was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had!

At first I struggled to speak Esperanto. I was so rusty and all that came out was Welsh. It didn’t help that there are some similar words, or those that started with the same letter:

  • today – heddiw (Welsh) – hodiau (Esperanto)
  • window – fenest (Welsh) – fenestro (Esperanto)
  • roof – to (Welsh) – tegmento (Esperanto)

All I needed was the slightest hint and all that came out was Welsh. But then a really weird thing happened.

The next day it was as if my brain suddenly thought I know this language! It’s really familiar! and it threw a switch. My Esperanto came flooding back … and my Welsh disappeared, completely! I was totally fine chatting away in Esperanto with Minmin, but when the phone rang and the caller was someone I had only ever spoken Welsh with I just stood there totally frozen. I opened my mouth to speak but no Welsh would come into my head – not even the most basic phrase. I couldn’t remember how to say I am let alone discuss getting a new floor in my bathroom!

It felt like there was some kind of battle going on in my head, and Welsh wasn’t putting up much of a fight. I somehow stammered through that conversation in extremely broken Welsh, then had the same experience when we visited the Amgueddfa Wlân. I discussed the menu board with Minmin in Esperanto, turned to order food and felt really stupid – no Welsh! I didn’t want to resort to English, so I stuttered through a couple of sentences in a mixture of Esperanto with the odd Welsh word that managed to push its way through, but it was really frustrating and I thought my head was going to explode.

Brain thaw

It carried on like that for a whole day. If I put the radio on I could understand everything (well, to my normal level of understanding!) and if I read any Welsh – no problem at all – but totally incapable of producing a coherent sentence.

Then, to my great relief, the following day the struggle in my brain started to relax and the Welsh started to come back. When I said something in Esperanto to Minmin I then thought how I would say it in Welsh and as the day progressed it became easier and easier. I still confused the two occasionally but it was clear that it had only been a temporary affliction due to the sudden shock of forcing my brain to recall something it had stored away in a hard-to-reach spot.

Now that Minmin has gone I’m determined not to let the Esperanto slip away again. I will do it in reverse – speaking Welsh, then thinking how I would say that in Esperanto, just enough to keep it active when I want it.

And if I really want to be a Polyglot, I’ll have to do that with all the languages I learn. It will be interesting to find out what is the minimum I need to do to keep up a certain level of ability. There aren’t enough hours in the day to practise every language I want to learn, but people successfully become Polyglots so no reason why I can’t too.

Let’s hope my brain doesn’t have other ideas!

2 thoughts on “Language Confusion

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