Reading · Teaching

Intro to Welsh: The Back to School edition

The school year has begun. It is not fall in Southern California by any measure but the academic calendar, but officially, fall semester has arrived. Kids are back in school, in air-conditioned classrooms one hopes, and my partner and I are swinging back in to a routine of lunches and carpools and homework and class preparation and grading.

But it’s August. Part of me is still offended.

Or it would be, if it weren’t so fun. It takes a couple days to figure out where classes meet and to put names to faces, and to move past the preliminaries of setting expectations and selling the class and yourself. For me the first week or two are always the most stressful, even though grading and responsibilities increase over the term.

In the first week I convince people to pay attention to me. I sell the class as important, useful, and fun. I sell myself as an authority but also as a person, because I know how much more pleasant a class is if you like your instructor. (This certainly does not always work, but I try. It’s a fine balance to hit—I’m kind of a dork, but an interesting, funny dork. If I push too far, they stop thinking I’m an interesting, funny anything, and all that’s left is the dork. This is impossible to come back from in my experience.)

When I’m teaching an English class, the odds are in my favor. I am largely surrounded by people who love books and have come there to talk about them. When I’m teaching a General Ed class, it varies.

This term I have mostly non-majors in my Folklore course. In the first week there has been a steady flow in and out of my class, as the prospect of all that reading and writing deters some people, or the dorkness proves insurmountable. People trickle in too, adding every day this week, not knowing what they’re in for.

Today I had enough laughing that I predict they will all stay.

We are reading the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of folklore contained in two manuscripts that people agree come hundreds of years after the tales had been circulating. The first hurdle is convincing people to care about medieval Welsh stories. The second hurdle is convincing people to read Welsh.

I don’t give them the text in Welsh, of course, but I do give them a crash course on pronouncing Welsh so they can read the names and places more easily. I’m trained as a linguist; I got this. I break down the names in to sounds and help them pronounce the ones non-native to English. But today just when they got comfortable with short, one or two-syllable names, and were feeling pretty good, I hit them with the YouTube video.

 There is a twenty-second video of a normal, respectable-looking weatherman doing his job that has over twenty million views because he effortlessly pronounces a Welsh town whose name is fifty-eight letters long. Of course he does. He’s from Cardiff. But it’s kind of amazing anyway.

So I sprung this on my students near the end of the language discussion. They were feeling good. They could pronounce Rhiannon with appropriate breathiness. They wrapped their mouths around the double d sounding like the beginning of ‘then.’ Then Liam Dutton commented about the weather in Llanfairpwyllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and they lost it. And I had them.

I know it’s a gimmick. I know it’s cheap. But if it makes them laugh, builds a connection with their fellow students, challenges them to figure out how that word holds together, sparks a curiosity about the language that extends to the literature and culture, and gets me a little buy-in to a fairly kooky subject matter, I’ll take it.

And we’re off.  Happy Fall, y’all.

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