Border issues: Keeping Welsh alive on country's edge

Image caption According to the 2011 census, Powys had 23,990 Welsh speakers (18.6% of the population), Newport 13,002 (9.3%), Monmouthshire 8,780 (9.9%) and neighbouring Blaenau Gwent the lowest number in Wales - 5,284 (7.8%)

It is strange how sometimes small and seemingly insignificant moments can stay with us from childhood for our entire lives.

For Brigid Edlin, now 70, it was a song in an alien language that she remembered for 40 years without knowing its meaning.

And for Irish-born Barbara Crellin, 66, the curiosity felt at listening to her mother speaking to relatives using words she did not recognise.

It was these memories that brought the two women together more than 50 years later to try and keep the Welsh language alive in Hay-on-Wye.

At the National Eisteddfod, ambitious plans were unveiled to increase speaker numbers to one million - yet, perhaps this is a simpler task than reviving it in border towns where it is all but dead.

Image caption Brigid Edlin and Barbara Crellin greeted visitors to the National Eisteddfod's Maes D - learner's tent

Mrs Crellin and Mrs Edlin greeted visitors to the Maes D - learner's tent - eager to use a language they have been studying for six years but rarely get to use on a daily basis.

It was to speak to her Bethesda-born mother that Mrs Crellin, from Munster, Ireland, started learning.

Yet, the only regular exposure she gets to it now is by watching S4C.

There are also coffee mornings and games of scrabble using Welsh words with her friend from nearby Glasbury-on-Wye.

"I was born in Crickhowell, raised over the border but sent to school in Brecon," said Mrs Edlin.

"We learnt songs like Calon Lan and the Lord's Prayer off by heart (in Welsh). It's funny what an 11-year-old remembers.

"I was reciting a poem 40 years later to people in England and didn't know what the words meant."

Mrs Edlin worked as a teacher in London - and taught German, Italian, French and Latin.

Yet, it was not until after she retired that she started learning a language that had captured her imagination long before any of them.

"I always wanted to learn, but there were no Welsh schools," said Lyndon Evans, 42, from Abertillery, Blaenau Gwent - the local authority with the least number of speakers.

"The National Eisteddfod coming to Ebbw Vale (in 2010) increased interest and I now go to a chat group that has 12 people.

"But it's difficult. My niece goes to Welsh school but won't talk to me at home."

While the language will seldom be heard in many communities in south east Wales, a growing number of learners are being encouraged to build their own.

Dysgu Cymraeg Gwent, which operates at sites around the area, gives lessons to 1,300 people.

These range from A-Level students to beginners, people learning through work or by Skype from other parts of the world.

"We ask them to put something on Facebook each day. Also, to organise informal activities together outside class.

"Things like summer and Christmas parties and bus trips to places like the Eisteddfod," said tutor John Woods.

Image caption Mair Lenny Turner and John Woods work for Dysgu Cymraeg Gwent - which teaches 1,300 people in Newport, Blaenau Gwent, Monmouthshire, Torfaen and Caerphilly

He grew up in Caldicot, Monmouthshire, where he heard no Welsh spoken. Yet, in the village of Portskewett, where Mr Woods now lives, speakers have moved in and the language is growing.

But perhaps the greatest inspiration to learners in the area is the man who was debating in the Senedd in Welsh within a year.

"When I became an AM (in 1999), I cottoned on pretty early that there wasn't many (Conservative) AMs who spoke Welsh," said now Monmouth MP David Davies.

"If I learnt, I could end up on television and radio and be able to get my points across.

"People need to find a reason. There is a positive attitude to the language and culture in Monmouthshire - it is just looking at ways to harness that."

During the one hour drive to Cardiff Bay every morning, Mr Davies listened to the news on Radio Cymru before testing how much he knew by listening to it on Radio Wales.

"When I was in the assembly, a high percentage of people spoke Welsh, so it was easy to make conversation," he said.

"I'd start by simply greeting them, then when I was more confident, we'd talk about the weather, then their relatives, until I didn't need to think about what I was saying."

Folk songs

Mr Davies also pointed to how people learn English by watching films and listening to pop music.

"Songs get into their heads," he said.

"There are lots of good Welsh folk songs, I like a band called Plethyn who are very political.

"I'm not sure if they're Conservative voters, but subconsciously you pick up quite a lot by listening."

Mr Davies also believes that teaching in border areas should move away from written exams and focus on the oral side.

"The point of Welsh is to use the spoken form. People need to be confident and comfortable enough to speak in places like clubs and pubs.

"The problem with exams is they mark you on grammar. Mine is awful and if I don't remember a Welsh word, I use an English one," he said.

"Get people talking as much as they can. They may make lots of mistakes but these will be ironed out pretty quickly."

It may be ambitious to expect learners to be debating in the Senedd within a year, but if it is in Monmouthshire's cafes and community centres, the revival of the language in the border county would be well underway.

More on this story