Coronavirus: Learning Welsh online in lockdown surprisingly popular

By Gwenfair Griffith
BBC Wales News

image copyrightCymraeg i Oedolion
image captionHelen Prosser thinks online learning will continue in September

Learning Welsh has become so popular during lockdown that it has been a challenge to ensure enough tutors for all the new virtual classes.

Welsh is now more popular to learn than Chinese for UK users on one language platform, with 1.3 million people learning worldwide after thousands of new users signed up for free classes during lockdown.

Less than two weeks into lockdown in Wales, the National Centre for Learning Welsh launched new free Welsh classes, with 8,300 people signing up.

"We are over the moon, and can't believe it" said Helen Prosser, director of teaching and learning at the centre. "We had a target of 100 learners. It was a huge challenge to find tutors."

The centre needed enough tutors to hold 89 virtual classes, with 1,300 complete novices keen to start.

Who is learning Welsh?

One of those was Joshua Osborne, from Poole in Dorset.

A maths student in his fourth year, studying for a masters at Cambridge University, he decided to learn after his Welsh partner sent him a link to the centre's new lessons.

image copyrightJoshua Osborne
image captionJoshua decided to learn Welsh because his partner is from Swansea

"I think it's really important in lockdown to have that kind of structure of something to do every week.

"Also, I think it's a good idea to learn another language. I've tried learning a language before, but the problem with a lot of free language stuff you can do is it's very self-motivated. There isn't that kind of every week you touch base with someone. That's what really attracted me to the course."

Joshua is now in his fourth week of learning and has started to tackle the mutation system of Welsh grammar.

"It's such a nice sounding language," he said.

"I think I'll continue pursuing it after lockdown. It would be nice to have that language in common with my partner.

"I have historically struggled with learning languages, but it seems to be going well so far."

Vanessa Kelly, a chiropractor from Cardiff, has enjoyed using both the centre's courses and the language app SaySomethinginWelsh.

Welsh wasn't on offer at her high school in Fairwater, but she has always wanted to learn the language.

"I've always felt embarrassed I can't sing the Welsh national anthem," she says.

image copyrightVanessa Kelly
image captionVanessa Kelly's riding partner speaks Welsh, and she also exchanges Welsh texts with her farrier

When the lockdown started, she noticed an offer of free sessions for Welsh learners on Facebook at 3pm. She decided to have another go at a previous attempt to learn. She also enrolled on one of the centre's new courses.

"I listen to Welsh radio in the car. If I've got 20 minutes, I whack it on. I do SaySomethinginWelsh, watch S4C... I'm immersing myself in the language in various ways.

"I watched Carol Vorderman learn on the telly, and that was great. I didn't turn the subtitles on and I was surprised how much I understood.

"I'm determined to learn the language. There's no point going half measures. I have to practice and I have to listen. It's nice to challenge yourself and I enjoy it."

image copyrightS4C
image captionCarol Vorderman and the celebrities on 'Iaith ar Daith' on S4C was an inspiration for Vanessa Kelly

If the lockdown hadn't happened, Vanessa says she would have enrolled on a residential course, but instead she devotes her time to learning at home as much as possible.

She intends to take an exam next year, but confides she prefers to learn in virtual classes rather than real ones.

"Given the choice, I would carry on with online lessons. It's easier for me than the bother of getting somewhere to have lessons.

"But, I would make the effort to meet the other classmates informally to practice."

What about other languages?

Learning languages online has proved popular more widely during the coronavirus crisis.

Forbes reported that the number of Duolingo users in Spain increased 126% in the week ahead of the Spanish government's introduction of stringent lockdown measures. In China too, the number of learners on the app doubled during the crisis.

Welsh is now more popular than Chinese (Beijing-style Mandarin) on language app Duolingo in the UK. It has been the seventh most popular language to learn across Britain during lockdown, with 1.3 million learning across the globe.

The Open University also reports that Welsh for beginners has been the number one course for students from Wales during lockdown. In March, they say their website had 64,000 visitors from Wales, increasing to 120,000 in April.

For the National Centre for Welsh learning, a new partnership with SaySomethingInWelsh (SSIW) means they'll be able to share more resources and expertise to make it easier for people to learn Welsh.

There will also be a discount for the centre's learners who want to use SSIW's resources.

The Welsh Government has a target of reaching a million Welsh speakers by 2020, and tutors believe online learning will now play an even greater role long-term.

"We are all realistic in thinking we will still be holding online lessons in September," says Helen Prosser. "From now on, there will always be a percentage wishing to learn online."

image copyrightDysgu Cymraeg

"So many learners are using both services, so this just formalises an existing partnership."

SSIW also offered new courses during lockdown. "Bedtime Welsh" aimed to help families with children in Welsh-medium education with home-schooling activities. They've seen the number of learners through their channels nearly triple since the pandemic hit the country.

Aran Jones, one of SSIW's co-founders, says he is looking forward to the new partnership with the National Centre for Learning Welsh.

"This is a very exciting development and working together in this way is certain to be of benefit to Welsh learners.

"The wide range of expertise available as a result of this new relationship will ensure that anyone wishing to learn Welsh will have easy access to a variety of courses and flexible support which meet their needs."

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