Lucy's home town of Carmarthen in WalesLucy Hill

I would like to think that I wasn’t alone in experiencing some apprehension before leaving for Cambridge to embark on my degree last October. My anxieties were, at any rate, offset by a buzzing anticipation at the prospect of university life and, as is so often the case, the scenarios which I had gone over in my mind ultimately bore little resemblance to reality. Obstacles which eventually presented themselves had never previously crossed my mind and some were trickier than others. I could just about get used to the lack of a sofa in my college accommodation, but a longing for the language of my childhood was proving harder to navigate. I wasn’t under any illusions; I had known that fellow Welsh speakers were going to be hard to come by in East Anglia, and was at ease with the prospect of having to restrict my use of the language to phone calls home and the long vacations. But I had obviously never fully appreciated the sheer extent to which yr iaith Gymraeg coloured my quotidian in the rural community where I grew up, and I quickly started to feel its absence. The reality of having no one in Cambridge with whom to speak Welsh had set in, and I had a sneaking fear that casual conversations would soon be corroded by the rust of disuse and that meaningful use of my language might one day be lost to me altogether.

“I fear that those who hold Welsh in contempt as ‘an irrelevant tribal language’ will ultimately win out”

The irony of this latent unease is that I had come to university with the hope of broadening my linguistic horizons, my choice of degree being French and Latin. It seems almost perverse that I might graduate with an impressive proficiency in these languages at the expense of the one through which I received my primary and secondary school education, and which is inextricably linked to so many of my formative experiences and memories. As a student of languages, and more specifically in studying an (arguably) dead language alongside a modern lingua franca, I am conscious of the fragility of language, as well as the potential for minority tongues to wither in the shadow of global giants. Latin, French and English have all been manipulated as instruments of empire in their time, and their influence continues to span continents. While these linguistic titans loom no larger in my own imagination than my native Welsh, the unfortunate fact of the relative inconsequence of my language beyond the green, green grass of home has prompted me to worry that, try as I might, I simply won’t be able to find an outlet through which to foster my ongoing relationship with it. I fear that those who hold Welsh in contempt as ‘an irrelevant tribal language’ will ultimately win out, and that any long-term decision to live outside of Wales is tantamount to an active rejection of the language which I hold so dear.

Lucy pictured growing up in WalesLucy Hill


Mountain View

Perspectives from home

That said, there is good evidence to suggest that my fears of loss are rooted in a false cynicism. Abandoning the personal in favour of the big picture makes for a far more optimistic outlook. As Duolingo recently made an impressive debut on the stock market, noted in many of the reports on its success was the factoid that Welsh is the fastest growing language on the app in the United Kingdom. This certainly bodes well for the devolved government’s target of a million speakers by 2050. Perhaps, as globalisation has instigated the increasing homogenisation of societies and their cultures, the very fact that Welsh is a minority tongue can be harnessed in its favour. There is something novel about the linguistic oddities that it has retained in being spoken by such a small pool of people, and it can be said to be rendered intriguing in its unfamiliarity.

“I am determined to use my Welsh more over the next academic year”

This potential for the language to flourish is certainly promising, and its growth can surely only be a good thing. On a personal level, I am determined to use my Welsh more over the next academic year. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions should go a long way to facilitating this resolution, as it becomes easier to meet and spend time with a broader group of people. I will, of course, be away in France for my third year of study, and this is a period which I have set aside for feeding my linguistic curiosity in a different way. Ultimately, I hope that my recent realisation of the fragility of my relationship with my native tongue will mean that I am never so complacent as to let it go, and that it will continue to be an important part of my identity long into the future, wherever I find myself in the world.