Interview: Aran Jones, SaySomethinginWelsh

NOTE: This article has been translated into English from a Welsh chat. There is a Welsh language version of this article, which is suitable for learners on the Welsh language version of our website. To access this click “Newid i’r Cymraeg” in the menu above, or browse to www.defnyddiwcheichcymraeg.com 

Last week, I got the opportunity to sit down with Aran Jones himself, a man who is famous (at least in Welsh circles!) for creating the popular “Say Something in Welsh” learning program. I asked him how SSIW has changed his life and more…

Hello Aran, can I thank you for your time! By reading your book and getting to know you, you went on a little bit of a trip when growing up. Do you think that has had an impact on you and languages?

I’m not sure, but it’s possible. As you say, I have lived in a number of different countries – England, England, Germany, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia as a child and then Zimbabwe and Dubai as an adult. Hearing many languages ​​has been normal for me since very young, but I did not succeed in learning any of them before I learned Welsh. Learning Welsh was the most important experience for me in how I think of languages, I believe.

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It is likely that only a small number of people realize that you have learned Welsh yourself, it’s easy to think that you’ve been speaking the language since you were a child. Can you remember exactly when you chose to start learning the language yourself?

My Grandfather spoke Welsh – but not with the family, unfortunately – so some Welsh words were a natural part of my English – ‘tyrd yma’, ‘cau’r dwrs’, that kind of thing. So I always knew that I wanted to learn at some time – I always knew that Welsh belonged to me. I remember messing about with things like Linguaphone when I was at university, and a few other learning books, but the truth was that none of them worked for me. And wherever we were going to live, I would try to learn some of the local language, to see if I could learn Welsh successfully some day – and the story never failed. I have no natural ability to learn languages, and I was very afraid that I would never succeed in learning Welsh. When I came home from Dubai, I knew the time had arrived – and I was always grateful that the Wlpan system had helped me succeed in the Welsh language where I had failed with all other languages I tried to learn.

Talking about that… Do people find it hard to believe that Welsh is your second language?

Usually people know that I do not come from their area straight away, and sometimes they’re kind enough to say that they’re surprised to hear that I’m a second language speaker – which puts a smile on my face, of course. Catrin claims she did not understand that I was a learner when we met, but I suspect that was because she wasn’t listening to me that much!

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‘Say Something in Welsh’ has become one of the most popular ways to learn the language. Without asking for your life story. How did that start?

After failing to learn a lot of languages, achieving some success in learning Welsh was a bit of shock – and then I ‘got’ Spanish quite easily – and started thinking that it wasn’t me that was the problem with all of the other languages I hadn’t been able to learn.

At the time, I started thinking about what was working, and what was not – and then I thought it would be interesting to create a Spanish course. I talked to someone I knew was helping people to start projects and businesses – but his investment friends said that learning languages ​​was far too competitive, and no one would be willing to commit money to develop them.

But then he hit me – I did not need money to start building what I was thinking about and I could do for the Welsh language. I started to build lessons with Catrin, my wife, and then I asked Iestyn to translate the lessons into the language of the South – and by the time we built 15 lessons, we published them on Facebook, and things started to grow.

At the time you were starting planning ‘Say Seomthing in Welsh’ there were still lots of ways to learn languages in the “old fashion style”, things like Michel Thomas, Pimsleurs, Linguaphone and lots more. Were you trying to be different to them right from the start?

I never thought of being ‘different’ as an objective in itself – what I wanted was something that focused on the work that was really needed, and leaving out all the stuff that really doesn’t help. I think there are strengths for every language course I’ve used – including Linguaphone, and Pimsleurs, and Michel Thomas – but I think there are also weaknesses, and that the process can be more effective. In a way, I was trying to simplify things at the beginning.

So, next year will be your 10th birthday. Does it feel weird or odd to see the program still continuing? When you started out did you think that SSIW would continue to help people 10 years later?

aran2_origI don’t think much about that really. We are still starting, or so it feels like – there are so many more things that we want to achieve!

As well as offering Welsh courses. You have been offering courses in other languages for a while now. I know that you don’t necessarily write each course individually – or at least not in the target language – and sometimes you hire people to write the target language course. So, what I really want to know is.. have you ever learned another langauge through SaySomethingIn? 

Well, I had to write all of the courses when we started trying to make other languages ​​- and that did not work very well, so that’s why we started working on an algorithm to make it possible for others to write with the same methodology.

I have just published the Manx course without any work – we hope to launch 5 to 6 new languages ​​next year – and yes, I have done the Manx lessons that are available so far in two intense days. I also had an intense day with Dutch, but I had seen a lot of it in helping to form the course, so I just made the ‘Corner’ as if it were. I’m looking forward to doing another intense day with Manx when there are more lessons available – so far, I don’t have quite enough Manx to hold a conversation, but I think I’ll be alright in the end!

I know that everyone has different experiences, and one of the great things about SSIW is the fact that you can go as fast or as slow as you want to – but what do you think is the ‘Perfect way to tackle SSIW?’

We’ve been doing some intensive training on the ‘2 days a week for 5 weeks’ model – I think that’s about the kind of ‘sweet spot’ – but I also tried to experiment with a period of 10 days of intensive learning when enough lessons are available in a new language.

After almost 10 years, you still have huge plans with the program. Things are changing for the better with SSI. So what can you tell us about your plans and future developments?

We’ve discovered lots more people finish the course when we give them more structure – which happens on the 6 month and 2 year courses. The difference is staggering – perhaps 5% can finish without guidance, but more like 80% with guidance – so we feel that we have a responsibility to make more people get some guidance.

And the results – from those who work hard and carry out all the work packs – are stunning. I had a conversation recently with someone who had just finished the 6 month course – I could hardly believe that they had only been learning for 6 months.

So now – someone new has the opportunity to learn one sentence with us, in small lessons of 5 minutes or 10 minutes – if that works for them, they have the opportunity to do a month of one of the structured courses for £1 and then they pay monthly for whatever course they have chosen. We are confident that this will help to create a lot more confident speakers than we have been able to do in the past.

We are also about to launch new content for our experienced learners – to help them reach the point where using the language feels easily and natural – starting with 30 minute conversations a week with a transcription and a translation. I expect this will be a huge step forward – I would have been delighted to have this type of content when I was learning.

The Welsh government has said that they want to hit their million Welsh speakers target by 2050. How can SSIW play an important role helping the nation arrive at this number?

I want to try to spread the idea that the best place to start is by learning one sentence – if we get a million people able to do one sentence, we will continue to improve and extend their Welsh.

We also believe that there is a need to build more opportunities for people to use their Welsh wherever they are in the world – like, for example, with the WelshSpeakingPractice.slack.com practice community that you’ve done so much work to help with and to promote

You have probably inspired and helped thousands and thousands of people learn the language, not just in Wales alone, but just over the world. How does that make you feel? Have you ever had the opportunity to look at the figures. You have to feel proud of what you’ve done with SSIW?

He feels quite obscure, to tell the truth. I don’t often think of it. It’s very nice to see people from other countries speak Welsh, and I love all of the new friends we’ve taught in other countries – and in Wales, it’s small, of course. But there is so much, so much to do to ensure a successful future for the Welsh language, and I tend to spend my time thinking about what needs to be done next.

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Finally then.. Imagine if you can that someone is reading this and they are thinking seriously about learning the language. What would you say to them in order to help them make the decision to start?

What about starting with one sentence? It will possibly open a new and wonderful world to you…

Aran Jones is one of the owners of  SaySomethingin.com. You can follow him on Twitter also.

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