Geordan Burress is an intelligent woman who is curious about the world around her and other cultures; none of that made the headline when The Sun reported on her learning Welsh alone in Ohio in a way that implied it was pointless and ridiculous. The implication that she was foolish to learn a 'dead' language was met with indignant scorn and a wave of support for Geordan on Twitter.
We love her tenacity and intelligence at Lonely Planet, and are delighted that Geordan agreed to chat with us about turning her linguistic journey into a literal one that brought her to Cymru in 2019.
We love your story about discovering the Welsh language and becoming determined to master it! What sparked your interest in Wales?
I became interested in Wales and in the Welsh language through the music of Gruff Rhys. Since Gruff sings in both Welsh and English, I was exposed to different turns of phrase in Welsh and thought it would be cool to explore the language further. Fortunately, I was able to find free learning resources online and started practising at home by myself. SaySomethingInWelsh (SSIW), a free online course, was the first resource I began using and it helped enormously with building a strong foundation of the basics before expanding my vocabulary. I think it took me about 3 years to get to a point where I could comfortably converse in Welsh.
A British tabloid picked up your story but put an unpleasant spin on it that implied what you did was pointless and futile. We completely disagree and it was lovely to see the support you received on Twitter. How did the initial story make you feel and how did the support change that for you?
The story in that tabloid mainly just made me feel frustrated. I didn’t appreciate their suggestion that it was a waste of time for me to learn Welsh, but what was more offensive to me was that they seemed to be suggesting that the Welsh language is barely even spoken by anyone. I’d been speaking Welsh with a number of people for years by then, so I wanted to set the record straight that it wasn’t a useless language and that I had plenty of people to talk to. The support I received after speaking out against the article was amazing — so many people got in touch with me after seeing my responses on Twitter, to tell me that I was welcome to speak Welsh with them anytime! I also got a lot of kind messages from people that told me that I was an inspiration to them, for having learned Welsh.
You've mentioned that learning Welsh changed your life and helped with your shyness; could you tell me more about how it impacted your life?
I’ve been a shy person since childhood, and I also struggle with social anxiety disorder. Realising I had the ability to teach myself a complicated language has really boosted my self confidence and made me less critical of myself. I've found that when I have the opportunity to speak to others in Welsh, it's gone a long way to ease my chronic shyness in social situations. I still find meeting new people nerve wracking, and combining that with a new language should in theory make me even more nervous, but I've noticed that I become comfortable much more quickly in these instances. Travelling to Wales alone and navigating the entire trip by myself was a huge boost to my confidence; pulling that off was an amazing feeling!
I arrived in Wales on May 19th 2019 and I had to fly back home on May 27th; unfortunately not as long a trip as I'd like! I spent four days in Caernarfon, in North Wales, and then four days in Cardiff before heading back to the US. While I was in North Wales, I was also able to visit Llanberis, Beddgelert, and Eryri (Snowdonia). And, while I was in Cardiff, I visited the arcades in the city centre, the Cardiff Market, Yr Hen Llfyrgell (The Old Library), St. Fagan’s National Museum of History, and the National Museum.
How did you find conversing with Welsh speakers and the different dialects in the country?
It was interesting! There are definitely different dialects and accents throughout Wales, and I could pick up a few of those differences when I was speaking with people. For the most part, I always understood the majority of what was said to me, but it was interesting to discover my accent was perceived differently by a number of people. Some people said I spoke Welsh with a northern dialect, while others said I spoke more like people in South Wales. Just about everyone was shocked to discover I could speak Welsh, aside from the friends that I’d already met over the internet and had been in contact with for years! I even met a few people that told me that they had been trying to pick the language up but that they hadn’t been successful yet, and could only speak a few words. The funniest instance occurred during dinner with two of my friends that live in North Wales — one of them is originally from Ohio, like I am, and a waiter at the restaurant overheard us speaking to each other and asked what accent he could hear coming through. When we told him that we were both from Ohio, he was shocked that we were speaking such fluent Welsh with each other! It was so lovely to know our Welsh was good enough to impress even native speakers.
What social media channels have best helped you meet other Welsh speakers?
Twitter has been the biggest one. There are quite a few Welsh speakers on Twitter, and the more people you follow (or the more people that follow you), the more people you find that speak Welsh — it’s definitely a strong community! I’m lucky that I have friends on Twitter that I can practice my conversation skills with — even though I’m not technically speaking the language, I am thinking in Welsh while typing to them, so it has helped me build a level of fluency that I wouldn’t have been able to build if I didn’t use social media. Facebook has been great, too, but I’ve done the majority of my communication in Welsh on Twitter.
Have you any plans to visit Wales again or have you set your sights on another new language and destination?
I would love to visit Wales again as soon as I can! I have no idea when I will be able to return, though. I haven’t made any efforts to learn any new languages, but I would like to restart learning Chinese and Spanish; I studied those two languages in the past and I miss learning them!
Lonely Planet’s passion for promoting responsible travel has always been related to how it can enlighten and educate us in so many ways; what’s your take on that given your own clear curiosity and passion for other cultures?
I completely agree with that philosophy. Since learning Welsh, I’ve really enjoyed learning more about the culture of Wales and about the country itself. I also feel that I’ve broadened my horizons and my perspective — before learning Welsh, I hadn’t considered what it might be like for speakers of minority languages to have to fight to get recognition of their language, or services in their language, or just basic respect from others when using their language. Now that I have more of an understanding of this experience, I feel more mindful and open minded than I was previously. Travelling alone to Wales has also had a profound effect on me — I gained a lot of confidence in myself during my trip and personal satisfaction in how it all went after I'd gotten home.