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The word Welsh is highlighted in a dictionary
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Tomos ydy’r enw. That means “My name is Thomas” in Welsh, the native language of Wales, from whence my ancestors came. 

Dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg wrth i’ng ngharchar means “I’m learning Welsh while in prison.” 

I’m incarcerated in Arizona and have been since 2014. I have roughly three years left before I’m released. 

Just four months before my arrest, I was in the U.S. Navy. At age 21, I faced a 15-year prison sentence. Life stopped. I felt as though I had ruined myself and who I was supposed to become. I had given nothing good to the world, only wickedness. I was convinced my life was over.

In order to survive prison, I realized I needed something to occupy my mind from the bleak surroundings. My Welsh heritage had always been of interest to me so I began immersing myself in the rich history of Wales. 

I had only visited the country once before. The green fields and mist-covered mountains left such a profound impression on me that those distant memories became a sanctuary in my mind during my early incarceration. 

A language of survival

While reading about Welsh history, I was touched by the indestructible vitality of the culture and language. Welsh belongs to the Celtic group of languages, which includes Scottish Gaelic and Irish. These languages have been struggling for survival ever since the English conquest of the British Isles thousands of years ago. Of these languages, Welsh has the highest percentage of speakers but is still only spoken by a minority of the population

Languages were nothing new to me when I came to prison. I began my Navy career training to be a Russian cryptologic linguist, a position in which I was tasked with identifying foreign communications. 

While in county jail, I obtained books on Spanish and Italian and taught myself a substantial amount of both. But I hadn’t yet developed a desire to learn Welsh because, at the time, I didn’t see it as useful or attractive. Though it seems obvious to me now, I hadn’t yet made the connection that my love of Wales and passion for languages should combine into one clear goal — mastering the Welsh language, which is called Cymraeg. 

After years of studying Welsh history, I got an idea. The Welsh language and its story of survival through the Roman and then English attempts to destroy it was compelling. I realized just what a treasure it was and began to understand the passion behind those in Wales who strive to promote it. 

There is a famous Welsh saying: “A nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” I realized just how true this was, especially because the common perception is that the Welsh are just “English people with funny accents.” 

‘Welsh Not’? Not me

Learning Welsh in prison is challenging. For starters, there’s significantly less learning materials and resources for it compared to most languages. You’re also never going to find another Welsh speaker here, so you’re missing conversational practice.

None of this deterred me, however, because I felt that learning Welsh was the right thing to do. After having always done the wrong thing in life, it felt good to take the more difficult and worthy path. 

Loved ones weren’t supportive at first. To them, my efforts would be better spent on learning a language with practical use that could help me find a job once free. Although I agreed with their pragmatism, something about what they said stirred my memory. 

I recalled that Welsh people throughout centuries have been dissuaded from learning or speaking their native tongue in favor of “more practical” English monolingualism. I remembered with great feeling the infamous Welsh Not punishments of the 1800s. 

Back then, the Welsh language was banned from some Welsh schools. Students caught speaking it were forced to sit the rest of the day with a heavy wooden block around their neck that said “Welsh Not.” The thought of these children being punished for speaking their native tongue in their own country filled me with indignation. 

But the thought of my own Welsh-speaking ancestors being forced to forget their language for convenience’s sake filled me with something greater: an urge to act.

A growing community

My crime and conviction had nearly extinguished my sense of self, my confidence and my purpose. I felt less than human. Inside, I split my time between intellectual pursuits and the daily activities of prison to numb myself to the pain. 

I had already squandered opportunities and possibilities for the criminal lifestyle. I looked back at the 21-year-old version of myself, who thought he was so cool and felt an intense self-hatred. This took a heavy toll on me.

But then, at the beginning of 2021, several friends became interested in learning Welsh as a positive pursuit. They joined my studies. 

When I sat with my friends, and fellow Welsh-learners, my sense of self returned for the first time in years. The joy of speaking my ancestral language was doubled by the joy of teaching. I saw the benefits of learning a language. It helped us transcend confinement. 

Most importantly, I realized my initial feelings upon entering prison were not true. My life was not over and I still had a fleeting chance to do something good, to forgive myself and let go of the past and embrace the future. 

There are many benefits to learning another language. But for me, honoring my ancestors — by doing what they were forbidden from doing — was the right thing to do. The Welsh government has a goal to have 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. I want to be one of them.

To this end, I’ve begun a podcast series about learning Welsh while incarcerated, which is now being hosted on the Welsh digital media platform, AM. The name of the series is “Os Galla I’n,” which translates to “If I Can.” It aims to show the Welsh world that learning the language is not as daunting as it seems. If I can learn it in a U.S. prison, then anyone can. 

Most importantly, I want to show fellow prisoners that our lives are not over, and that we still have a chance to be the best version of ourselves. The way I see it, prison can define us or refine us. It’s up to you which path you take.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Thomas Steres is a writer incarcerated in Arizona.