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For Love of Wales

Fulton-Montgomery Community College instructor focuses on linguistics

January 11, 2009
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

It may be fairly common to start studying a foreign language at age 11, but for Fulton-Montgomery Community College instructor Robert Jones, the study was Welsh.

"As a child, my mother mentioned that my father's family was Welsh, and that Wales had a Celtic language similar to Ireland's," Jones said. "I thought this was very interesting, and when I was about 11, I got a book from the local library and began my study."

Jones' studies have led to his writing a script for a DVD titled, "A Historical Tour of Wales," available at Amazon.com. Jones, 37, said he came to linguistics by accident. He is part of an informal writers group that meets in Amsterdam at a fellow professor's home.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Robert Jones, linguistic instructor at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, removes a book from a shelf in his office at the college Thursday.

"My father's side of the family is Welsh - in multiple degrees," Jones said. "My paternal great-grandfather was Matthew Henry Jones, and he came to the U.S. in the late teens of the 20th century from Bethesda in North Wales."

Jones said his interest in Welsh grew over the years, and he made more connections with other Welsh speakers in the U.S. and with other Welsh Americans. As a teenager, however, his primary contact with the language was with Robert Arfon Evans, from New York City, who taught Welsh for their Welsh Society.

"What was very nice is that his family connections were also from the North of Wales," Jones said.

"My degrees are in French and Spanish and French and Spanish literature," Jones said. "I began working on a [doctor of philosophy degree] at [the University at Albany], and there we had to focus about one-third of our time on French historical linguistics."

After Jones had been at FMCC for a couple years, he saw a niche for an introductory course similar to the one he had taken, and since he had a lot more information from the field, he decided to develop a course for the college.

Since then, they've been running the linguistics course every semester, and last summer offered it largely due to demand from students at SUNY Cortland, he said.

Jones said travel to the native land of a foreign language isn't as important as some language teachers would have students believe.

"Not wanting to sound like a hypocrite, I'd have to say it's not necessarily as important as many, including those in the field, would have us believe," he said. "I studied French, Spanish and Welsh for many years before I was able to travel to any country where they are spoken, and yet I became quite proficient in all three well before then."

Jones said he benefited from a deepening of his language abilities through subsequent visits overseas, but he's also seen many students who have traveled to a country for a semester or year abroad who return home speaking a passable colloquial version of the language, but who cannot carry on more sophisticated or intellectual conversations.

"I think the best scenario is intensive study in various classroom settings where possible and exposure to native speakers in a milieu where there is no resort to one's native language" he said. "However, if asked if one can learn to speak a language without visiting a country where it is spoken, the answer is absolutely yes. What one cannot do is learn a language without speaking it to someone or using it to communicate real world concepts in some tangible way."

Jones lists common misconceptions about foreign language study on his Web site, faculty.fmcc.suny.edu/rjones/, such as the idea that some languages are easier to learn than others - not true, he said.

"It's a commonly held belief, and a matter of personal opinion based on nothing more than emotion and anecdotal evidence," he said. "All languages have their difficulties in second language acquisition. Don't choose a language because it might be easier. You'll probably live to regret it."

Jones said people do not realize that language learning is more like learning to play the piano or building cabinetry than it is like learning calculus. Language learning requires a great deal of time and practice, and it's not really something someone can study. One has to do it.

"I encourage my students to make the language they're learning a normal part of their day-to-day lives so that's always around them," he said. "I encourage them to talk to themselves or to their pets in the language so they get comfortable with it. There's just no way to study the language in books and then become proficient. You have to use your language the same way you would use your piano or carving skills."

When asked why there are so many guttural, almost choking sounds in Welsh, Jones replied Welsh is a "thick language" while English is "thin and watered down."

He said English tends to be half Germanic in origin and half Latin as it passed through French.

"English wouldn't be English without French," Jones said with a smile.

Jones has many interests, and his future pursuits may be outside linguistics.

"I may decide I want to keep teaching foreign language, literature and linguistics until I'm a ripe old age, but I'm also drawn to the Unitarian Universalist ministry," he said. "I could also see myself returning to college to do a law degree or even go into some form of parapsychological research. I've been interested for many years in the work of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson who investigated the claims of children who professed past life memories."

Jones said he was working on his doctorate, still unfinished, when the job for an instructor in foreign languages and humanities opened at the college.

On a whim, he applied for it, and got the job.

"It came at a very fortuitous time as well since my graduate studies had nearly bankrupted me," he said. "It was ideal for me because I had already made a life for myself in the capital region, and working at FMCC would allow me to continue that life and enrich it. Despite the fact that I've travelled around a bit, I'm a dyed in the wool Yankee, and I would never want to leave the northeast for good.

Jones came to upstate New York in 1994 to work on his master's degrees in French and Spanish at Binghamton University, and finally his doctorate in French medieval literature at UAlbany; he is "all but dissertation" in his academic pursuit. He said he hopes to have his dissertation completed and defended in May. He began teaching at FMCC in the Fall of 1999.

Administrative Assistant Sue Messak has been at FMCC 35 years and said she enjoys working with Jones.

"He's a lot of fun," Messak said. "And he's great to work with."

Messak said Jones brings "a lot of life" to the campus.

Jones enjoys traveling, photography, antiquing and writing. In addition, he is on the Board of the local Welsh Society and is a current member of First Unitarian Society of Schenectady. He makes yearly trips to New Orleans and Montreal, and has also travelled in France, Spain, Wales, England, Germany, Denmark, Ireland and Belgium.

He is the Honors Program Committee chairman, taught and created the courses Introduction to Welsh Language and Culture and Introduction to Linguistics. The Welsh course has been offered twice so far.

"The first class had 10 students," he said. "The second time the class doubled to 20."

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at ga@leaderherald.com.

 
 

 

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