We’re better bilingual in Wales

Rebecca Williams says we cannot leave things as they are with teaching Welsh as a second language

And now for an uncontroversial statement: any subject we teach at school, and particularly any compulsory subject, should be taught effectively. Last month, a Panel established by the Welsh Government to look at the teaching of Welsh as a second language at Key Stages 3 and 4 (11-16 year olds) published its report One Language for All.

The deficiencies of Welsh as a second language as a vehicle for creating individuals fluent and confident in Welsh have long been acknowledged. Years of Estyn reports attest to that, and pupils, parents and teachers all bear the scars. For a great number of learners, years of study lead to very little in the way of tangible skills.

The Panel’s report does not attempt to spare anyone’s blushes – it is a frank and rather painful assessment of a subject which is not succeeding and which needs to be reformed in a fundamental way. Naturally the report makes recommendations to do precisely that.

Of the 24 recommendations, a few have seized people’s attention. One of those is an idea that has been around for some time but never been put into practice, which is to scrap the whole concept of Welsh as a second language in favour of a continuum of language skills. The Panel’s specific recommendation is that the continuum be based on the standards set out in the new National Literacy Framework with clear expectations for pupils learning Welsh in English-medium, bilingual and Welsh-medium settings.

This is an exciting proposal. Firstly, it explodes the whole, often artificial, and always divisive, construct of First Language speakers versus Second Language Speakers. The success of Welsh-medium education and of Welsh for Adults programmes, as well as the grit and determination of individuals, means that Wales has many thousands of people for whom Welsh is a second language but who pass for native speakers. I happen to be one of them.

Similarly, we don’t dub Welsh people who happened to be brought up in a Welsh-speaking home ‘Second Language English speakers’. Whichever direction these people are coming from, they are truly bilingual. In fact, some of them may even be fluent in more than two languages. The hope is that a more effective framework for teaching Welsh in schools would give far more people the opportunity to become fully bilingual in this way.

Secondly, introducing a continuum could help to remove one reason for endemic under-achievement. At the moment, too many learners in Wales who make the perfectly valid choice of moving from a Welsh-medium primary school to an English-medium secondary school are obliged to take a massive retrograde step by being moved from a ‘First Language’ programme of study for Welsh to ‘Second Language’. In what other subject would parents allow their children to suffer such slippage? A language continuum would ensure progression and would force the education system to develop every child’s skills to the maximum of their abilities, whatever the predominant medium of instruction. Surely that’s exactly what we require from our schools?

In his article, Tim Williams deploys three main arguments in an attempt to demolish the report and its recommendations. The first is that increasing learners’ exposure to Welsh at school will be damaging to children’s education and a threat to parental choice.

The way in which the report proposes to increase the use of Welsh is to “develop best practice guidance on using incidental Welsh in school activities and using Welsh across the [primary] curriculum… and set targets to increase the use of Welsh-medium learning across the curriculum, based on best practice [at Key Stage 2], in English-medium schools.”

For pupils to learn Welsh effectively, we must provide them with the opportunity to see more Welsh, hear more Welsh, and to use more Welsh. Learners need to be enthused by the process, and are entitled to be taught in the least painful, most effective and inspiring way possible. The language skills they acquire in this way will stand them in good stead in the job market in Wales, and also in terms of cognitive and linguistic development more generally. And yes, there is research to back that up.

To argue that pupils will be made to study important subjects in a language they cannot understand is scare-mongering. Particularly at primary level, immersion in another language is an effective way of developing language skills quickly, but no teacher would permit that to happen at the cost of understanding another subject.

The second argument that Tim Williams makes is that we are being insufficiently ‘instrumental’ in our approach by insisting on securing a place for Welsh when the rest of the world is rushing headlong to learn English. The simple point here is that providing pupils with the opportunity to develop their Welsh language skills effectively in no way impedes the acquisition or development of their English language skills. For better or for worse, we live in a country where you couldn’t bring up a child not to speak English if you tried. The language is all around us at every moment, and its cultural dominance is felt and internalised even by the very youngest amongst us.

The third argument is that the Welsh Government is running an immense political risk by ignoring the silent “English-speaking majority”. The demand for Welsh-medium education is overwhelming. Local Authorities cannot keep up. As soon as a school is built, it’s too small to accommodate the increasing numbers. This demand is not being fuelled by Welsh-speaking homes alone. Other parents opt for bilingual or English-medium models. Times have changed in Wales since the 1970s. As the Report states “the attitude of parents … has changed over recent years, with the majority now supportive of their children learning Welsh, and with the subject becoming an accepted part of the education system in Wales.”

I come back to my opening ‘uncontroversial’ statement. It is surely indefensible to allow a subject which is failing our learners to continue to do so. We have a responsibility to ensure that the teaching of every single subject across the curriculum is as effective as possible. For too long, parents have been misled into thinking that studying Welsh as a Second Language will provide their children with the language skills they desire. Clearly it will not, and we need to try something different. I believe that leaving things as they are would be the greater political – and more importantly – educational risk.

Rebecca Williams is Policy Officer with the teachers union Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru (UCAC).

19 thoughts on “We’re better bilingual in Wales

  1. Of course you are absolutely right to state, ‘For better or for worse, we live in a country where you couldn’t bring up a child not to speak English if you tried’.

    Unfortunately this means that some never learn to speak the language correctly, and many remain unable to write in the language with any degree of confidence.

    The effects on confidence, culture and opportunity remain life-lasting.

  2. Certainly the aim of teaching any subject effectively cannot be argued with. However, the Welsh language lobby need to declare whether they accept that Welsh is only a subject in English medium schools. After all, you dont start introducing conversion practice by kicking balls over the whiteboard in Maths lessons just because the school isnt reaching desired levels in Sports. Perhaps some here could clarify if they accept that Welsh is just a subject… because my worry is that those driving the Welsh language see it as an all encompassing mantra. This is fine of course, but we deserve to have it out in the open if some people involved in Welsh education policy are never going to be happy until choice is removed and only Welsh medium education is available. What I wouldnt want to see is similar to the last more powers referendum which was deceptively sold as a ‘tidying up exercise’ yet the very day after the referendum was won they were back in work devising ways to get tax raising powers, policing and a seperate legal system devolved.

    Furthermore, I would argue that this article in no way addresses Tim Williams’ main point:
    “there is no educational basis to the proposal in the Davies report that children in English medium schools should be taught any part of their curriculum in the Welsh language”

    Rebecca Williams skirts the issue on the whole but does underline the word “is” which at first I excitedly thought was a hyperlink to some relevant research. Alas no! Of course the real reason she has not referenced any research is because it is all foreign and the benefits relate exclusively to simoultaneous bilingualism (being raised and educated in two languages)… yet what we are talking about here is not even sequential bilingualism (coming form an English speaking home but educated through Welsh), we are talking about Welsh taught as a subject and how to improve grades. There is no research proving a cognitive benefit for this. Therefore, Tim Williams’ point that this could be as much about politics as it is about education remains…. and if you are skeptical of that point then consider this: Can you imagine a specially appointed task group producing a large report and several IWA articles in relation to any other individual subject in school? Geography perhaps?? No, of course not!

    One other thing that this lack of relevant evidence of the educational benefit highlights is this…. doesn’t it seem somewhat strange that, despite all the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on the Welsh language in education, there has been no report produced on the educational benefits of pursuing this policy in Wales! Yet the Welsh government are quite at ease commisioning reports into why still more Welsh should be introduced… one comes out nearly every month. However, when it comes to educational benefits, the best you’ll get is some vague point towards a foreign piece of research relating to simoultaneous bilingualism in a location where both languages are in use. This is in no way similar to sticking English speaking kids in Abertillery into a Welsh medium school! Additionally, the concept of educational benefit is often missed entirely and all you’ll get is a claim that speaking Welsh increases your job prospects. This may be true but it’s not an educational benefit…. outside of ‘y fro’ it is purely an artificially constructed benefit.

    As has been said…. What we need is evidence based policy making, not policy based evidence making. There is no harm in scrutinising reports such as Prof Davies’ and this article. There is no need to make reactionary calls of ‘anti Welsh’. If the demands are evidence based then no doubt they will be implemented and we can all be happy. However, I commend Tim Williams for promoting the idea that we must demand this evidence and not allow decisions that affect our children to be made on a political rather than educational basis.

  3. Agreed. I look at the difference between my education and that of friends of the same age. I’m from a non-Welsh speaking family from Wrexham and because my Mam felt that she had lost out not being able to speak Welsh, she sent me to a Welsh language school. As a result, I’m fluent in English and Welsh. For the first time in two generations, there was a fluent Welsh speaker in my family.

    Friends who went to the English language school next door, and had some Welsh lessons, by now have lost all their Welsh apart from tokenistic Welsh. Waste of time and money. If you’re going to do something, you should do it properly. It’s a badge of shame when after a decade of lessons, pupils struggle more than a basic ‘s’mai?’ or ‘bore da’.

    I’m extremely glad that I was sent to a school where I became fluent in two languages, and I know my Mam is proud to have re-introduced the language into the family. The myth that the ‘English speaking majority’ is somehow a unified group against the teaching of Welsh is a nonsense. Most countries are bilingual or multilingual, and this begs me to question if those opposed to the teaching of Welsh somehow think our Welsh brains are smaller than other people’s to cope with a 2nd or 3rd language?

    Welsh is a gift and a skill which should be afforded to every child in Wales. No person in Wales should have their language taken from them, neither should they feel second class in their own country just because the education system has failed them.

  4. What a brilliant comment from Nia. And now to add my pennyworth as a Welsh speaker created through the Second Language system:- I cannot stress enough how it has changed my life culturally, socially and economically. Welsh is a beautiful language but more importantly it is our language. I support bilingualism, I am not saying let’s abandon English, but let’s embrace *the two*. I agree with Nia above, whilst people do oppose Welsh, there is no huge, monolithic majority group against Welsh, those who are are a minority smaller than Welsh speakers themselves. Hir Oes i’r Iaith Gymraeg

  5. Nia Davies wrote “I’m from a non-Welsh speaking family from Wrexham and because my Mam felt that she had lost out not being able to speak Welsh, she sent me to a Welsh language school”, and hers is the reason why the recommendations made by Professor Sioned Davies, in her report to the Welsh Government, should be rejected by all parents and government alike, the report rejects “parental choice”.

    We must thank Nia, and her Mam, for reminding us of that responsibility [choice] that parents must not abandon; after all, it’s this choice that shapes our preferred future, remove choice and we are reduced to servitude.

    The vast majority of parents are less concerned with linguistic issues as they are with the current education in Wales, an education system that is driving standards below even mediocrity, PISA is the reference that measures our lack of success west of Offa’s Dyke, Professor Davies has no solution, neither does Rebecca Williams and Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru.

  6. Spot on Nia!

    The problem is not the specific teaching of Welsh to non-Welsh speakers it’s the teaching of language as a whole. There are high levels of illiteracy of English speakers in England in comparison to other countries. It’s England that has provided our language teaching philosophies and they’re rubbish.

    Yes! Get rid of this First/Second language distinction but realise that English speakers don’t even frequently understand their own language. That makes it very much more difficult to learn another, whatever it is.

    We need to pinch good practice in language education from elsewhere and maybe even the people to implement it. Then don’t just stop at two languages.

    Think on this! Richard Burton’s quick way to learn Spanish was to learn the irregular verbs, then the regular terminations. He’d pick up vocabulary on the way and more still after the verbs. Go through English language education and you probably won’t recognise a verb if it slapped you. I can tell because I translate it to Welsh! English spelling is a mystery ddô!!

  7. @John Tyler- and then if you had read my comment maybe you would see things from the other angle. I was not sent to a Welsh school, because at the time the ”choice” was not there, the nearest school was in another town all together and there was no transport there. I was sent to English medium, and learnt Welsh through the ”second” language system. I cannot express how fortunate I believe myself to be knowing two languages, thanks to the ;”forced” teaching of Welsh. I can tell you now that I was not ‘forced” at all. If parents wish their children to be monolingual then move to monolingual country. Of which there are about 0.

  8. Gwyn writes:
    “realise that English speakers don’t even frequently understand their own language.”

    Thanks for that gem Gwyn! is it too late for Sioned Davies to include it as a conclusion in her report I wonder? but surely it should read “English speakers frequently don’t even understand their own language”.

    Gwyn also writes:
    “There are high levels of illiteracy of English speakers in England in comparison to other countries. It’s England that has provided our language teaching philosophies and they’re rubbish.

  9. Great article, well reasoned and thoughtful unlike Tim Williams bach and his ignorant and prejudiced nonsense about “the English speaking majority” etc. The fact is demand for Welsh medium education is outstripping supply – a demand not driven by some distant politician or civil servant but mainly by English speaking parents.

    If I had a pound every time I heard someone say to me “I wish I could speak Welsh” i’d be a very rich man by now. Likewise, I’ve NEVER heard anyone say “I wish couldn’t speak Welsh” – bilingualism is the norm globally and it’s here to stay, it’s the way of the future.

  10. @John Tyler.

    You misunderstand my point. It wasn’t a point about parental choice. I’m lucky that my Mam was aware of the benefits of a bilingual education. Most families wouldn’t know/consider this. Welsh should be the norm in schools, and every pupil should have to reach a certain standard in the Welsh and English.

    Please don’t try and twist what I said to support your argument.

  11. Agreed Rebecca. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? If from the outset you institutionalise a language as ‘second’ there’s a high probability of subconsciously scuppering any chance of achieving fluency. We need to get rid of that practice, that label and the ‘set to fail’ mindset that goes with it once and for all. Welsh and English are EQUALLY important, but for DIFFERENT reasons.

  12. John Tyler is advocating a parental choice which includes an option of denying their children the choice of in the future being able to use the Welsh language according to their choosing.

  13. “Wales has many thousands of people for whom Welsh is a second language but who pass for native speakers. I happen to be one of them.”

    Another Welsh learner who has taken it upon herself to tell the English speaking majority how they should live their lives… This arrogance is unbelievably unwelcome! We want our freedom of choice back – yesterday!

  14. Where you have a situation in which too often neither language is taught properly the most disadvantaged suffer the most. The more able children and those whose families are able and willing to compensate for any school deficiencies will be able to cope. Certainly if I were a parent with young children and offered a job opportunity in Wales I would think very hard before accepting, given the current state of education in general, not to mention the health service, which is another matter altogether. The claims of 40 applicants for every teaching job may merely reflect the general lack of job opportunities and says nothing about the quality or suitability of the applicants. And language fluency says nothing about teaching ability. The harsh reality is that there do not appear to be enough competent Welsh teachers to cope with the current situation, let alone trying to expand the language whilst the job opportunities associated with the language are limited to the translation and public services in Wales. As to how you inspire youngsters to learn and appreciate that language, well that depends so much on the youngster. For every Ben there will be ten or more who aren’t ‘inspirable’.

    Even if we were somehow back in the heyday of Wales when it was a rich country and faced with this situation it would still be a very difficult one to solve. It takes a lot of time and resources to train teachers to the level needed to adequately teach the language. But economically the situation in Wales cannot support that level of investment and there is no likelihood of that changing in the foreseeable future, even if the Welsh government suffer a Eureka moment and embrace fracking, And none of this addresses the problems inherent in properly learning what is a difficult second language. Virtually all children up to the age of about five are capable of learning several languages, no matter how ‘difficult’ they are. Beyond that and into school age and without home and social support it is extremely difficult unless the child is somehow inspired and self-motivated. Force-feeding the Welsh language to children is counter-productive and turns them against it.

    The children’s educational needs and job prospects should come first, not the state of the Welsh language.

  15. Some questions.
    although WM education offers an opportunity to acquire fluency this does not happen consistently. I have not got the time to research but will do so later (on my work lunch break!) – I do recollect that only 65% of pupils got grade A* to C at GCSE in Welsh. Some of them would have done the short course which is less demanding.
    Also, in a survey of young people who had all been to WM schools only a certain proprtion described themselves as “fluent”.
    In view of this, can we be confident that WM schools are turning out fluent or near fluent speakers?
    I, too, have heard numerous people say ” I wish I could speak Welsh!”. Why can’t tehy? Why don’t they? So why is this demonstrable good will not resulting in larger numbers of people who speak Welsh.

  16. Some thoughtful debate with hackles raised by the prospect of turning all schools in Wales “Welsh medium”. Those who are anti need to remember some salient points:

    1. It is quite possible to do most of your subjects in English in many “Welsh medium” secondary schools. So Welsh medium is not the same as English medium in terms of intensity and never will be
    2. Even if all schools moved towards Welsh medium this would take a generation or more and the reason isn’t economic it’s that two thirds of teachers have no Welsh at all and some of the third that do, don’t have the confidence to teach in it
    3. If parents decide (and to be honest politicians, professionals and “experts” tend to decide what is best for children) and their wishes count, we would have 40%+ in Welsh medium not the current 20-25%
    4. Even in places where previous generations have abandoned Welsh like Cardigan, the move to Welsh medium is parent-led no matter what Education First like believers say
    5. Europe is full of languages of apparently dubious economic value. But my business experience recently has shown me that having a Swedish speaking Finn selling in both those countries increases sales dramatically versus having a person who speaks English. Fortunately my American competitors don’t understand this (And let’s be clear it’s American language and values not “British” ones that determine the economic value and relative dominance of English globally. But even the Americans need bilingual people to understand the conversations they are eavesdropping on!

    Equally I remember well how French citizens from Alsace who spoke Alemannic dialect got jobs at higher wages in Basel and became foremen whie their children, speaking the language of the future and progress: French languished on low pay. The dialect speaking “peasants” had the last laugh. Eastern Europe is full of languages which once floundered like Welsh in the face of a stronger one like German. Times change and while most minority lanaguages are doomed some will survive and even flourish

    Equally English monolingualism may be the route to marginalisation as there are more losers than winners in the English speaking world.

    Basque and Catalan are cases in point but here the some overenthusuastic nationalists need to be wary. Basque as a native language is as weak as Welsh in the territory its nationalist politicians claim. While many claim Basque as a native tongue (a question of semantics) and most children go through Basque medium education, Spanish remains dominant on the hearth. Thr heartland areas have also been the hotbed of terrorism, extorsion and coercion so it is highly unlikely that a “white settler” would move in. Catalan, unlike Welsh and Basque, is quite similar to the dominant language (Spanish) which means that a Spanish speaking monolingual child could understand a lesson in Catalan as well as a child who arrived speaking Berne dialect in Switzerland could follow a classs in High German.

    6. The Welsh education system has many problems but these cannot be blamed on Welsh medium education. Welsh medium schools do cream off more able pupils in some areas of the valleys but it would be interesting to know where Labour councillors and MP ‘s send their children. This would speak volumes as they have held power (and responsibility) for a century. I somehow doubt that send their children to the schools where their vote is highest while railing against elitism and parents “bussing” their chidren

    So, I advocate a middle course which avoids the backlash to the current consensus evoked by Below the Landsker and allows parents to give their children the opportunity for a more diverse education. A small but increasing proportion will enjoy the fulfillment mentioned by Nia and others above for life and others would experience some degree of bilingualism which has benefits not least an appreciation of how difficult it is to acquire a second language. I would also throw in another language at the age of 3 and yes, it would be voluntary. Those who want the American monolingual route can opt out and we’ll see who derives the greatest benefit educationally, socially and economically

  17. The fundamental question that needs to be asked in any language debate is what the prime purpose it is to communicate with TWO or more people. What is the prime purpose of schools – to prepare our young people educationally and socially for the rest of their lives- a fundamental element of this is that they are able to progress into the world of work and contribute to society no matter where they live? The purpose of language and educational attainment therefore are not always mutually beneficial – educational attainment surely has to be top of the list even if this does mean excluding the Welsh language. Commentators need to realise that our Young People are living in a society that has no geographical boundaries and most look way beyond the town or county boundary they have been brought up in. People need to look at the developing parts of Asia were English is top of the curriculum as their young people will not achieve in the world economic markets without the language. Yes the loss of Welsh from the forefront of education may have an impact on our heritage but can we afford to halt progress in what is now a global platform for life and not a Wales only. The reality is that Welsh should be taught as a social language rather than a principle if the wider social and economic factors in Wales are going to be strong enough for our young people to even want to remain in Wales.

  18. It is a sad time for me re all this debate about teaching welsh . T he welsh spoken in pwllheli for ex. esp . by young people is pretty atrocious / wenglish is the more appropriate label/ pound eg is used for punt .no mutations /It would be better to speak english if possible ? It is a matter of time only before welsh becomes extinct . The blame lies with s4c /radiocymru &teaching in secondary schools.I cry for yr heniaith !

  19. e parry – I don’t think that there is any particular blame anywhere. The task is and always was probably impossible though, unfortunately, the dreams still remain and those dreams could accelerate the decline. Until there is a realistic appraisal and assessment of what is possible that decline is likely to continue. It is not helped by Welsh language requirements for jobs for which it is not necessary as that seems to be preventing better quality applicants from applying. Which can result in Wales losing them. This doesn’t help the economy either and ultimately means less money to spend on the language.

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