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).

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