When teaching Welsh is a futile experiment

Tim Williams argues that teaching through the medium of Welsh in English-medium schools damages education

The Sioned Davies report represents a real threat to the education of the vast majority of Welsh children and indeed the rights of their parents. It also proves what many of us have believed for some time: that the Welsh educational establishment cares more about the Welsh bit than the educational bit.

First, some autobiographical details. I speak Welsh quite fluently and have broadcast and written in it extensively, but I learned it as a second language. My Ph.D is about the Anglicisation of Wales in the 19th Century and the (minor) role played in that by schooling. I am a qualified teacher who spent three years in the mid 1980s working for a teachers’ union. I have advised the Welsh Government on urban regeneration and was also a member of a Task and Finish Group on standards in Welsh education.

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And I say: with this background and with a wide knowledge of the linguistic and educational issues, 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. I stress I believe all Welsh children from English-speaking homes should be taught Welsh as a second language in specific Welsh lessons as now. The fact that this is not effective in making Welsh speakers of such children is not a reason to extend the use of Welsh as a medium of instruction to other parts of the curriculum. Indeed, it suggests the reason why we should not go down such an anti-educational road. Why use a language in which children are not fluent to do something as vital as education?

Of course, Welsh educationists and patriots used to argue the opposite. The very basis of their opposition to English medium schooling for Welsh speaking children was that it did the very same they are now calling for in relation to English speaking children and the Welsh language. It forced the non-home language on children. They argued that this damaged their education, their self-esteem and indeed the future of the language.

Most educationists – as opposed to language revivalists – advocate the use of the home language in teaching, not a medium used rarely in the homes or the community. Strangely, we are hearing very little of these concerns from those who support the Sioned Davies report. But then such people have supported the absurd extension of Welsh medium education for English speaking children often from disadvantaged homes in the Valleys with the pretty inevitable consequence that neither language is developed maturely. An honest review of Welsh medium education in such places where the language is not reinforced outside the school, is that it is not even successful as a way of promoting long term use of Welsh after school.

And please, please be sceptical of the supposed excellence of such schools from a results perspective as no-one has ever shown how it is conceivably possible for children to do better in a second language they never use outside the class and which they speak and write without fluency as compared with their home and community language. There is no theory to back what is being done to English speaking Welsh kids in Welsh medium schooling and very little research has been undertaken by those who care more about education than language revival. Parents and children deserve evidence based policy-making and not what we are experiencing in Wales: policy – based evidence-making.

I add: in the 19th Century Welsh parents largely supported English medium education for their kids on the pragmatic basis that Welsh would survive as the home language but that even if it didn’t it was vital to the economic success and social mobility of their children that they become fluent in what was then and is, increasingly, the world’s dominant commercial language. And the effort of the school was, it should be remembered, of limited success in many parts of Wales where English wasn’t experienced outside school, in the streets, workplaces, chapels and media.

Where the linguistic world of the school and the linguistic world outside school were most aligned, the results were more decisive in terms of language acquisition. The same holds true today for any language, including Welsh. But of course the question needs to be asked as to why parents would wish their children to experience a total immersion educational environment in Welsh in the first place, given our national language’s insignificant global status. Might not Mandarin be a tad more economically attractive and useful to attempt to promote in our schools?

I stress, ‘attempt to promote’ as the same problem applies to Mandarin in our schools as to Welsh or German for that matter. Schooling alone has never been effective as a vehicle of language acquisition. And for those who ask why cannot we emulate those primary schools in Shanghai spending much of their afternoons immersed in English medium tuition, I say: even in Shanghai English has a compelling economic rationale which appeals to ambitious families. It is now everywhere, on the internet, in business and in popular culture. And by the way, the Chinese are not sentimental about language, with Cantonese now giving way to Mandarin and English as spoken languages. They are rigorously instrumental about language. As the majority of the Welsh have always been apart from a linguistically minority unfortunately over represented in public life.

The reasons for opposing the Sioned Davies report ideology are solidly educational and instrumental. But there is also a politics that the Welsh Government needs to be very wary of. The dog that has not yet barked in Welsh politics is the English speaking majority whose identity is not represented in the dreams of Welsh nationalists. They are keen to see the survival of Welsh and have supported full access to Welsh medium education for those that want it. But when this support becomes a zero sum game, with their children used in futile experiments at language revival, they get restless. Don’t stir them up. You may find the existing consensus is the first victim.

Tim Williams who blogs at (http://timwilliams.regen.net/) is director of the Publicani consultancy and is currently working on projects in Australia, where he now lives. He is a former special advisor to the Blair government and the Welsh Government. Prior to moving to Australia in December 2010 he was managing director of Navigant Consulting.

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