Reality into the vision for the Welsh language

Terry Mackie argues there are better ways to support the Welsh language to thrive than those in Cymraeg 2050, the Welsh Government strategy.

In The Western Mail last month I criticised the new bilingualism vision of our government, Cymraeg 2050, which focuses on creating many more Welsh-medium school structures over the next 30 years in search of The Holy Grail of One Million Welsh Speakers by 2050. I argued that the vision is misconceived and its work programme is frankly undoable. I presented research evidence about teaching morale and teacher supply that means increasing Welsh teaching capacity is improbable. I pointed up the overall risks for our system’s school standards. There are two remaining issues about this disastrous new vision, which is no more than a covert strategy to restructure English-medium schooling: how on earth did we get to this dangerous new policy position, and; is there not better thinking to keep Welsh thriving without recasting most of our schools as hotbeds of parental dissent and despair?  

We need to deal first with the quixotic target-setting underpinning this vision. A million, double-or-tops on the present number, where did that spring from? Professor Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost has recently categorised this linguistic policy process as ‘iconic target-setting’ whose purpose is to act as a ‘political device’. It’s just a soundbite. Such ‘targets’ are unscientific, lacking in expert advice and have a global history of failure. The Cardiff professor criticised this vision both as typically bad science and for its absence of long-term strategic planning. It’s no coincidence that his critique appeared in Democratic Audit UK. The million ‘target’ may be rubbish but it is of the toxic variety.

What target then? None. No figure, no target number, nada, dim. Why not? Because the emphasis needs to shift from specious quantity to deep quality. Overall usage of Welsh is the key. Welsh is actually doing well in terms of steady growth but we do need to accept as a nation that most of our people are not to be disrespected or disenfranchised because they prefer to remain monoglot. That is a respectable, rational, democratic choice. Instead of hyping up Welsh-medium ‘demand’, it is more productive to focus on growth of usage.

Cymraeg 2050 is predicated on one false premise: that you can dictate to many more local authorities and regions the ‘creation’ of more Welsh-medium schooling, either through closing down lots of English-medium schools and replacing them with Welsh-medium or by enforcing more bilingual streams in English-medium – or abandoning English-medium streams in bilingual schools. The government fantasises this as a capacity problem to solve. It is in fact a recipe for community conflict, as we have seen in microcosm with the recent case of Llangennech in Carmarthenshire.

How would that strife-torn scenario play out in the Gwent Valleys, in Pembrokeshire and in Wrexham in 2023? Most parents are hugely exercised about what method of communication their children are instructed in. I believe the teaching unions (apart from UCAC) would not stand for this restructuring. Mallorca’s teachers went on indefinite strike in opposition to insensitive linguistic reforms.

A fresh approach is required as curricular compulsion 3-16 since 1993 is a documented failure, in attainment and pupil popularity. We need less mandate and more counter-intuitive thinking.

We should disestablish the subject of Welsh from the compulsory curriculum post 11 but increase its time allocation in primaries. Let us prepare our children better for informed linguistic choice. A significant majority of parents and their children (and indeed teachers) do not see the continuous 3-16 learning of The Welsh language as a core subject. Let Welsh operate as the pre-eminent Modern Foreign Language (MFL) in English-medium schools. But first, school our kids properly in Welsh from 3-11. That means more primary Welsh – but not immersion. The latter is undesirable and would harm standards. I endorse the view of Professor Chríost (in a recent ITV interview) that few people would argue against the fact that education in a child’s mother tongue is advantageous.

English-medium primaries should teach Welsh for 30 minutes four times a week. That would build more secure language acquisition in order that informed parental and learner choices could be made on entry to secondary school. Options are no bad thing at the age of eleven. Family choice is a powerful learning motivator. You cannot teach everything in a primary school week; choices are never easy and other MFLs (plus one other subject area) would have to go until secondary school. No big deal, really.

Secondly, far more adult education investment in Welsh is long overdue. This is a rich seam to mine. Let’s galvanise the parents and grandparents. But it is poor that only 15,000 are currently learning Welsh in adult education, with no doubt variable quality in this less rigorously regulated sector. Where are the generous free resources, the incentives, the clear rewards, the pay-offs between public service provision and businesses? Finding more able tutors will be the big challenge for Adult Learning, as well as primaries, so we need to incentivise them. They should be paid at a premium rate. There should be no charge for Welsh for adults, to boot. And new levels of accreditation are needed that do not involve writing skills.

It’s time to translate pragmatism into a vision for Welsh to thrive. We can achieve more not through the grievance politics of militancy – or rank political opportunism on the part of soft-nationalist Labour – but through the practice of enduring and dynamic faith to increase steadily Welsh-medium growth by satisfying genuine demand, more school enthusiasm through pupil choice and much wider adult learning. Long-term planning, according to Prof. Chríost, should focus on more usage: building up the fluency of speakers; safeguarding majority communication in the heartlands and using more Welsh in public services interactions. You can’t achieve that by a crude imposition strategy. Araf deg mae mynd ymhell, as the proverb goes.

Forget trashy targets and brute force. Get reality into this vision.

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Terry Mackie is a former Head of Modern Languages and was Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport City Council

7 thoughts on “Reality into the vision for the Welsh language

  1. This is an excellent appraisal of the views of the vast majority of welsh people,particularly I would contend the english language only speakers whose views are totally ignored.It would seem to me as a very humble pleb that any a)person,b)organization that plans social policies for 2050 is either a genius or an educated idiot.The economic/social/linguistic challenges over next 30 years will be enormous for such a small and relatively poor region of UK,particularly in light of Brexit!!.If we open up our markets for open and free trade what price there being an agricultural ‘sector’ in west wales in 30 years time??.Its a pity that more time was spent on practical matters rather than our political classes continually bowing down the WLS!!

  2. How many times on social media sites and forums have we had statements that the vest majority of Welsh people are against something or for something, or that democracy is being ignored or we shouldn’t vote Labour. In my own city of Newport I have been repeatedly told, by a tiny minority of English incomers, that we must have a referendum to make Gwent an English county because the vast majority of people in Newport want Newport and Gwent to become an English county (something that we have never been). They have bussed in a load of English people from Kent to convince us we were actually English and they got about 100 votes in the election, which probably is the number of English incomers who have been shouting that Gwent is actually English. The Red Lion Darts team in Kent (aka the English Democratic Party) have stopped giving their darts team a day out in Gwent because a) they realise it’s a waste of time and b) they knew if they kept it up they would be going back to Kent with a few less members of the Red Lions Dart team. But still we are told we must have a vote because the vast majority of Welsh people in Gwent want a vote, the same as we are told the vast majority of Welsh people don’t support the Welsh language.

    Similarly I have been told I will not get a job in Wales because I can not speak Welsh! Hello, I only speak English, I live in Wales and I have never had a problem getting a job and I don’t know anyone here who has had a problem getting job. Most of the people I know live in either Newport or Cardiff and work in those cities, yet they shouldn’t be able to get any job there because they can only speak English.

    So when I heard statements that the majority of Welsh (not welsh) people want something or they don’t want something my automatic reaction is “yeah right”. The majority of Welsh people, myself included, just go about our daily routines and don’t bother with what someone thinks we want. We vote for what we want at the only place that counts, in the polling stations.

  3. It is good to see an intelligent and well written piece on the vexed subject of Welsh medium schooling and its subtle imposition by stealth on the Welsh public.
    Perhaps the worst aspect of the Welsh government drive to use a rapid (and unlikely) expansion of WM schooling to increase the number of people able to speak Welsh is the massive deception used by first the Welsh language Board and then the Welsh in Education department, Estyn and The Welsh language commissioner to deceive parents about the success of WM schooling.
    All over the world educationalists working for UNESCO are warning governments that early immersion (submersion) in a language other than the home language leaves pupils at a disadvantage academically.
    It seems odd to me that I feel I have to say this but here goes; early language immersion inculcates the immersed language, it is an implicit teaching mechanism and is neither more effective nor more desirable that later, explicit language teaching methods.
    In Wales however, and in other countries where these methods are enforced, there is a real downside to early immersion. By the end of the primary phase pupils are significantly less likely to be doing well ACADEMICALLY. The early teaching of the building blocks of education fundamentals, of language and number, have been neglected and undermined. Even more pernicious is the mixing of first language Welsh speakers and pupils from non Welsh speaking homes. In the class room situation, in Welsh immersion phase, one section of the pupils comfortably converses and bonds with the adult teachers. Their confidence grows as a result and particularly, since they can readily respond to any questions from the teacher, they become used to a superior status in the class and school.
    For pupils from non Welsh speaking homes the reverse happens. In particular more sensitive and less academic children lose self confidence and the environment becomes toxic to them.
    I well remember the words of the reception teacher in my daughter’s school when I asked if she could be spoken to in some English. “I’m sorry but we don’t translate. Pupils learn best if they hear only Welsh in the classroom. Don’t worry by the end of primary she will be fluent in Welsh”.

    She wasn’t because having watched her become introverted and totally uncommunicative in the school we moved her to an independent English medium school some years later.

    Look at this data set:-

    Who does well in the Welsh medium school environment? Welsh home language speakers.
    Who does well in English medium schools? Everyone…they almost all have English as a first language.
    Who fails to reach their academic potential in WM schools? Pupils from English only homes who have been “submersed” in Welsh.
    Correlation doesn’t mean causality but I have, over more than a decade, repeatedly written to the Welsh Government asking for research that they have commissioned looking at this clear failing in Welsh medium schools. They have NOTHING. They DAREN’T have anything. All they ever say is that the government is committed to the expansion of WM schools.

  4. “Secondly, far more adult education investment in Welsh is long overdue. This is a rich seam to mine. ”

    Learning any new language as an adult is difficult, Welsh more so than most. The number of adult learners who become competent in Welsh is very small. Far better spend the money elsewhere. But where? You need competent teachers who are actually proficient in Welsh, which is the problem throughout the education system. And if Welsh is to survive and develop it needs to become more than just a spoken language.

  5. I’m not sure that Howell Morgan (and to a lesser extent J Jones) have fully understood the thrust of this excellent article. it’s not anti Welsh language but proposing a different approach to securing more use of the language. The author is totally right that widespread fluent usage by 15% of the population (who thus sustain a vibrant cultural scene) is far more important than 40% of the population who can speak a little Welsh on leaving school and have forgotten almost all of it by the time they are 30. And funding of community activities in Welsh (via Mentrau Iaith or similar) will also help and would probably cost a fraction of the cost of pointless compulsory Welsh GCSEs in EM schools

    Its worth remembering that Prof Mac Giolla Chríost is in the Dept of Welsh at Cardiff so hardly an enemy of the language….

  6. I don’t know Chris, but I have a suspicion that the horse has bolted when it comes to the Welsh language. Before you tell me that I’m wrong and that Welsh remains a living language in large (Geographical) parts of Wales I think that it’s worth considering what language is for.
    Any separate language exists to convey meaning to other people. In Wales 11% of the population, those fluent in Welsh and English, have a complete choice of which language they use. They may prefer to communicate in English, 20% of fluent Welsh speakers are more comfortable using English, they may be more comfortable using Welsh (40%) or they may have no preference either way (40%)

    Page 50.

    The point is that those 11% have choice but there is no necessity. For the remaining 89% there is only one language through which they can completely express themselves and in Wales they need no other.
    Over the years there has been a wilful blindness in this regard; there has been a pretence that Welsh is “necessary” in Wales. It isn’t.
    Instead we have substituted a whole host of spurious justifications and those justifications have led to Welsh being made compulsory in schools and parents being misled into putting their children into Welsh medium schools. Young people who learn Welsh have actually gained little; whether they have the language or not they can communicate with every person in Wales. Those from Welsh speaking homes were always likely to keep their family and community language and use it. The rest may as well have learned any other world language and the benefit to be derived from learning a World language is greater than that derived from learning Welsh.
    At least amongst adults there is freedom of choice when it comes to learning Welsh and just under 1% of adults make that choice. A fraction of that number achieve fluency and some of those say that they feel that they “belong” more by learning Welsh. The 89% of people who live here and are not fluent Welsh speakers apparently miss out on this sense of “belonging”.
    My feeling is that what we do in Wales concerning the Welsh language is mostly a sop to the political requirement to establish Wales as a place that isn’t England. At worst it is a conscious effort to deny a fair opportunity to any working age people who might move to Wales and seek employment in the public sector. Welsh has been “weaponised” in a national identity struggle and until we can break away and bring honesty and proper analysis to the question of the “survival” of Welsh, or if Welsh needs to “survive”, then the Language will remain a divisive issue.

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