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

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