It’s difficult to think of a more emotive issue in Wales’ local government than one that combines the Welsh language on one side and parents’ gut feeling about what is best for their child on the other.
This is a powder keg waiting to explode, feelings are high on both sides of the argument, and there’s a real danger someone will say something silly and set the whole thing off – oh, too late.
To make things worse, Neil Hamilton has now involved himself in the debate. UKIP feed off division, and will stir up hate for votes. It’s like asking a divorce lawyer to be your marriage councillor.
So what is needed on both sides are cool heads, and a grown up discussion on the facts of the matter. The central question here is: What is best for the kids?
The benefits of bilingualism
The benefits of bilingualism
Why is the Welsh language taught at schools? There are cultural and historical reasons, of course, but those are unlikely to sway parents who don’t feel part on that tradition.
At its most basic level, then, the ability to speak Welsh is primarily a skill; one that also allows the children to study a subject, which is Welsh language culture.
We know that bilingualism is good for children. Studies have shown that bilingualism:
- · Improves cognitive skills not related to language
- · Makes the child better at solving mental puzzles
- · Allows the brain to avoid distractions and stay focused
- · Stops dementia in old age
That last point in no small advantage if we consider that our children are likely to live for longer than we do. Bilingualism forces the brain to work harder as it juggles the two languages. A harder working brain is a fitter brain (just as your body would be fitter if you had to work harder physically).
So far, nobody has been able to demonstrate scientifically that bilingualism is a disadvantage. The old 19th century argument that some languages are superior to others, or that learning two languages confuses children, has been proven to be completely false.
Given these advantages, we are very lucky in Wales that we are able to offer a bilingual education. Many primarily monolingual countries, where one language dominates, are not able to produce children that are fluent in two languages by the time they leave primary school.
So if the children at Llangennech will get two languages for the price of one, a Buy One Get One Deal if you will, what exactly is the problem?
The argument against, it seems, is that parents should be able to choose what language their children are taught in. Taking that choice out of their hands is undemocratic.
This argument seems convincing at first sight, but I don’t really buy it, for a few reasons I’ll point out below. But the first thing that needs pointing out is that so-called 'Welsh Medium education' is actually Welsh and English education.
Children in a Welsh medium school are taught to speak and read in both Welsh and English. The only difference between a fully Welsh medium and a dual stream school is that they aren’t able to opt out of the Welsh language option.
Opponents will point out that the primary language of instruction is Welsh. But this makes sense as the primary language of many of these children’s interactions outside of the classroom will be English.
I have three children – one is nine, the other is six and the other five – and all three go to a Welsh medium school and speak Welsh at home.
Despite this, all three are able to speak and understand English, and my six and nine-year-olds can read English as well.
It cannot be argued therefore that a Welsh medium education deprives them of the English language in any way. They are taught to speak and read both languages at school.
So while a parent would be able to exercise the choice of not sending a child to a Welsh medium school, the child itself is actually being deprived of a choice. Their linguistic frontiers are being narrowed and there’s nothing they can do about it.
It’s also noteworthy that the Welsh language is the only skill taught at primary school that parents think they should exercise a choice over.
Schools are not run by committee. Experts in pedagogy at council level make decisions regarding what would best serve the children’s educational needs.
If parents argued that they should have a choice as to whether their children were taught science, or computing skills, or algebra, we would find this very odd, because we recognise that experts have a better understanding of what is best for the child than the parent.
A parent that, for instance, wanted to teach creationism rather than evolution would be encouraged to home-school the child.
But when a parent argues that a child should be deprived of the Welsh language, a skill that has proven benefits and no proven drawbacks, it is considered a legitimate grievance.
It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that it is motivated either by a misunderstanding of the benefits of Welsh language education, or a cultural antipathy towards the language that some politicians are keen to exploit for political gain.
This should not be framed as an English v Welsh cultural or linguistic battle. I value both languages equally and am always thankful that I was given the opportunity to learn both. I would be much the poorer for not having learned one or the other.
Welsh medium schools are about giving every child in Wales that same opportunity.
Thank you for reading, and please leave a comment below.