Welsh education in Llangennech: Defusing the powder keg

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

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?

Democracy

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.

Misunderstanding

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.

Conclusion

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.

Comments

  1. I went to school in Wales for five years (years 4-8 in the new money). English medium, but Welsh was compulsory up to year 11 (and there was a Welsh-medium stream at secondary school). Doesn't this - which presumably is the old status quo - also give all kids two languages? (My Welsh is limited to dreadful, to be fair!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the last sentence of your comment hints at the problem, Phil, which is that teaching Welsh as a subject in an English school isn't as effective in ensuring that pupils can speak the language fluently.

      Delete
    2. That's the problem Phil! The only Welsh that I learnt in school was the colours in Welsh, the numbers in Welsh and how to say that I have something, mae X gyda fi.

      Now as an adult I've been able to learn Welsh to fluency no thanks to anything that I learnt before the age of 16.

      The Welsh taught in English stream schools is simply but a few token phrases. No-one in my old school learnt Welsh as a result of the GCSE or compulsory lessons up to the age of 16.

      On the other hand, children in Welsh medium schools learn Welsh as they progress through school with varying subjects taught through Welsh. In secondary the English skills get sharpened and have an output comparable to English medium schools.

      With EM you get children who can say a few phrases in Welsh. With WM you get children who can speak both Welsh and English to a good level, hopefully at least C grade in a first language GCSE.

      Of my classmates who went to the EM comprehensive that I did, I am the only one who can speak Welsh due to actively learning it since 17 both online and by choosing to study Welsh in college and university.

      Delete
  2. There is also the point that since a fifth of the population are Welsh speakers, services are required in Welsh for those people meaning that learning Welsh increases the number of jobs a pupil is qualified for when they leave school.

    I can't fathom why parents would want to deny their children job opportunities.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The mindset that devalues Cymraeg, believing other languages to be far more useful/valuable, is bizarre to me. It's self-evident that for any English speaker who lives here in Wales, no other language comes anywhere close in usefulness, or demonstrable value. French/Spanish/Chinese/Hindi might have lots of speakers in worldwide terms, and certainly are valuable, but they get vanishingly small usage here in our own communities in Wales. On the other hand, you are surrounded by opportunity to use Cymraeg. We are a bilingual nation where one in every five of the people you come across speaks Cymraeg, and if you live in Carmarthenshire, or especially Llangennech, then it's far more than that. Those who don't value Cymraeg really ought to think hard whether there's any sound objective reasoning to supports their views.

    I think the trouble with the dual stream debate is that people misinterpret Welsh medium to be somehow a poor relation in terms of English language teaching, but the evidence shows it is not, with excellent English language results. WM should be termed bilingual education because it's the only system offering full fluency and proficiency in both English and Welsh. Llangennech's English medium offer (basically monolingual English, with some token Welsh and other languages), has been deprecated and now every child will benefit from full bilingualism in both local languages - really how on earth is that a bad thing? I really can't see any valid rationale for the opposition - perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't think so.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A few years ago there was a very similar controversy when the primary school in Cardigan phased out its English stream. Extremist and sinister elements became involved, and a very inflammatory website appeared. The proposal was eventually adopted, and the row quickly fizzled out. Three or four years on, and the school is a success, the row forgotten.

    In Llangennech, the same extremists have been at work, and yet another website appeared, spewing out a mix of fake news ("children are being taught Welsh illegally") and poison ("children being forced to sing carols in Welsh and coming home in tears"). The difference this time is that a hard core of the objectors are politically motivated, and the local Labour Party has sensed an opportunity to capitalise on the dispute ahead of the council elections in May. Unlike Cardigan, UKIP has also become involved, with one of the main local papers enthusiastically fanning the flames.

    What parents in Llangennech need to understand is that their new-found friends are using them to push an agenda which most of them would find repulsive - pro-Trump, fanatically anti-European, anti-immigrant, Islamaphobic and racist to its core. And you only have to look at the social media timelines of some of those involved to find this stuff.

    We'll have to see what happens in the council elections, but unlike Cardigan the row in Llangennech is set to rumble on for a while yet.

    ReplyDelete
  5. We need to stop calling it 'Welsh medium' is aint helping!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment