Wales: a part of the UK where bilingualism is the norm

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 3 13:25:02 UTC 2007

Wales watching

There is a part of the UK where languages aren't in freefall and
bilingualism is the norm, says Diane Hofkins

Diane Hofkins Tuesday May 1, 2007 Guardian

The child-made banners in the hall leave no doubt about what country
Radnor primary is in. The largest is studded with photos of Tom Jones,
Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, Shirley Bassey and more celebs past
and present. In the classroom, year 5 and 6 children answer the register
with "prynhawn da" (good afternoon), and the teacher praises achievement
with "da iawn!"  (well done). Like Jones, or Owen Glendower, the Welsh
tongue is part of the children's national heritage, and they identify with
it. "People want to learn their language," says 11-year-old Laura. Notices
around the Cardiff school are in English and Welsh, and crib sheets remind
teachers to use Welsh phrases such as "bo bol bach!" (literally, it means
"little people") instead of English ones such as "goodness gracious!".

Across the Severn, Lord Dearing's report, published in March, has
strengthened the government's commitment to the teaching of foreign
languages in English primary schools. The education secretary, Alan
Johnson, accepted the recommendation that modern languages should become
part of the statutory curriculum from age seven by 2010. The report
comments on children's enjoyment of language learning and notes that the
groundwork has already been laid - some 70% of primaries already teach a
foreign language in some form or have plans to do so.

Competitive edge

In most European countries, children start learning foreign languages at
seven, and as Dearing's interim report in December noted, children's
enjoyment is not the only issue. "The British Council warned earlier this
year: 'monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future, as
qualified youngsters from other countries are proving to have a
competitive edge over their British counterparts in global companies and

But when it comes to looking for a country where a second language is
universally taught to English speakers in primary schools, there's an
example right here in the UK. While teaching French or Spanish in England
can't be directly compared with teaching Welsh in Wales, there are surely
lessons to be learned. Welsh as a first or second language became
compulsory from age five with the introduction of the national curriculum
in 1989, so Wales has more than 15 years' experience of systematic
language teaching to national standards. And the desire to develop a truly
bilingual country is still at the heart of education policy.

The experiment started somewhat chaotically as, despite intensive and
expensive training programmes, and a rolling programme that started with
children in years 1 and 7, there was an inevitable shortage of teachers of
Welsh. There was also resentment in some English-speaking areas, with
several secondary schools near the border holding out against the Welsh
invasion for nearly a decade. Good teaching materials were thin on the
ground. A decade later, standards of Welsh in English-medium primaries
remained dodgy, but now the subject is holding its own. In its 2006 annual
report, the Welsh schools inspectorate, Estyn, found that around
two-thirds of primaries developed children's bilingual skills well.

Experts agree it is important to "embed" language into daily activities,
through games, songs and incidental use, such as answering the register
and giving praise and simple instructions. Nigel Pearson, primary
languages adviser for Cilt, the national centre for languages, says
children can do simple addition in French or Spanish, and familiar stories
such as Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood can be told or acted out in
other languages. The internet and interactive whiteboards make it possible
to talk about foreign food in class and see it before your eyes directly
from the country in question. Partly in the light of the notoriously
overcrowded primary timetable, Dearing advocates cross-curricular
teaching, and Pearson agrees that dedicated lesson time is not necessary
in primary schools. Through "creative embedding", it can enhance rather
than detract from subjects such as humanities or RE. A few minutes spare
at the end of the day can be used to sing a song or do a few mental maths
exercises in a foreign language.

John Bald, primary languages consultant to the Hackney Learning Trust in
east London, believes it is feasible to give every child a baseline in a
language by 2010, even without a prescribed curriculum. This will, he
says, make their acquisition of language in secondary school smoother, as
the earliest stages of a language are the hardest to learn. "It means
children won't have a cliff to climb in year 7." Bald wants to see
children reach a level where they can write a few sentences about their
friends and families. And, he adds, it is sensible that there should be
guidance rather than prescription at this stage, because "we don't know
what works best". The Dearing report calls for primary languages to become
statutory in the next national curriculum review, and expects research on
methodology to accumulate by then.

In Wales, the set-up is more formal. At Radnor primary, infants have a
dedicated hour a week of Welsh, and juniors just over an hour; but the
level of attainment by year 6 seems in line with Bald's wish. Back in
class, Welsh coordinator Sarah Pritchard has got a multicultural group
playing with the pel Cumreig (Welsh ball). Whoever catches it has to say a
sentence about the person next to them, based on sample sentences
Pritchard has put on the whiteboard. "Mae Said," says Said's neighbour.
"Mae en hoffi ... how do you say cricket? Mae en hoffi criced." (This is
Said. He likes cricket.) Laura, Lawrence, Ffion and Anika all found
learning Welsh fun. "You get to see what other people speak," says Ffion,
10. "It makes you feel talented," adds Anika, also 10. Eleven-year-old
Lawrence points out that when he goes to north Wales, where everyone
speaks Welsh, he can speak a bit, too. They all enjoy learning through
games, and agree that the younger you start, the better.

Their teacher agrees. "I think if children learn a second language from
early on, it does make it easier to learn a subsequent language," says
Pritchard. "It gives them success, and the confidence to realise they can
learn further languages." Teaching is topic-based, with vocabulary and
sentence structure increasing in complexity. The emphasis is on oracy, but
a Welsh text is studied every half-term. For children who have English as
a second language, it can be difficult at first, but because of their ear
for languages, they pick up Welsh quickly. "You can see the delight on
their faces," says Pritchard.

Pioneering work

Bald argues that the factor that will make similar success in England
possible is ICT. The pioneering work of Glynis Rumley, whose Pilote
software was the first to bring the voices of children from a French
primary into the Anglophone classroom, has made it much easier for
non-specialist primary teachers to teach a language. "The role of
explanation in language learning is crucial," he says. "I explain that
French people like their language to flow, and that putting words such as
je and ai together makes it sound jerky." Children practice forming
"j'ai", using software, and then move on to writing sentences on the
whiteboard. Support from secondary schools is also easing the introduction
of primary languages in England, with increasing numbers of modern foreign
language teachers doing outreach work. This is important, because if the
government hopes that enthusiasm built in the primary years will boost the
take-up of languages at GCSE, they will have to get the transition right -
as Dearing acknowledges.

Welsh local authorities such as Cardiff are now developing ways to improve
links between primaries and secondaries in Welsh language teaching,
because pupils' enthusiasm for the subject wanes when they are teenagers,
hitting its lowest ebb at GCSE level - at key stage 4, only 19 out of 45
lessons visited by Estyn in 2006 gained the top two ratings. Much of this
has to do with a shortage of qualified Welsh-language teachers in
non-Welsh-speaking areas. And although the Radnor primary children say
they are looking forward to studying a third language in high school,
take-up of foreign languages at GCSE in Wales is much lower than in
England: 30%, compared with 51%.

At present, there are no plans to mandate another language in Welsh
primary schools. But things are not standing still - Welsh is now moving
into the early years in English-medium schools in Wales, with the ultimate
goal that all foundation classes will be completely bilingual. Guardian News and Media Limited 2007


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list