Ignore the Guardian: A bilingual education is best for our children

Children at a bilingual school in Wales. Picture: Llinos Dafydd

The Guardian newspaper today has a story suggesting that children in Wales will be disadvantaged by a Welsh-only education.

The story itself is complete rubbish, as I’ll explain. But the Guardian has a history of getting stories about the Welsh language completely wrong. One might suggest that it is too consistent a pattern to be entirely accidental.

Although the newspaper seems keen to promote cultural diversity, when it comes to the UK’s own native cultures they seem to be little better than the Daily Mail or Express.

The story itself is based on a false premise, which is that there is such thing as a Welsh-only education. There isn’t. It should be called what it is – bilingual education.

Opponents will point out that the primary language of instruction in such schools is Welsh. But this makes sense as the primary language of many of these children’s interactions within and outside of the classroom will be English.

They are still taught to speak and read in both languages to an equally high level, and their ability to do one does not impair the other.

As a result, kids in so-called Welsh-language primary schools always leave fully fluent in both Welsh and English. It’s a Buy One Get One Free deal with absolutely no drawbacks.

And when a school does switch from offering an English-only education to a bilingual education, children who are already in the system are allowed to complete their education under the previous system.

The advantages of a bilingual education

The academic literature on the cognitive advantages of bilingualism is growing by the day. Knowing more than one language has no ill-effects and does the brain an awful lot of good.

Bilingualism forces the brain to work harder (under the surface), and a harder working brain is a fitter brain.

There is evidence 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

Arguments that Welsh-English bilingual education was harmful date back to infamous Blue Books of the 1840s, but have long since been debunked.

We all laughed when Homer Simpson said that ‘When I learn something new it forces something old out of my brain.’

But that is, in effect, the argument of those who claim that being able to speak Welsh impairs children’s ability to learn through the medium of English.

The key question: What’s best for the kids?

One argument consistently put forward is that parents should be given the ‘choice’ as to whether their kids are taught in Welsh.

But education is about the kids, not the parents. Denying them a language is to deny them the choice to speak either or both, and also access to the cultures that come with them.

We don’t offer parents the choice of depriving their children of English, maths, art, French, or any other skill the school decides it’s in their best interest to learn.

If a parent didn’t want his or her child to learn about evolution, for instance, we’d be surprised in the school caved in to that request and taught them creationism instead.

At the end of the day, schools are not run by parents, and for good reason. Experts in pedagogy make decisions regarding what would best serve the children’s educational needs.

And the ‘choice’ argument also ignores the fact that nine times out of ten there’s an English-only school just around the corner.

For instance, in the case of the bilingual Llangennech school, about which an almighty fuss continues to be made, there’s an English-only school literally 1.6 miles away.

Enriching children’s lives

So paper thin are the arguments against bilingual education in schools in Wales that one must conclude that they’re mostly based on not knowing the facts.

Unfortunately this ignorance has been deliberatly nurtured by a small number of individuals who have a posionous, xenophobic hatred of difference.

They take advantage of what is always an emotive issue –parents’ gut feeling about what is best for their child- and dliberately use it to drive a wedge in communities.

Unfortunately, they find a ready platform in an equally ignorant (or maliciously) biased British press.

The truth is that offering a bilingual education isn’t a culture war. It’s not about Welsh language v English language, or Welshness vs Britishness.

It’s just about giving children the same opportunities I and many others got – an opportunity that did us zero harm but has enriched our lives for the better.

I have three kids of my own, who go to a Welsh-medium school.

Watching them play, speak, read and enjoy two languages and cultures every day, I know I made the right decision.

Ifan Morgan Jones

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31 Comments

  1. Fair points, but it’s also about context. WM education in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire (and Carmarthenshire has a unique linguistic mix and always has) and WM education in the former Glamorgan and Gwent are two entirely different things.

    I’m an ex-Welsh teacher originally from Welsh-speaking Ceredigion who’s lived in the south east of Wales for 12 years. During my time working in two schools (one a middle-class English medium school in Penarth, the other a supposedly first language Welsh medium school in the Rhondda), what I saw shocked me to the core.

    Whilst the children in the English medium school had a positive yet half-baked attitude towards Welsh after the age of 14, the children in the Rhondda school were struggling. They could barely communicate in English, let alone deal with mutations and physics in Welsh. The school had around 900 pupils and I would argue that only around 300 of them could cope with education through their second language or speak the language fluently.

    Every week in the staff room, it was announced that one pupil had to be moved to the EM school as he or she couldn’t cope. 95% of the children spoke English at home.

    There needs to be an open and calm discussion about Welsh medium education provision in the former Gwent and Glamorgan. We have some of the worst social problems in the western world here in south Wales, yet it is too often brushed aside with humour and fatalism: “oh we’re valleys boys, it’s the way we are”, etc etc. No. Children being unable to speak or dress or feed themselves is something I have seen for myself. The Welsh language simply won’t solve any of the problems of many of today’s children who come from extremely troubled backgrounds.

    However, the biggest problem occurs when people criticise the language itself rather than Welsh language policy. It’s extremely hurtful to a lot of Welsh speakers when people in English-speaking parts of Wales say things like ‘dead language’ or ‘what’s the point of it?’. Remember you are talking about somebody’s language, their entire culture and the way they experience life and the way they view the world. By all means, let us debate Welsh language policy freely, but don’t attack somebody’s language – it’s just disgusting. And interestingly, critics of the language are almost always monoglot, and don’t even understand what it means to be bilingual or speak another language. “They’d be better off learning Chinese/French/Spanish/Arabic!” they cry, when they don’t know how to use apostrophes or pronounce ‘th’ themselves.

    I believe the way forward is to concentrate on communication, literacy and numeracy for many working class children in Gwent and Glamorgan. Subjects like Welsh, French, RE etc will have to wait.

    Another thing I would recommend would have a ‘Welsh and modern studies’ GCSE instead of just the Welsh language. Many Welsh people are totally unaware of Welsh history apart from some tokenistic inserts about the industrial revolution. We need a comprehensive qualification that informs young people of Wales and how we got here, including learning some of the language. There is a lot more to being Welsh than just speaking Welsh but on the whole, English speakers in Wales are apathetic and don’t fight their corner for anything, whether that’s a TV station, better accountability of our AMs anything. And Welsh Labour like it that way. Wake up, switch off the rugby and take part in this new democracy we have.

    • My children are from an English Speaking background, they attended a WM primary/junior school and go to. WM High school in Ystalyfera. My eldest has just finished her GCSE’s and was set in the top band of all her subjects. My other child also set in top bands, albeit only in year 8 at the moment. I am English, their father a non Welsh speaking Welsh man. All three of my children are very passionate about their language and culture. I’d like to think that not all children are struggling like those that you have mentioned, indeed that isn’t indicative of those in my daughters high school and sons junior school

  2. Forget what the Guardian says, forget what the rest of the British press pumps out, at the end of the day it is pure propaganda to continually ‘prop’ up a dieing regime. Forget what anyone else says whether English or (so called) Cymreig, this is our language and it will be spoken by every Cymrieg man, woman and child in the not too distant future or we can kiss our nation goodbye.

    Let us look at it from any other nation’s point of view. If you go to any country in the world they produce the same level of intellect from primary education right through university and the greater world beyond; believe it or not, they actually do this in their own (non English) language. The difference is they do not have an oppressive regime telling them they are not clever enough if they are educated and routinely speak their own langauge, as we do.

    For far too long I have heard (60 years in toto) that to speak Cymreig will hamper your progress through life. This is and always has been total bollocks and one, again, pumped out by successive Westminster, English majority, governments.

    Okay, most of the world uses, mainly, English for various reasons as an international language. All air traffic control, for example, is carried out in English. So what! That is the way things are, that is history, now can we please accept and get over it?!

    It really breaks my heart when I keep reading comments and hear voices, lacking in confidence and basically giving up, agreeing that we just aren’t good enough. Either we must speak English or be bilingual in our schools which is a sell out each and every time, either way you look at it. It keeps us where we are now – endlessly debating whether to use our language or not, it keeps us down and it keeps us where they want us. The reasons used to be our natural resources whereas today it is our landscape they want turn into one huge shire size recreational park!

    Look at every ‘colony’ that has already gained its Independence from the British, 58 in all. There are others, as well as us, waiting for
    not just Independence, but the right to be who we are like Australia and New Zealand. Of the ones that have already gained their Independence they use their own language and, obviously, have English as one of their extra languages or their second language. South Africa, that has English, Afrikans and several indigenous languages and they get by without a problem. That’s called self confidence and determination.

    Earlier this year South Africa announced that it was no longer putting imperial history on the top of the school curriculum it was introducing its own and greater African history, culture, music, composers, poetry etc to replace what has been superimposed. You have to admit they do have self confidence and determination, without a doubt.

    We can do this! We were far more civilised before the first capitalists (the Romans) came. We had everything they said we, the barbarian, didn’t have and needed. We didn’t need it and it has lasted nearly 2,000 years and here we are too scared to grow up!

    Forget what the British government and right wing anglo press says, forget what their Labour and Tory lackies in Cymru say we can do this. All we have to do is have the balls to say “from x date every school, pre and above will be in our Cymreag language. Yes, there will be people who don’t like this and as some have suggested they can stay or go! The thing is, like me, those of us that do not speak our own language or enough of it, can learn or carry on as we’re used to. After all we all speak ENGLISH and we’ll all get by!

    This should not even be up for debate it should be accepted and then we can move on and mature as a people and soon an Independent nation.

    • Peter jones

      Here we go again , Welsh language equals Welsh.

      Self evidentially this is untrue . 85% of the Welsh people speak only English . Therefore the national language of Wales is English QED .

      I’ve been and passionate Welshman for 52 years now ,it would be a bit of a shame if some day soon I can’t be Welsh anymore because Ido t speak Welsh

      • Peter, I agree with the overall sentiment, but to suggest in turn that the Welsh language is not ‘Welsh’ in turn, as it’s now only spoken by 19% of the population rather than a majority, is rather hypocritical. Both languages make Wales, both are just as important.

      • I did not say anything about, “can’t be Welsh anymore because I don’ t speak Welsh” nor do I read anyone else’s comments making that statement.

        When it comes to here we go again I totally agree Peter, but it isn’t necessarily just about the content of the article, more like the fact that it has been printed now. This is at a time when there is more interest in many things re Cymru. Whether social, being the poorest of the 4 regions or political with the rise of YesCymru (which by the way appeals to whatever language(s) people do or do not speak) and culturally because we are not English, but Cymreig!

        Here we go again, also because the British press pump out distractions knowing many Cymreig will once again start chasing their tails instead of understanding what really is going on. Like any protagonist they light the fuse and walk away only to return to clean up after the damage has been done.

        Every time these articles are printed we should just ignore them and concentrate on freeing our country from nearly 2,000 years of foreign oppression. There are currently 58 countries that have already gained and celebrate their Independence for the UK so, the real question is ‘why can’t we?”

        I don’t doubt that, like me, you are a passionate Cymro and also like you I do not speak Cymreag, but I care enough about our future as a people and nation to appreciate the mistakes other countries that gained Independence from UK by not making their first language their own native. To avoid this and other mistakes we need to just do it, otherwise we’ll be saying “here we go again” until the end of Cymru!

  3. Well done for getting a well-written piece up in such short order. I do take issue with one bit of it – I don’t agree that the Guardian is “little better than the Daily Mail or Express” when it comes to Wales and the Welsh. It is much worse. There is a very strong “anti-Welsh” side to English liberalism, and this shows in such papers. Along with the “but we are/read the Guardian! I can’t possibly be unreasonable when it comes to other cultures. It’s you, you silly little Welshman”, attitude of arrogance they often have, I am beginning to be more and more of the idea that those in Wales on the left (like me) should concentrate far more on allying ourselves with our fellow Welsh than with the English left.

    • I absolutely agree. Some of the most archetypal liberal English people I know have an extremely condescending view of the Welsh. It is a very deep-seated, pernicious predjudice indeed. The English left will do us no favours.

    • Peter jones

      It’s a very poorly written piece . Please read it again. It is about choice and change

  4. Jack Kinnoch

    Nonsense, the whole bilingual debate misses the point. It’s multilingual education we need. The whole concept of language streams in Welsh and/or English is what’s holding us back.

    • Multilngual just causes more confusion. It isn’t that difficult, surely, to look at any country in the whole darn world that speaks its own native tongue and also other languages. The fact the UK is classed as a lazy nation when it comes to languages is down to Westminster and English policy, that is why they don’t want us to speak our own language because they know we will leave them behind, all alone in their monoglot country.

  5. Nicholas Stradling

    Mention Wales (or Scotland) , and the liberal English left’s entire worldview flips on a dime.

  6. I started primary school able to read in English so I was then taught how to read in Welsh. I have certainly benefitted from a bilingual education. The Welsh language is a beautiful melodic language, and is older than the English language. Welsh poetry follows various patterns combining vowels and consonants on paired lines. The poetry flows off the tongue when read or recited out loud. I only wish my children had had the benefit of a bilingual education. It certainly enriched my education.

    • Peter jones

      Why does bilingual have to be exclusively Welsh ?

      • It doesn’t. But if you have teachers who are fluent in Welsh, the obvious language for them to teach is Welsh — you can hardly ask them to teach a language they don’t know!

  7. Yes to multilingual education! But you do know Welsh schools also teach foreign languages don’t you.

  8. Gut wrenching article. The guardian has hit an almighty low and lost all credibility with regards to respect for multiculturalism.

    There is definitely something in the air these days that smells really bad.

    What on earth have we done to attract such deliberate efforts to pour contempt and scorn on our attempts to foster and protect one of the most beautiful cultural assets of Western Europe.

    This article really was the lowest of the low and its nastiness and antimulticuturalism aka assimilatory tactics needs to be held up as a mirror to these so called liberals to show how disgusting it really is. Appalling.

    • Peter jones

      It’s a pertinent article . Can I suggest you read it again without blinkers .

      • Trailorboy

        I have re-read it and I can’t see anything of merit in this article at all. It is not an insightful look at issues relating to Welsh medium education. It is a loaded attack, littered with nasty hyperboles and cliches. It is a truly horrible article I’m afraid and I can’t even break it apart and develop a critique, because it is simply a piece designed to provoke the feeling that people who want English only Education are a victimised minority – who simultaneously happen to be the majority (bizaare twist on things) and are being subjected to some form of “apartheid” and “abuse”. Kids are vommitting before going to school!!!. I’m sorry – do I believe the views and accounts of these “victims” of Welsh language “Apartheid” – quite frankly no I do not.

  9. kim erswell

    The, Guardians, hemorrhaging sales figures shows their former readers aren’t buying their narratives.

  10. Opening paragraph of this article is a lie. The Guardian does not imply what the author above claims. Fighting straw men will get us nowhere.

  11. Dafydd Williams

    Really sad that papers like the Guardian spread ill-informed propaganda.

  12. The problem with this debate is that both sides conflate two separate issues — Welsh-medium education in Welsh speaking areas and immersive introductory Welsh for kids in English speaking areas.The Guardian article is about Welsh education in rural Carmarthenshire, where there’s a heck of a lot of Welsh, and incomers shouldn’t expect free English-medium schooling any more than they might in rural France. And if Welsh medium is mainstream, then having to travel 3 miles to send kids to what is effectively a “special school” is really nothing, and the article is a storm in a teacup.

    However, Welsh-medium is not “bilingual” by international definitions, because the law mandates English only from the third year of primary education, and Welsh-only is not “bilingual”.

    A key principle of bilingual education worldwide is that of “mother tongue initial literacy”, and Welsh medium (like Gaelic medium here in Scotland) leaves no scope for delivering initial literacy through English in situations where only a tiny minority (if any) of the pupils come from a Welsh-speaking family/community background.

    One of the effects of initial literacy is an unfamiliar tongue is a high degree of native language transferrence — that is to say, patterns from the first language are embedded into the new language. This is a consequence that is not only well-attested by dozens of linguistic studies, but it’s also one most readers here will actually witnessed themselves — who has/had a granny who didn’t speak a word of English before starting school, and to this day/her dying day used a range of “Welshisms” in her speech? And how many of those Welshisms have become part of typical Welsh English?

    Now think that by putting monolingual English-speaking children through the same process that was done to monolingual Welsh-speaking children several generations ago, you are creating a generation of nominal Welsh speakers whose language is riddled with Anglicisism, fel Kelly o Bobol y Cwm, and who will use “dw i ddim wedi…” instead of idiomatically correct “dw i heb…” and overuse “ie” and “nag e”.

    Now consider that this new generation of pseudo-Welsh speakers is soon going to match the size of their true-Welsh-speaking peers, and think how much of an effect that these mistakes are going to have.

    Yes, bilingual is best, and that is why it is imperative that Wales (and Scotland) looks into a genuine bilingual stream that makes the right and proper distinction between native speakers and learners and delivers education suited to their needs.

  13. Having written extensively about the Llangennech saga and kept a weather-eye on what other outlets were saying as well, The Guardian article seems to have trotted out the same canards that disfigured the Llangennech process in the first place.
    The Guardian article fundamentally misrepresents certain key events – for example the decision to move all schools in Carmarthenshire along the language continuum was made by the Labour-led administration and not, as the article allowed readers to infer, the Plaid-led one. In addition, it repeats allegations of intimidation and fails to say that none of those purported incidents were reported to the Police. In fact, the one instance where a complaint was made to the Police and subsequently misreported by the ‘national newspaper of Wales’ as being linked to the fallout over the village school, not only did the the newspaper have to grovellingly climb down from its high horse but the Police force also rubbished the story.
    I can’t imagine why The Guardian did not mention the sabre-rattling about legal challenges and the abortive attempt to crowdfund a non-existent judicial review. It was surely also worth noting that the local Labour councillor who described the situation as apartheid and segregation lost her previously safe seat and with it her local authority seat as a governor of a Welsh Medium school. But there you go: perhaps those issues did not fit the narrative.
    It is a tricky one to stay dispassionate and distanced while reporting and there was no doubt in my mind that the issue could have been handled better at the initial stages by the local authority. That would not, however, have satisfied those ‘parents’ who did not have children at the school but who were especially vocal during the protests. Criticism of the local authority is fair enough provided it comes from a position where the critic is at least rational and not close-minded themselves.
    Funnily enough, I can draw comfort from the fact that our coverage was praised both by Jacques Protic and by Welsh language campaigners. It helps when you use the facts and take the time to dig them out.

  14. JD, did you just copy paste a comment from the Guardian article?

  15. osgarpenmaen

    I have two grandchildren aged 3 and 5 who live in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is a small country of less than 600,000 population. It has 3 official languages, Luxembourgish, French and German. My grandchildren go to the Luxembourgish school in their village. The only language spoken is Luxembourgish. Their parents do not speak Luxembourgish. Their mother speaks Welsh with them; their father speaks English with them, Their grandmother speaks French with them. They have no problem changing from one language to the other. At their school there are parents of numerous nationalities. One set of parents are French and Russian, another set are Hungarian. The children have a common language of Luxembourgish. Nobody questions it, they accept it as part of living in Luxembourg. They respect its culture and traditions. Later in their school life they will be taught through the German Language; later still in the French language. Children have no problem adapting. Why are we in Wales so narrow minded? My children had their primary education through Welsh in a small village. I always spoke Welsh to them, their mother spoke French to them. They spoke English with some of the neighbours. It was never a problem to them.
    Why does this friction exist in Wales? Our greatest heritage is the living language and the culture that surrounds it not the castles and the country houses and other structures that suck up money.
    All those that oppose Welsh medium schools should take their blinkers off their eyes and the chips off their shoulders and give their children the opportunity to have a wider vision. Bilingualism has many benefits. One that has been proven is that people who have been exposed to 2 languages when very young have a better chance of staving off dementia. Learning a third language also becomes easier. I just think of the greater opportunities available to my grandchildren now that they are multilingual. The internet provides opportunities for people to work from their base in Wales in different languages.

    • Man, anyone of the slightest intelligence (and, of course, it helps if they do not read the British press) cannot fail to see the obvious in your comment! Language is life and we have a right to our life as a nation.

      I totally agree with everything you say and I, for one, thank you for a very personal, simple and informative response that like many of us will realise comes from the heart.

      The negative attributes that you point out are only just a few of the other problems we have and many suffer from. However, frustrating as they are we must remember they are down to nearly 2,000 years of oppressive control and domination by the four known plaintiffs, the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and finally the British. The latter being that title invented by those who wanted for various reasons to cover us under one blanket, not a warm all inclusive cover, but a thin veneer to justify the domination and central control of elitist (English/British) power at Westminster while trying to eradicate all traces of the indigenous peoples of these lowlands, highlands and islands off the coast of mainland Europe.

      With enlightenment comes free thought and our future Independence is plain to see, it is just there on the horizon. It is well within our grasp. The trouble is we have so many of our fellow Cymreig trying to pull us back because they are ignorant or just scared. This as well as the Anglo-British establishment and press that continually feed out messages of doubt, makes it an ongoing and very frustrating struggle.

      When I decided to shake of the shackles of anglo-norman/British domination and decided to set my mind free, I had no idea what I let myself in for. It wasn’t easy, but it became enlightening and the end result beautiful. A simple quote of Mahatma Gandhi helped me at the beginning “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I realised, like with a computer with a life threatening virus I had to close down and remove the old hard drive, clear everything out, clean up and change it for a more advanced and universal programme. I guess I am still in the process of rebooting my whole system!

      It was a very dark and lonely place doing this almost on my own, away from Cymru, my people, family and those that could help. I say almost because my Fiancee has been by my side all along. Martin Luther King Jr’s words “faith is taking the first step even when we can’t see the whole staircase” reassured me along the way.

      What also has reassured me is some of the people I have befriended on social media within and without Cymru who feel the same. They have helped become the person I am today and into who I will grow tomorrow. All I want is to testify at every given opportunity that once you start to drop those shackles, you may find their are many more than you at first expected, but once you do the burden gets lighter.

      Enlightenment does become clearer, you see the journey everyone is one and therefore, if I can help others along the way I will reach out.

      Diolch yn fawr iawn for your post and the opportunity to share my thoughts.

      Dafydd

  16. Its quite straightforward. The best performing school in Wales in 2016 was Ysgol Plasmawr. Its in Pentrebane, Cardiff (which is neither middle class nor affluent). The second best school was the fee paying Cathedral School. One set of pupils comes out guaranteed bilingual as a bare minimum. The other lot don’t. Capiche? Me entiendes? Deall? Now tell me again, ohh wise monoglots, how being bilingual is in any way worse!? Totally defies logic and credibility and exposes their prejudice.

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