Opinion

Why a Welsh language education is about giving your child more choice – not taking it away

25 Feb 2021 6 minutes Read
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Ifan Morgan Jones

There are few issues as emotive in Welsh local government as changing a school from Welsh to English medium (or vice versa).

It combines understandably strong feelings that parents have about what is best for their children on one side and understandably strong feelings about the future of the Welsh language on the other.

The latest flashpoint is the decision to change two schools to Welsh-medium ones in Carmarthenshire.

The last time this debate was fired up to this degree was the case of another school in nearby Llangennech.

The growth of social media doesn’t help take the heat out of the argument in this case, with emotive claims thrown about with reckless abandon on Facebook.

As always as well, politicians with little understanding of the issue but who see an opportunity to score points on the back of division will swoop in and do further damage, claiming the language is being ‘forced’ on people.

But let’s look at this from a parents’ perspective – something that, as a father of four, I’m hopefully sympathetic enough to do. The central question in this case as in all others about education is, what is best for the kids?

Buy one get one free

I think the greatest misunderstanding when it comes to Welsh medium education, and which causes ill will on both sides, is that it is Welsh medium education.

It is, in fact, a bilingual education. Children who go to Welsh medium schools, whatever the name suggsests, in practice learn to speak English just as well as Welsh.

I grew up in a Welsh speaking village in one of the strongest Welsh speaking areas in Wales in Gwynedd, went to a Welsh medium primary school, and then a secondary school.

Despite this, I was able to converse in English as well at a young age and now lecture in English at a university.

The same goes for my own children who I’ve sent to Welsh primary and secondary schools as well – well, they’re not lecturing yet but they are TikToking, YouTubing and chatting to non-Welsh speaking friends in the language.

So let’s get that fundamental point out of the way first – children who go to Welsh medium schools do not end up being able to speak Welsh and not English, or Welsh better than English.

They don’t lose anything by going to a Welsh medium school. In fact, all they do is gain something – the ability to speak Welsh as well as English.

It’s a complete BOGOF – a buy one get one free on the language front.

‘Forced’

This means that any discussion of the Welsh language being ‘forced’ on children is also nonsense.

You don’t ‘force’ anything on a child by giving them more linguistic choice. Because they will be completely free to use their Welsh or not, when they get older.

If a bilingual education is available and the parent decides to restrict the child to an education in one language, you could equally characterise that as ‘forced’.

Because the child is too young to consent to being denied this ‘buy one get one free’ linguistic option that is available to them.

However, to characterise anything in a school setting as ‘forced’ is a bit of a joke, I think. We send our children to schools where they learn maths, science, geography, and so on.

We largely leave these choices up to experts in pedagogy at a council and government level. I’ve never seen a parent kick off because their child is ‘forced’ to learn algebra.

I’m sure that very often, given the choice, the child would rather stay at home and play with its toys or, if a bit older, its X-Box.

But if you’re already sending your child to school – and I don’t think anyone would reasonably use the language of ‘force’ to describe giving a child an education – then learning Welsh isn’t ‘forced’ either.

However, for some reason, we consider opposition to having their child taught the Welsh language, a skill that has proven benefits and no proven drawbacks, a legitimate grievance.

To be fair to those who do voice this view, however, they have often been egged on by irresponsible politicians looking to exploit it as a hot button political issue.

Benefits

Setting aside the arguments for why there’s no good reason to oppose your child being taught in Welsh, let’s look at the benefits.

Children can learn as many languages as they want. Unless you subscribe to the Homer Simpson argument – ‘when I learn a new language it pushes something old out of my brain’ – there are no real drawbacks.

So far, nobody has been able to demonstrate scientifically that bilingualism is a disadvantage. The old 19th century argument that learning two languages confuses children, has been proven to be completely false.

And at its most basic level, the Welsh language is an extra skill – one that can help with employment opportunities – but there are also proven cognitive benefits to bilingualism as well.

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
  • Slows down dementia in old age

That last point in no small advantage if we consider that our children will (hopefully) live for longer than we do.

Given these advantages, I think that we should consider ourselves lucky that Wales is a bilingual nation and therefore 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.

That is why I, personally, would not just send my children to a Welsh medium school but go to great lengths to ensure that they got a bilingual education, if I had to.

Conclusion

Opponents of Welsh medium education like to frame it as a battle. Welsh v English, one side trying to force a language ‘down the throat’ of another.

But it’s simply not. I love both Welsh and English, I value both hugely. I wouldn’t want to not be able to speak English, just as I wouldn’t want to not be able to speak Welsh.

A bilingual education gave me access to both those languages and both those cultures. It was a great deal and I didn’t even have to think twice before giving my children the same one.

Welsh medium schools are about giving every child in Wales that same opportunity. So if you’re given the choice, I’d heartily recommend choosing the BOGOF option – send your child to a Welsh medium school.

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