Will a Welsh medium education hinder my child?

This is the Homer Simpson argument:

Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain!

According to this argument learning Welsh as a first or second language will make learning other languages, such as English, more difficult for children. Also, since Welsh is a primitive and barbaric language, the child will not be able to communicate properly and will be mentally incapacitated.

This argument has been a mainstay in the attacks on the Welsh language for over a century and a half. It has its roots in the Victorian era when the great thinkers of the day came to the conclusion that the success of the British Empire proved that English, like Latin, was a superior language, and so every child from Caernarfon to Cape Town should learn it. As the Blue Books, the 1847 Government Report on the State of Education in Wales, makes clear:

The Welsh language is a vast drawback to the Welsh and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effect.

While such attitudes continue to exist, our understanding of languages has thankfully moved on from the social Darwinism of the Victorian era. The reality is that learning one language has no effect on a child’s ability to learn another. Their sponge-like ability to soak up languages in a short time is well attested. A child can be bilingual, trilingual, or even octolingual, and be none the worse as a result. In fact, research shows that knowing more than one language makes you smarter.

Buy One, Get One Free

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear – children in so-called ‘Welsh medium schools’ are taught in BOTH languages and are expected to use both of them equally well. So a parent opposing Welsh medium education is not choosing BETWEEN Welsh and English, they’re choosing to give their child ONE language rather than TWO. It’s like being offered a ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ in a supermarket and choosing to take just the one, for no good reason.

And as you would expect, the facts certainly suggest that this BOGOF offer of a Welsh and English education is an advantage:

  • A myriad of academic studies now suggest that bilingualism is beneficial. And as well as having a number of cognitive advantages, it also helps to avoid dementia later in life (researchers think this may be because the two languages offer two ‘pathways’ to information in the brain. So if you were to, for instance, forget what a lion is, you’d still know what a llew – the Welsh word or lion – is, and be able to work from there).
  • Children in Welsh language schools are less likely to underperform overall than children in English language schools in Wales. And children who speak Welsh at home do better than children who speak English at home in those schools. This doesn’t prove that Welsh speakers are smarter than English speakers, but it does quash any argument that education in Welsh language schools is inferior, or that the children are worse off as a result of not being educated in English.

In contrast to this, no evidence has ever been proffered that would suggest that teaching through the medium of Welsh does hold children back – I think we can accept that this argument is just old-fashioned bunk, a half-remebred ‘truth’ implanted in the national consciousness by the propaganda of the Blue Books.

A great advantage

It can’t be stressed enough that we are LUCKY to live in a country that can offer a bilingual education. Having two languages, especially two languages that come with such deep and vibrant cultures attached, is an ASSET. Being able to speak Welsh gives you access to a whole other culture. Countless books, festivals, television shows, songs, stretching back decades, centuries, and millennia, all are made available to me by the simple fact that my parents decided to give me a Welsh medium education.

Speaking from my own experience, I grew up in a Welsh-speaking household and went to a Welsh medium primary school. I was fluent in English by the time I moved on to a Welsh medium high school. There I studied some subjects, such as History and Science, through the medium of Welsh, and others, such as Law and English literature, through the medium of English. This bilingual education has not hindered me in the slightest and I’m now a university lecturer. I have three daughters and the eldest, after two years at a Welsh medium primary school, is now also fully bilingual.

Languages aren’t simply an interchangeable series of signs. They create meaning in different ways. A different language allows you to see the world differently. I and my children can enjoy what the Welsh language has to offer as well as the English language. I can read the Mabinogi one minute and turn to Shakespeare the next. We can flick over from the X Factor to the Eisteddfod and back again (although the latter has by far the better singers). Learning a new language is a win-win situation. It doesn’t push any other information out of your brain. You get what you would have gotten anyway, and a lot more besides.

Why I’d want to deprive my kids of the opportunity to speak two languages – when there are no ill effects but plenty of advantages in doing so – I can’t fathom. I want them to be able to speak both English and Welsh, and sending them to a Welsh medium school will ensure they can do both equally well.

Other parents have clearly come to the same conclusion as I have, which is why Welsh medium education is booming in Wales, particularly in Cardiff and Swansea and across the South East.

So, what would you like for your kids – English only? Or the Buy One Get One Free option – get English, but get Welsh as well for no extra cost – with all the advantages that entails, but none of the (imagined) drawbacks?

Ifan Morgan Jones

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7 thoughts on “Will a Welsh medium education hinder my child?

  1. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a Welsh education as coming from an English speaking home would never have normally had. I was about eight years old when a new Welsh school opened in my area. My brother who was four years my senior never had the opportunity as he had already moved on to High school, it is still his biggest regret. My life has been enriched culturally and I have made sure my children and grandchildren have the chance my elder siblings never had.

  2. Attitudes like those you describe above are racist and an absolute disgrace… . I am a first language Welsh speaker who has managed to get a Bachelor of Science degree and a Masters as well as several other qualifications. The use of another language, especially one from a different linguistic family group (as Welsh is a native Celtic language of Britain) is extremely beneficial to personal growth, development and learning. Besides, controversial but truthful, the Welsh have always suffered unjustified and blatant racism and derogatory remarks and attitudes from England for centuries because we had our freedom and land taken away from us and subjugated to English rule. For some reason English culture can’t let that go and maintain and support ignorant attitudes as the ones you highlight above.

  3. There are plenty of countries where all higher education is through the medium of a different language. There is simply no way, for example, to justify the monstrous expense of translating university textbooks into Hebrew, and although everyone speaks Hebrew in Israel, all tertiary education is in English. Nobody thinks this is particularly strange.

  4. Currently in my last week ever of school which is Welsh medium. I have had no more trouble passing my A levels and Gcse than my peers in English schools. And although I can’t use it as much as I like at home, whenever I can it is a privilege.

    And yes, it is a barbaric language. My Welsh teacher used to say if I needed the Welsh equivalent of an English word (she said it in Welsh) “don’t try and translate the word, write down what the word means”. And this is what makes the language work. Not only is it phonetic, but make sense all the time (if you can understand Welsh obviously).

    I’m a fluent Welsh speaker and I never had an issue in English classes. Yes it was difficult doing Spanish lessons in Welsh, but no different than doing them in English in England.

    If you’ve been learning Welsh and English and French and German and Mandarin since you were a young child, through infant and primary school, then using any of the languages in the future doesn’t make anything harder

  5. Slight typo you seem to have transposed the ONE and the TWO in the bit about choosing languages.

    Completely agree with all the points of course. There are also the point that people of the age of Neil Hamilton would definitely benefit from learning Welsh given the proven effects of bilingualism of delaying senility/dementia by upto 5 years and increasing the chance of surviving a stroke.

    However I wonder whether we can change the focus of the debate by pointing out to the bigots and the anti-Welsh brigade that they are choosing to actively disadvantage their children by refusing them the opportunity of a bilingual education.

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