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, makes you smarter.l, or even octolingual, and be none the worse as a result. In fact, research shows that knowing more than one language
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.
- And if we are to accept the argument that the Welsh language is a barrier to a top class education, we also need an explanation as to why some of the best schools in Wales are found in the predominantly Welsh-speaking west of the country.
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, 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.
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