Understanding bilingualism in education: a seed for bilingual teaching success

Darllenwch y dudalen hon yn Gymraeg

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Following the Government’s attempt to reach a million Welsh speakers by 2050 and increase the number of individuals who use the language on a daily basis, there is more emphasis than ever on seeing our schools produce confident bilingual speakers. But the challenge of increasing Welsh language speakers and users varies from one context to another – from one area to another, from one school to another, from one home to another, from one teacher to another, and from one pupil to another – and it is vital that any strategies are flexible enough to allow the teacher to consider those variations, and what is relevant and appropriate within his or her own educational context.

With the imminent arrival of the new curriculum, the aim of any teacher will be to help pupils recognise their linguistic ability, and encourage them to move forwards to the best of their ability. Considering that every Welsh speaker is now bilingual (with English usually) from a relatively young age, the psychological, neurological and linguistic characteristics of Welsh speakers will resemble those of other bilingual and multilingual speakers across the world, and it will be important that those characteristics are acknowledged . Furthermore, if developing confident bilingual speakers is the aim, children, parents and teacher must be able to identify where the child is in terms of his or her bilingual skills.  But in order to provide the best opportunities for pupils to develop their confidence to use Welsh (or English for some pupils) and continue to move along a continuum, appropriate and purposeful opportunities must be planned within the new curriculum to allow that to happen.

In that regard, it is a very exciting time here in Wales. We are on the cusp of a period of significant change in the world of education. This is our opportunity to take ownership of the challenge, and seek innovative approaches to teaching a minority language. And we have started on the journey. Yes, there are already a number of examples of good practice in our schools which have led to great successes in terms of transferring Welsh to pupils from non-Welsh speaking homes over the years – and those great practices should not be forgotten – but those successes are not regular enough. Furthermore, persuading those who can speak Welsh (even those who are native speakers) to use the language willingly, especially when the option to use English is everywhere, is a systemic problem which the new curriculum needs to address. And that is a challenge. Therefore, we must try and understand the factors which lead to not using Welsh and plan the curriculum appropriately.

Research has now been undertaken across Wales looking at the attitudes of children and young people towards the Welsh language and Welshness, the opinions of children and young people about Welsh as a subject, and the linguistic characteristics of speakers raised in Welsh-speaking homes, bilingual homes and non-Welsh speaking homes. In general, the research shows that the attitudes of children and young people towards the language are very positive – its importance to Wales, its importance to Welshness, and its usefulness within the workplace here in Wales. But that does not convert to use of the language and therefore developing positive attitudes is not in itself going to change things. What is striking in the research is children’s attitudes towards their Welsh language skills and the limitations of Welsh as a language.

If we want to motivate children to use and continue to develop their Welsh language skills, the fact the fact that different kinds of speakers will have different language abilities must be acknowledged – a pattern which is reinforced in studies on the linguistic output of bilingual children here in Wales and in other parts of the world – and we must celebrate every attempt to use Welsh. Bilingual children will have missing vocabulary in Welsh (and in English), but there is a danger of misinterpreting this as a sign of inadequate language skills or a sign that it is not possible to discuss some subjects in Welsh, with the focus on the vocabulary rather than the richness of the language which surrounds that vocabulary. And this is the type of challenge which faces us in terms of producing a curriculum which can reverse such misconceptions.

To produce educational strategies whose main purpose is to encourage the use of Welsh and enrich children’s Welsh and English skills, we must develop a robust awareness of the nature and needs of the bilingual pupil. Related to this is the need to inspire children about language and languages and being bilingual and multilingual – the purpose of language, language patterns, language sources, the usefulness of language and the relationship between different languages.

enllibilingualteacherbookcoverThe new curriculum will not use the term Welsh second language. This takes us one step towards replacing the artificial grouping between first and second language; the hope is that this, if delivered correctly, will lead children from non-Welsh speaking backgrounds to consider themselves bilingual and feel that they can be part of the Welsh-speaking world and the bilingual world. But in order for that to work, it must be acknowledged that English (or any other language) is an intrinsic part of their bilingual identity and their language skills, or any educational strategies which attempt to motivate children to engage with the Welsh language will be in vain. There are highly effective bilingual teaching methods which would be very appropriate to try and convey these messages in different contexts. The purpose of the ‘Bilingual Teaching Methods’ booklet is to offer an initial overview of the international literature which relates to bilingual learning and teaching methods. The booklet identifies classroom contexts where bilingualism leads the teaching, relating those practices to the educational context here in Wales, as is characteristic of the learner’s real experiences.

4 thoughts on “Understanding bilingualism in education: a seed for bilingual teaching success

  1. Is it possible that Welsh language classes could/should be made available easily to all educators in Wales? You talk about giving the children confidence to use Welsh in their daily lives. But that is not going to happen until the teachers and other adults that educate these children are enabled to grasp, improve and practise their use of Welsh too.

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