Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Skills, has been in touch (see comments) to say that he launched a task and finish group last month to review the teaching of Welsh as a second language in July. The Minister's statement can be found here.
With three years to go before the next Westminster elections and four years until the next Assembly elections, it is difficult for any opposition politician or party to make a mark, but one of the strengths of Plaid is that it works like a greenhouse for the generation of new ideas, and one recent example of this was the party's proposals for a radical overhaul of language teaching in Wales (here).
Perhaps I should begin by explaining that I spent quite a few years working in different European countries, including quite long spells in Sweden and Switzerland, and so languages have been an important part of my working life. My children have also benefited, even if they did not always appreciate their irregular verbs, and the older ones have found that being able to speak more than one language has helped them get good jobs.
Partly because English is introduced at an early stage in Swedish schools, and partly because Swedish TV carries so many programmes in English with Swedish subtitles, most Swedes have a good command of English; but not all. Certainly if you live in the country, it will not be long before you realise that you need Swedish if you want to make everyday life a little easier and more enjoyable.
And at work you will find that people give you a honeymoon period when they will speak English to you, but that pretty soon you will be expected to learn their language.
In most of the larger European countries, learning the language is even more a matter of survival.
Switzerland has some interesting parallels with Wales as a place where more than one language is spoken. In German-speaking Switzerland everybody speaks one of the Swiss German dialects (there are lots of them, and some are difficult even for the Swiss to understand) at home and at work. The differences between the Swiss German varieties and the sort of German spoken in neighbouring Germany and Austria are huge, to the point where most Germans simply cannot understand what their neighbours are saying most of the time.
To give you an idea, let's just take one simple sentence: "he was there":
Standard German: Er war da.
Zürich German: Der isch dääte gsi.
Swiss German is not usually written, except in text messages and the social media. Otherwise, people use standard German when they write.
Swiss schools teach standard German, although even then Switzerland has its own take on the language, with quite a lot of different vocabulary to German as spoken north of the border. After school, the use of the standard language is pretty much confined to newspapers, television news broadcasts and books.
If you don't read or write very much after leaving school, the chances are that you will have a passive understanding of the spoken standard language, but not much more.
In the case of young immigrants in particular, it is common to find people who are fluent in Swiss German but with next to no ability in the standard language. An English colleague of mine who had moved with his family to Switzerland at the age of 18 spoke Swiss German at work and with his wife and children at home, but was unable to read or write standard German or understand much of it. And as he said himself, after 30 years of not speaking his mother tongue, his English had become "time warped".
There are some close parallels here to the Welsh language, where many speakers will switch to English rather than tackle the written language. Like Switzerland, we also have quite marked differences in dialect, and most children from Welsh-speaking families find that there is quite a difference between the language they use at home and the sort of Welsh they encounter at school.
There is also a parallel between Switzerland and Wales when it comes to learning German or Welsh as a second language. Children from French and Italian speaking areas learn the standard form of the language, only to find when they have mastered it that they cannot understand the language which people actually speak in places like Basel, Bern and Zürich.
Increasingly also, schools in Switzerland are dropping "Swiss" languages as compulsory second languages in favour of English, which means that it is not unusual to find younger people from, say, Geneva and Bern communicating with each other through English.
In the same way, adults who have beavered away at Welsh for Adults courses for years often struggle to understand what people are saying in the pub or in the shops, and if that was not disheartening enough, when they manage to force out a sentence, they are likely to be told in English, "We don't speak like that".
All of which brings us back squarely to Plaid's recent announcement.
Crucially the announcement recognises that our schools are failing when it comes to teaching Welsh as a second language in most parts of Wales (the smaller primary schools are the execption). Far too many young people are emerging from school after years of Welsh lessons unable to use the language. In some cases that I have seen, and bearing in mind that this is in one of the heartlands of the language where you can hear the language being spoken everywhere, people in their late teens and early twenties are leaving school with scarcely any more Welsh than their counterparts in Kent.
What the hell has been going on in their Welsh periods for the last 10 years?
Does it matter? Yes, of course it does for a whole host of reasons, not least for prospects of finding a job locally. Anyone wanting to find work locally in a shop, cafe, care home or many other local businesses will find that an ability to speak Welsh is a real advantage.
Tackling the teaching of Welsh in schools, and also teaching Welsh to adults, should be the first priority of our government simply because the infrastructure and human capital is, by and large, already in place.
The fundamental question Leighton Andrews and the educational establishment need to ask is, what is the purpose of teaching Welsh as a second language? Are we setting out to produce people who may one day succeed Dylan Iorwerth as Prifardd or who can churn out correctly mutated official documents? Or are we trying to give young people the skills to integrate with first language speakers socially and at work?
If it is the latter, there needs to be a dramatic shift in schools and adult learning away from an insistence on formal varieties of the language to getting children and adults from non-Welsh speaking homes to the point where they can speak natural and informal Welsh. Even if that means accepting that Fi moyn and Car fi are OK.
We can be sure that Dylan Iorwerth did not compose cynghanedd or mutate correctly 100% of the time when he was a child. Those are skills he developed as he grew up, and in the same way schools and adult classes can introduce more formal language once learners have gained the ability to speak Welsh informally.
Teaching languages other than Welsh and English in Wales poses greater problems, largely because of the British legacy of neglect of modern languages. The reality is that there are simply not enough teachers out there with the skills to make a "big bang" change possible. But that does not mean that we cannot make a start.
A lot could be learned from the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. The Swedish minority in Finland is small and concentrated in a few areas of the country. Children have Swedish as their first language but have to learn Finnish, which is linguistically about as far removed from Swedish as Arabic, at school. They have to become bilingual because the size of the Swedish minority in mainland Finland makes Finnish essential for everyday life. But they also have to learn English as a third language, and most of the more able children will go on to learn a fourth European language as well.
A check on the Pisa tables will show that Finland is doing a great job in education, incidentally.
Leanne Wood has asked Cefin Campbell, who is one of the leading authorities on language planning in Wales, to report back with recommendations, including a new language academy. Significantly, she is adamant that any new policy must be a national policy, and not left to local authorities if it is to succeed.
My one plea to Cefin Campbell here would be to ensure that any national policy allows diversity to avoid a situation where all schools in Wales taught just one foreign language.
What we need is an education system which can produce future generations in which people are fluent in Welsh, English and at least one of several other languages, with the choice of a third language being based on the following criteria:
- The economic importance of the third language. Since the vast bulk of our trade is with Europe, European languages should be the default, with Mandarin as an exception. That means German, French, Italian and Spanish primarily.
- The availability of teaching staff and materials across the school system. There is no point in introducing primary school children to, say, Spanish only to switch to another language at secondary level.
The Welsh Government recently announced that it will be carrying out a review of Welsh for Adults teaching, and Leighton Andrews is one of the few government ministers who is not rigidly tribal Labour and prepared to challenge orthodoxies. Let's hope he is listening to what Cefin Campbell has to say.
In the meantime it is good to see Plaid continuing to bring new ideas to the table and set the agenda.