Sunday 12 August 2012

Leanne and language teaching

Update 17 August 2012
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.
It would be a great waste of opportunity if the system were allowed to take a path of least resistance and fall back into ruling out languages considered to be "difficult" such as German, and opting for Spanish instead, although at least initially we have to recognise that there will be skills shortages in some languages.

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.


Anonymous said...

I think you've got the wrong end of the stick. The problem is not the sort of Welsh that is taught, and it's not the actual teaching methods either, the problem is the complete and utter lack of interest, bordering on contempt, for Welsh Second Language as a subject in a significant percentage of our schools.

My wife has taught WSL in a big South Wales comp for nearly 20 years and has had a huge degree of success by any standards. Her department was held up as a model for other schools in the county, the full course Welsh GCSE was compulsory for all pupils, hundreds have done A level and dozens have gone on to do Welsh degrees and in many cases become Welsh teachers themselves.

All that changed when a new head was appointed. Both she and her new senior management can scarcely contain their contempt for the Welsh language. My wife's line manager has gone as far as to say he doesn't think Welsh should be taught at all in schools. Pupils have been advised by senior teachers that Welsh is not an important subject and they should concentrate on other "more important" GCSEs instead. The GCSE short course was introduced and has been heavily promoted by the school.

As a result results are in the process of collapsing and pupils' attitude for the subject has taken a severe turn for the worse. My wife made the mistake of complaining a bit too vociferously about the systematic destruction of her life's work and is now in the process of being bullied out of the school by the head and her deputies. The county, who have previously lionised my wife as an example of best practice for their schools are now utterly silent on the subject.

THis is not an isolated incident. My wife has visited schools around south Wales where things are even worse. Neighbouring schools have brought in head teachers from England who almost immediately start dismantling and undermining their Welsh departments.

The solution to all this is perfectly obvious. Firstly the GCSE short course should be scrapped. It is a visibly inferior qualification and its inferiority is transferred to the language in many pupils' eyes. Secondly Welsh should be made a Core Subject. Once it starts appearing on a school's Core Subject Indicator and dragging the school down in the league tables most of these heads wil suddenly develoip a new passion and interest in teaching the language.

Cneifiwr said...

Diolch o galon i chi am eich sylwadau. Thank you for taking the time to write this. The situation you describe is absolutely shocking. I just hope that the authority concerned is not Carmarthenshire.

It is obviously enormously difficult for your wife. Somehow she needs to bring things to the attention of someone like Leighton Andrews or Meri Huws, the new Commissioner. If that does not work, then perhaps they need to be named and shamed by the media - BBC Cymru or Golwg 360.

If you would like to get in touch confidentially, please feel free to contact me by e-mail:

Diolch a phob lwc i chi'ch dau.

Anonymous said...

Good post.....except, I am not expert but I think that the 3rd language should possibly be Mandarin Chinese.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading the article and much of it, to my mind, made good sense. But two things struck me as odd.

Firstly, why the need for any Welsh language education at all? Those that speak it at home can and do and often will continue to speak it. Such people represent an entire mini economy in themselves, working with and for others who speak a similar form of the language.

Secondly, you stress on the needs of Welsh and English and then go on to talk about yet another language. But what about maths and sciences and so on. There is a limit to learning in Wales and at the moment that limit is really rather low.

I reckon we in Wales would all be a lot happier if we emphasised more on what we have in common with others in this world rather than what we can offer by means of difference.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog post.

In response to the first anonymous poster - I witnessed a similar situation around 10 years ago during my school years in Swansea.

A fantastic Welsh department, headed by a passionate and enthusiastic teacher, had to battle with senior management to have the Welsh FULL course on seperate module choice tables so the more 'popular' courses.

The module choices for GCSEs were designed so that the majority of pupils were forced to take the SHORT course. As a consequence, I was one of only 7 pupils who went on to do A Level Welsh.

The 7 of us would often use our free periods to go into Welsh classes of lower years, helping out in the lessons and encouraging pupils to take the full course!

Abolishing the option for a short course is a suggestion I fully agree with.

Anonymous said...

Wales has a huge amount of work to do. Take the state of the spoken word in Cardiff after all it is the capital of Wales. The only places you will hear welsh outside of a work placement or education is in the Mochyn Du and Clwb Ifor Bach.

I do however totally agree with you on any welsh is better than none.If welsh is to stay everybody can at least try even if it does morph into a new dialect over time.
Thats what language does over time.

Finland does do a very good job but we cannot follow there lead we have to be our own people. I belive that Finland or any other living language has never found itself in the predicament that Wales has been placed in.
So many leave Wales taking the educated welsh with them never to return we are then left with household welsh.

Not so long ago many a cottage got burned to the ground. We need to set fire to our language and pass it on to people like an Olympic flame to hold and cherish for ever.
Welsh is not just for Ysgol its for life .

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

(1) Scrap Welsh as a 2nd Language. I'm sure the minority Swedish-medium children in Finland don't study "Finnish as a Second Language"; they simply study Finnish.

Why do we waste the time of 7-16 year olds in EM schools on Ail Iaith for an hour or two a fortnight? Simply teach them all Cymraeg as a Core subject from age 7 to a full, compulsory GCSE at 16 - the same GCSE for all.

(2) I doubt you should introduce a foreign language too early, if the intended Welsh outcome is the same for all. But, certainly from age 9, say.

German has been ditched from comprehensives across Wales, to be replaced by Spanish. Easier, see.

Btw, now I know why Germans always tell me they think I'm speaking Schwyzerdütsch: they simply don't understand me!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the words of support Cneifiwr, you'll be relieved to hear that the council involved is not Carmarthenshire. The matter is being handled by my wife's union at the moment and we'll see how things progress next term. There seems to be no obvious redress for the downgrading of Welsh at the school however.

I'd just like to reiterate that we have all the necessary things in place to bring about a rapid improvement in Welsh Second Language teaching, all that is lacking at the moment is the political will to see it through.

Anonymous said...

Really good, thought-provoking blog post.

Couple of observations in relation to this. As a (now fluent) welsh learner years ago I went to a Secondary School in the Vale of Glamorgan where I was taught Welsh as a second language up to the age of around 13, when I had the option of taking it for GCSE.

I opted not to take it.

Our teachers in the Welsh class went through the motions of teaching us a language that was entirely divorced from any kind of living context. As pupils in this school we had no idea that the language was a living, breathing medium of communication used by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages across the country. We just couldn't see the relevance of it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, take-up of Welsh at GCSE level in our school was poor.

I really think that we should have a system in Wales of "pairing" schools in the English speaking areas with schools in areas where the language is widely spoken. I think this would have a dual benefit - pupils in these schools would have an opportunity to use the language as it is actually spoken, and maybe it would also help to raise awareness of the situation in Welsh speaking areas, where the language is under threat.

I few years after choosing not to take Welsh as a GCSE, I started reading up on Welsh history. It was only after this point that I started learning Welsh off my own bat. I knew nothing about the "Welsh Knot", or the fact that part of the reason Welsh is a living language today is because the King James Bible was translated into Welsh.

To me, it's all about context. Unless pupils learning Welsh as a "second language" have a sense of "where the language fits in", they are not going to see the relevance of it, and are not going to be motivated to use it.

I'm not sure that language teaching can be divorced from wider issues of national identity. In a Welsh context I would ask two questions - 1)Should not Welsh history be taught more widely to give the language historical context? and 2) Are there geographical barriers between schools in English speaking areas and Welsh speaking areas that could be broken down - to mutual benefit?


Cneifiwr said...

Diolch Jim. You raise some very interesting points here - the twinning idea is certainly worth thinking about.

Leighton Andrews said...

I was away for most of these comments, but I think you should be aware that I have announced a Task and Finish group to look at Welsh second language back in July:

yn Gymraeg:

If the anonymous poster wants to let me have more details of the challenges his wife is facing as a teacher, I would welcome them.

Leighton Andrews said...

I made a statement about my review of Welsh Second Language on 17 July

Yn Gymraeg:

In English:

If the first anonymous commenter would like to email me with details of the problems his wife has had, I will make enquiries

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for that link. It certainly looks promising.