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Language lessons from Wales

This month sees the introduction of a Gaelic Bill to help revive the dying language. Heather Neill visits Llanelli in south Wales to see how schools have played a key role in the revival of Welsh

As Scotland embarks on legislation to put Gaelic on an equal footing with English, it is salutary to observe that even in Wales, where the indigenous language is spoken by 20.8 per cent of the regional population (almost 600,000), compared with 1.2 per cent (60,000) in Scotland, the education system, with Welsh lessons compulsory up to GCSE, continues to stir debate.

Each local education authority in Wales is required under the Welsh Language Act 1993 to "prepare and agree a specific scheme for developing Welsh medium education", but until the 1998 Education Act, Welsh as a subject had, in the main, been optional in the curriculum.

It was in the Llanelli area, on the coast of Carmarthenshire, some 15 miles west of Swansea, that the first state primary school designated as Welsh medium was established in 1947, in the aftermath of the 1944 Education Act.

By 1950 there were six more in south Wales and five in the north. In many rural areas, long before this, the common language would have been Welsh in schools now called "traditional Welsh".

By 1999 when the Welsh Assembly came into being, 30 per cent of children - primary and secondary pupils - were in Welsh-medium (or bilingual) education, being taught in 449 primary schools out of a total of 1,681 and 49 out of 229 secondary schools. The definition of a Welsh-language school is one in which more than half the subjects are taught through the medium of Welsh.

In 2001, a national census showed an increase in the number of Welsh speakers - the first in almost a century - of 2.1 per cent. In almost 80 per cent of wards, more than 10 per cent of the population now speak Welsh, with significant increases in south-east Wales. Perhaps more important, if less tangible, is the growing acknowledgement of the status of Welsh.

Compulsory Welsh lessons for everyone up to the age of 16 is not sufficient in itself to ensure its survival as a living language. (No one in Wales talks of "saving" the language, incidentally; it was never sufficiently near to death for that. The preferred term is "building on what we have".) The Welsh Language Board, a statutory body which works closely with the Welsh Assembly, is putting considerable effort into encouraging the speaking of Welsh in homes, especially the many where only one parent has the language. Its country-wide Twf (meaning growth) project shares information about the advantages of bilingualism - cognitive, educational, economic, social and cultural advantages - through a team of project workers, a newsletter and sessions for parents.

Pre-school education is important too and there is a network of Welsh-medium playgroups throughout the principality.

The Welsh-language television channel S4C, with its soap Pobl Y Cwm, and pop groups such as Cerrig Melys help to improve the status of the language.

The media may be the single most important factor in increasing the prevalence of the language.

For the young, Welsh must be seen to be "cool"; for their elders, it can be a means of advancement. Welsh is a requirement of employers in government, the media and other areas of work. Concerned parents know that they are increasing their children's opportunities by ensuring fluency in the language. Some 22,000 adults annually sign up to learn Welsh, either for reasons of employment, to recapture something they remember from their grandparents' generation or to support their children's learning.

Llanelli is more Welsh-speaking than most urban areas in Wales and you will hear Welsh frequently on the streets and in the shops. For many it is the language of commerce and leisure. However, there are many families whose roots are local but who speak no Welsh at all and English families are moving into Wales as industry declines and tourism grows. So, parents have a choice of Welsh- or English-medium schools for their children.

Some English-medium secondaries, such as Coedcae in Llanelli, make considerable efforts to offer a number of subjects in Welsh. There seems to be a demand for this, partly because parents have seen the success of Welsh-language schools.

It can, admits Dyfrig Davies, Carmarthenshire's adviser for Welsh teaching, put quite a bit of pressure on timetabling.

However, there comes a point when people have to confront the hard questions: why save a language which is dying out? Could the money be better spent? In Wales, the widely held view is that if there is at least a spark of genuine life it would be criminal to let the juggernaut of English snuff it out.

As Wales and Scotland are finding a political identity and greater national confidence, their languages contribute to a sense of nationhood, a distinctive culture.

The simple advice to Scotland is: make Gaelic desirable and then prepare for a long haul and significant investment. Pob lwc!

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