Good news from the land of my mothers

11th June 2004 at 01:00
I am the first generation in my mother's family to be monolingual. While she grew up speaking two languages without believing it to be remarkable, I was raised, like most people on this small island, speaking only English.

Her experience of bilingualism is considerably more common, in world terms, than mine, something often overlooked in these days of English as an ever-increasing global language.

And it is in the light of this dominance of English that the findings of a recent TES survey of parents of school-age children in Wales are so interesting. Despite a crowded curriculum and the limited opportunities for its use, the majority of parents are keen to see Welsh as a compulsory subject up to the age of 16.

Support is stronger in the more traditionally Welsh-speaking areas of the north and west, but even the majority of parents who do not speak the language wished to maintain it throughout the compulsory years of schooling. Before we examine why this might be so, I have to declare a vested interest, because my mother's first language was Welsh.

Her family came from Dyfed, though she herself was brought up in Aberavon and thus encountered English before she arrived at school. My grandmother, on the other hand, like so many children not just in Wales but also in our English cities, only had the barest smattering of English before she began her formal education. My great grandmother was different again. Educated in west Wales where the vast majority spoke Welsh as their first language, she remembered being punished for speaking it. Schools in her area used a contraption called the Welsh Not to dissuade children from speaking the language. The last person of the day to wear the Not was beaten, thus providing an incentive for pupils to police themselves and pass the Not on to anyone they heard speaking Welsh.

Such bully-boy tactics on the part of England have often been cited as the cause of the Welsh revival, and certainly an uncompromising and often bitter nationalism has helped to keep the language alive. So, too, have the more reasoned cultural and heritage arguments.

But neither can entirely explain the current support for Welsh in all schools, nor the burgeoning of Welsh-medium schools in the traditionally English-speaking areas of the south. It seems to have more to do with what bilingualism affords the individual and also a notion of the link between language and identity.

And this, though my own Welsh is poor, I can understand. For I grew up with the constant sound of another language. I listened as my mother spoke to her mother on the phone, catching the sense through the intonation and the familiarity of the voice. This gave me not only a love of the cadence of language but also a fascination with how it communicates.

It also helped me consider how two languages can help you think in different ways. Certain concepts are embedded in words that just don't translate. Even now I have a repertoire of phrases which exist for me only in Welsh because there is no English equivalent. And the fact that I can do this is part of who I am. Almost all recent research literature agrees that if you want children whose home language is not English to excel in English-medium schools, it is important to nurture and acknowledge that first language alongside their English development. Similarly, cultivating bilingualism in Welsh schools could and should promote pupils' linguistic development. One day I too will get my act together and become proficient in my mother's tongue.

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