More work, please - we're Welsh

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Across the border,they have their pupils bilingual by 11 and steeped in Welsh culture - as well as teaching the national curriculum. How do they do it, ponders Sue Palmer

Here's a thought for primary teachers in England. Imagine that, as well as the nine subjects of the national curriculum, you were required to teach two more: cultural studies and a second language. Then imagine the second language had to be covered in sufficient depth to ensure pupils were more or less bilingual by the time they were 11.

Teachers across the border in Wales take this extra workload in their stride. While they agreed wholeheartedly that the rest of the national curriculum is overcrowded, the Welsh teachers I met didn't seem to mind in the least teaching "the Welsh curriculum" (covering the history and culture of principality) and the Welsh language. Indeed, they'd fight to the death to retain them.

This strength of feeling for Welsh culture and language is not surprising, considering that Wales is a small, historically weak country bordering one that was for centuries a world power and still asserts a form of domination through the influence of the English language. Other mainland languages have fallen before the might of English: Gaelic was driven back to the extreme north of Scotland, and Kernewek died so completely in 18th century Cornwall that its champions today can't be sure how it was pronounced. It's an understandable source of pride that Wales has retained its language to the extent that every schoolchild learns it, every road sign appears in it, and it is still the everyday tongue of many people.

For two languages existing cheek by jowl all these centuries, Welsh and English seem to have very little in common. There are a few borrowings of vocabulary - if you see a sign saying Preifat on a Welsh door, you know not to venture in. And English has a acquired a handful of words from the Welsh including flannel, corgi and, of all things, penguin.

But the grammars are very different, with Welsh adjectives following rather than preceding nouns, all nouns having gender, and the verb usually preceding the subject.

There are also many differences between the writing systems. Welsh, unlike English, is phonetically highly regular but many letters, especially vowels, have different sound values from their English counterparts.

To the monolingual English visitor, all this seems very scary. I assumed there would be all sorts of problems in teaching two languages simultaneously, particularly in literacy skills when the written forms are so different. But bilingual Welsh teachers looked at me in amazement when I enquired about the difficulties: "We just do it," was the general response.

Imagine "just doing it" in a small school in Denbighshire, where you have to switch languages, depending on which child you're teaching. The local authority has a policy of parental choice for key stage 1 children: they can be educated in either Welsh or English. Schools in heavily populated areas can opt to be either Welsh-speaking or English-speaking, but small country schools drawing from a wide catchment have to provide for both.

Ruth Jones, a young teacher in Bryn Eglwys, has a class of 12 infants, three of whom she teaches in Welsh and nine in English. "I find I automatically adjust the language to the child I'm talking to," she says. "It just seems to come naturally."

Helen Lewis, the English adviser in Gwynedd, explains that it's only monoglots such as myself who think two languages must mean double trouble. Gwynedd has a policy of bilingualism, which means all children are taught all subjects through both languages. If both tongues are highly regarded in the community, all the teachers are bilingual, and there is careful curriculum planning, Helen Lewis believes that bilingual learning is an entirely positive experience. For instance, pre-school children who regularly encounter two languages have far more data than monolingual children on which to base their general awareness of what language is and how it works.

Language awareness is an important precursor of literacy learning - as is phonological awareness which is clearly developed through listening to and distinguishing between the different sounds of Welsh and English. There's also a rich heritage of Welsh nursery rhymes (which Welsh parents are perhaps more intent on passing on than their English counterparts) that contributes to tuning children's ears to significant sounds.

Learning to read in Welsh can be easier than in English because of the phonetic regularity. Some children taught entirely in Welsh while infants have difficulties in transferring to English at junior school, but there appears to be no long-term problem - national curriculum and GCSE results in English language are much the same in Wales as in England.

Helen Lewis confirms that once children can read and write in Welsh, they usually have notrouble transferring these skills to English. She spoke of a four-year-old boy whose first attempt at writing English, a poem beginning "Dd faiy byd is biwtifwl" ("The firebird is beautiful"), showed how knowledge of the Welsh sound-symbol system informed writing in a new language.

"English spelling can cause a problem but probably no more than for many monolingual pupils. Teachers just have to ensure children know the vowel sound variations so they don't make common spelling errors such as 'l-a-i-c' for 'like'. With good teaching this should be sorted out by the end of Year 4."

But aren't there problems with vocabulary and grammar? Don't children get mixed up between Welsh and English words and forms? Most young bilingual learners go through a stage when they draw on words they know from both languages - such as the little Welsh girl who held up a cut finger and said "Rwy'n bleedio" - and they also make occasional grammatical confusions. These can be viewed as positive developmental markers, rather than mistakes. Helen Lewis believes they're part of developing linguistic awareness: "Children's brains can cope with two very different grammatical systems and once they're in key stage 2, I'd be surprised to find confusions between the two languages. " Like their teachers, children quickly become adept at switching from one language to the other, depending on whom they're talking to. Linguistic awareness, a strong cultural identity, two languages children can call their own by the age of 11, and teachers who "just do it" without any apparent ill effects ... this monoglot soon began to feel quitejealous.

We English have never had to defend our native tongue, never had anything with which to compare it, never needed to cherish or even consider it, so we've taken it for granted and our culture has suffered as a result. My first reaction may have been horror, but by the time I left Wales I considered its teachers lucky to have two extra subjects in their national curriculum.

* Sue Palmer is a formerheadteacher and general editorof the Longman Book Project

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