Getting pupils and parents singing together and learning together could save the language in the anglicised valleys. Sadie Gray reports
Enticing adults back into the classroom for language lessons with their children conjures up images of grown-ups squashed into tiny chairs behind infant-sized desks. But how do you meet the different needs of two generations in the same class? And what does it mean for teachers?
An increasing number of parents in Wales are sending their children to Welsh-medium schools, yet are worried by the fact they can not speak the language themselves.
Their children, meanwhile, associate Welsh with school and, in the heavily anglicised valleys, may have little chance to practise elsewhere.
The University of Glamorgan recently instigated four or five-week crash courses to teach Welsh to adults, alongside children.
By the end, parents were able to chat to their children and hold basic conversations with teachers, giving them a better understanding of what pupils were doing at school. And, as a bonus, they could even understand the words of Welsh songs sung at school concerts.
Christine Jones, who has taught primary children and adults, albeit not at the same time, was drafted in by the university to teach one of the first courses at Abercynon Infants' School, a Welsh-medium school in the Cynon valley area of Rhondda Cynon Taf, Mid Glamorgan.
Eight mothers signed up for two weeks of sessions to equip themselves with basic vocabulary and constructions before they were paired up with their children for another two weeks.
"It is a greater challenge teaching adults because they always want to know why," says Christine. "For example, why is it two words in Welsh but only one in English? That's understandable. But children find it easier to accept things."
Christine focused on everyday vocabulary and phrases rather than trying to teach the parents grammar.
This enabled them to quiz their children about what they wanted for dinner or what they had done at school that day, or order their offspring to hurry up and find a jumper or lunchbox. The mothers also learnt phrases they could use while chatting with each other at the school gates, like "are you going to the quiz night?"
The unusual teacher-parent-pupil triangle eventually overcame initial awkwardness.
"To start with, the children were reacting to me but not to their parents,"
she says. "The children said their mums didn't speak Welsh - it was English at home. I used flashcards, asking questions, identifying objects and colours. Then we moved on to acting out scenes. We had a party where the parents were waitresses who had to ask the children for their orders. By then the children had forgotten that their mothers didn't speak Welsh. It was noisy, but the groups were small so it didn't matter."
Owen Saer, the University of Glamorgan's Welsh For Adults development officer, is pleased with the results and is now considering how to bring this approach to older children and their parents. But this would require more liaison with teachers.
Lord Dearing's recent report into the future of language learning, in which he advocated the wider study of "community" languages such as Urdu, suggests the time is right for this kind of approach
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE
* The number of Welsh speakers fell as workers moved from rural areas to industrial centres influenced by English-speaking media.
* The 1911 census recorded a million Welsh speakers - about half the population. By 1991, that figure had halved.
* The language's resurgence began with the formation of the Welsh Language Society in the 1960s.
* There are about 611,000 Welsh speakers (non-fluent) in Wales, 21.7 per cent of the population, according to the Welsh Language Board's most recent survey, conducted in 2004. However, the number of young people (aged two to 15) speaking the language is on the rise - 37 per cent.
TIPS FOR TEACHING BOTH GENERATIONS
* Tailor resources such as flashcards to your specific needs by making your own.
* Keep the groups small and the material practical - it's no use if no one has the chance to apply what they've learned.
* Match the course to your curriculum.
* Find out what songs the kids are singing at school so the parents can learn the words too.
* Ask the parents what time suits them. The first Welsh for adults courses took place immediately after parents had dropped their children off at school.