All over the world, people are increasingly looking for more effective language education. In the US, for example, there are now more than 800 dual language programmes aiming to produce bilingual children with a greater social and cultural awareness. French immersion programmes in Canada have increased 21% over the last five years too. And in countries such as Germany and Spain, integrated content and language programmes are also growing as people seek better foreign language education.
In Wales, bilingualism and bi-literacy (in Welsh and English) is firmly on the education agenda too. The number of pupils choosing Welsh-medium education has seen a steady increase of 3% over the last four years. Since 1999, Welsh has also been a compulsory subject for both Welsh and English-medium learners until the age of 16. And, more recently, the Welsh government launched a new language strategy which aims to proactively develop Welsh-medium education, and ensure that by 2050 at least half of all English-medium learners leave school with the ability to speak Welsh.
English-medium schools continue to dominate in Wales, however, with 76% of learners currently studying in English. In these schools, Welsh is often taught as a subject only – as opposed to being the primary language in use across all subjects – and restricted to a handful of hours in the timetable per fortnight. As recently highlighted in my doctoral research, this lack of meaningful contact with Welsh in the classroom, coupled with Welsh second language not being a core subject, and the lack of bilingual ethos and qualified teachers in schools, has made if very difficult to deliver effective Welsh second language education in English-medium schools.
Clearly, there is a gap between policy and practice when it comes to teaching Welsh in English-medium schools. However, the country is now undergoing a curriculum reform that offers a unique opportunity to bridge this gap.
Welsh across the curriculum
Wales is one of a handful of countries currently reforming their education systems. The Welsh government’s vision is set to overhaul the whole curriculum and assessment arrangements for compulsory education in Wales by 2022.
One of the most ambitious developments within this new curriculum is the creation of a “languages, literacy and communication” area of learning and experience. The government intends to develop a single continuum for teaching and learning Welsh, with greater focus to be placed on understanding and using Welsh as a means of oral communication, rather than writing and reading skills. This will also see literacy skills in both Welsh and English become a cross-curricular responsibility.
This is an important and crucial development for English-medium schools. The Welsh government now recognises that Welsh is not just a “subject”, and that the successful acquisition of it as a second language requires it to be taught in a meaningful manner. Indeed, international research has shown that language learning is more effective when combined with content learning. However, a number of challenges must be addressed for this to work.
First, further investment in teacher training is needed, and teachers must also be given sufficient opportunities to take advantage of said training. The Welsh government has already made large investments in Welsh teaching and learning and to draw in new teachers, but bilingual teaching training for English-medium secondary school teachers is not currently offered.
This is not a simple matter of secondary teachers being able to translate their lessons into Welsh. They will need to be trained in bilingual teaching methods, for example, “trawsieithu” or translanguaging, which sees Welsh and English being alternately used in the classroom. Training in bilingual practices like this should be treated as a matter of priority if Welsh is to be gradually integrated into English-medium secondary schools.
Second, it’s crucial that Welsh is not only integrated into learning, but the ethos of every school in Wales. By normalising bilingualism, schools can strive to ensure the incidental use of Welsh by staff and students. This will be key if schools are to convince students and parents of the benefits of bilingualism.
Finally, English-medium primary and secondary schools will also need to work more closely to ensure continuity of learning Welsh. Given the shortage of teachers with expertise and confidence in teaching and assessing Welsh as a second language, particularly at the primary level, collaboration between the two sectors will be crucial. It’s also important that the hard work and momentum put in at the primary level is not lost by secondary.
The development of the new curriculum is a valuable opportunity for transforming the way in which Welsh is delivered in English-medium schools. And by giving teachers more flexibility within the new curriculum, they will be free to explore new approaches to teaching Welsh and other languages too. But English-medium schools must be fully supported in developing bilingualism and bi-literacy for their learners.
By embedding Welsh across learning, and fostering a bilingual ethos, pupils will benefit from more meaningful Welsh language learning and ultimately greater functional skills in the language. This will be crucial if Welsh is to be perceived by future learners not only as a living language in Wales, but a language for living in Wales.