Ignore the Guardian: A bilingual education is best for our children

Children at a bilingual school in Wales. Picture: Llinos Dafydd

Ifan Morgan Jones

The Guardian newspaper today has a story suggesting that children in Wales will be disadvantaged by a Welsh-only education.

The story itself is complete rubbish, as I’ll explain. But the Guardian has a history of getting stories about the Welsh language completely wrong. One might suggest that it is too consistent a pattern to be entirely accidental.

Although the newspaper seems keen to promote cultural diversity, when it comes to the UK’s own native cultures they seem to be little better than the Daily Mail or Express.

The story itself is based on a false premise, which is that there is such thing as a Welsh-only education. There isn’t. It should be called what it is – bilingual education.

Opponents will point out that the primary language of instruction in such schools is Welsh. But this makes sense as the primary language of many of these children’s interactions within and outside of the classroom will be English.

They are still taught to speak and read in both languages to an equally high level, and their ability to do one does not impair the other.

As a result, kids in so-called Welsh-language primary schools always leave fully fluent in both Welsh and English. It’s a Buy One Get One Free deal with absolutely no drawbacks.

And when a school does switch from offering an English-only education to a bilingual education, children who are already in the system are allowed to complete their education under the previous system.

The advantages of a bilingual education

The academic literature on the cognitive advantages of bilingualism is growing by the day. Knowing more than one language has no ill-effects and does the brain an awful lot of good.

Bilingualism forces the brain to work harder (under the surface), and a harder working brain is a fitter brain.

There is evidence that bilingualism:

  • Improves cognitive skills not related to language
  • Makes the child better at solving mental puzzles
  • Allows the brain to avoid distractions and stay focused
  • Stops dementia in old age

Arguments that Welsh-English bilingual education was harmful date back to infamous Blue Books of the 1840s, but have long since been debunked.

We all laughed when Homer Simpson said that ‘When I learn something new it forces something old out of my brain.’

But that is, in effect, the argument of those who claim that being able to speak Welsh impairs children’s ability to learn through the medium of English.

The key question: What’s best for the kids?

One argument consistently put forward is that parents should be given the ‘choice’ as to whether their kids are taught in Welsh.

But education is about the kids, not the parents. Denying them a language is to deny them the choice to speak either or both, and also access to the cultures that come with them.

We don’t offer parents the choice of depriving their children of English, maths, art, French, or any other skill the school decides it’s in their best interest to learn.

If a parent didn’t want his or her child to learn about evolution, for instance, we’d be surprised in the school caved in to that request and taught them creationism instead.

At the end of the day, schools are not run by parents, and for good reason. Experts in pedagogy make decisions regarding what would best serve the children’s educational needs.

And the ‘choice’ argument also ignores the fact that nine times out of ten there’s an English-only school just around the corner.

For instance, in the case of the bilingual Llangennech school, about which an almighty fuss continues to be made, there’s an English-only school literally 1.6 miles away.

Enriching children’s lives

So paper thin are the arguments against bilingual education in schools in Wales that one must conclude that they’re mostly based on not knowing the facts.

Unfortunately this ignorance has been deliberatly nurtured by a small number of individuals who have a posionous, xenophobic hatred of difference.

They take advantage of what is always an emotive issue –parents’ gut feeling about what is best for their child- and dliberately use it to drive a wedge in communities.

Unfortunately, they find a ready platform in an equally ignorant (or maliciously) biased British press.

The truth is that offering a bilingual education isn’t a culture war. It’s not about Welsh language v English language, or Welshness vs Britishness.

It’s just about giving children the same opportunities I and many others got – an opportunity that did us zero harm but has enriched our lives for the better.

I have three kids of my own, who go to a Welsh-medium school.

Watching them play, speak, read and enjoy two languages and cultures every day, I know I made the right decision.

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