Dr Kathryn Sharp, Education, WISERD Education Project

Bilingual education: Why it makes sense

By Dr Kathryn Sharp.

The Welsh Government, with their Welsh Language Scheme 2012-2017, (A Living Language: A Language for Living), aim to increase the use of Welsh in Wales. Though the Welsh Language Scheme aims to increase the use of Welsh in all domains, education plays a crucial role. The Welsh Government have strategic plans in place for 2013-2014 that require all local authorities to provide action plans for Welsh-medium provision in schools across Wales.

Ensuring that Welsh-medium provision is catered for, particularly in primary schools, will allow more children in Wales to learn Welsh at an early age. There is a huge body of evidence from the field of language acquisition that shows that a typically developing young child can, and will, learn two (or more) languages with comparative ease, and will achieve the same level of language competence as their monolingual peers (Nicoladis, Rose & Foursha-Stevenson, 2010; Gathercole, 2007; Schwartz et al., 2009).

Further, research has also shown that there are cognitive benefits (e.g. enhanced mental flexibility and creative thinking skills) to bilingualism (Lazaruk, 2009; Kempert, Saalbach & Hardy, 2011). Anecdotally, some parents worry that their child’s English will be negatively affected by learning Welsh. However, research within Wales has revealed that children’s English language development is not hampered by their learning Welsh alongside it (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009).

By increasing the number of Welsh-medium primary schools, or even increasing the level of Welsh provision in existing dual-stream or English-medium schools, more young children in Wales will become bilingual, and could benefit significantly from their bilingualism. Welsh-medium provision should especially be increased where there is a strong demand for it.  For example, in the Grangetown and Butetown areas of Cardiff, demand is so high that a group has been established to campaign for a new Welsh-medium school (follow @ymgyrchtag on Twitter for more details). Campaigns such as these raise the question, what is fuelling this demand? Is it fuelled by cultural reasons? Economic reasons? Is it related to the perceived quality of Welsh-medium versus non-Welsh-medium education? Or are parents aware of the benefits outlined by the research above?

The Welsh Government supports bilingual education in all areas of Wales. It is my hope that Welsh-medium provision continues to grow, and that more parents opt for bilingual education, as being able to speak more than one language is a gift that any child deserves to receive. For now, my current work on the WISERD Education project aims to explore pupils’ attitudes towards Welsh-medium education. Watch this space.

References:

(2013) A Living Language: A Language for Living. Retrieved from: www.wales.gov.uk/welshlanguage, 22nd May 2013

Gathercole, V. C. M. (2007). Miami and North Wales, so far and yet so near:

Constructivist account of morpho-syntactic development in bilingual children. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(3), 224-247.

Gathercole, V.C.M. & Thomas, E.M. (2009) Bilingual first-language development: Dominant language takeover, threatened minority language take-up, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12 (2), 213-237.

Kempert, S., Saalbach, H. & Hardy, I. (2011) Cognitive benefits and costs of bilngualism in elementary school students: The case of mathematical word problems, Journal of Educational Psychology, 103 (3), 547-561.

Lazaruk, W. (2007) Linguistic, Academic and Cognitive Benefits of French Immersion, Canadian Modern Language Review, 63 (5) 1710-1131.

Nicoladis, E., Rose, A., & Foursha-Stevenson, C. (2010). Thinking for speaking and cross-linguistic transfer in preschool bilingual children. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13(3), 345 — 370.

Schwartz, M., Kozminsky, E., & Leikin, M. (2009). Delayed acquisition of irregular

inflectional morphology in Hebrew in early sequential bilingualism. International Journal of Bilingualism, 13(4), 501-522.

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