How Should We Teach Welsh in School?1 May 2020
This is a special “guest post” from my good friend and colleague Dr Mirain Rhys, a lecturer in Psychology at Cardiff Metropolitan University. In this post, she discusses research she and I have undertaken in understanding pupils’ experiences learning Welsh as a second language.
Prior to my current position at Cardiff Met, I worked as a researcher on the WISERDEducation Multicohort Study at WISERD (the Wales Institute of Economic Research Data & Methods). One intriguing finding from this study was that the most disliked lesson in the schools we surveyed was Welsh. As someone who grew up speaking Welsh as a first language in arguably the ‘Welshest’ place on earth (Caernarfon!), learning this was a genuine shock. I wanted to know why students felt this way. So, together with Dr Kevin Smith, I went in search of answers.
Cymraeg has seen its fair share of highs and lows. Currently, we are at the beginning of a new era in Welsh language development with Welsh Government aiming for 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. This has huge implications for education in terms of provision and attainment – but also (and, arguably, most important) attitudes and motivation towards the language.
Welsh as a second language has long been neglected (Estyn, 2018) as a pathway to fluency. Many people feel betrayed at the promise of learning their country’s language only to receive a meagre 1 hour lesson every two weeks, making their chances of even becoming conversational in the language slim (National Assembly for Wales, 2010).
We asked groups of students (ranging from years 9-13) what they thought of Welsh lessons – what did they like, dislike and how were they different to other lessons they had in school (especially in other ‘core’ subjects). We also asked, if they could, how would they change Welsh lessons, and should they be learning the language?
Students were generally positive about Cymraeg. The majority thought it should continue as a living language and many were passionate about their own Welsh identity. However, many students were ambivalent when asked if they felt a responsibility to conserve the language. In addition, most students were not confident in speaking Welsh and consistently described lessons as badly planned, poorly taught and “pointless.”
All we do is pass papers. They’re teaching us to pass the exam, but you’re not going to take exams for the rest of your life. If you’re taking Welsh at school then you want to learn Welsh rather than just prepare to take an exam.
For these students, time spent studying Welsh that did not lead to fluency, wasted time, limited their GCSE choices and negatively affected their perception of the language.
It was much better in primary, the teachers made it so you liked to learn, and you’re using the basics so it’s easy to learn. Now, it’s pointless. We don’t speak enough Welsh, mostly we just copy recipes, translate useless conversations, and pass papers.
These findings are supported by data generated from the Wales multicohort study questionnaires, which indicate that students’ negative perceptions of Welsh increase the further along they are in school.
The students also told us how they would change Welsh lessons.
We want to speak Welsh. Not like, in front of everybody – like a test – just like, have a conversation with friends, with the teacher – to talk to each other.
Other students felt the aims of Welsh language education needed to change.
There’s no point to take Welsh lessons to just to pass exams. Having a GCSE in Welsh might help me get a job, but it won’t help me speak Welsh while doing it.
Finally, pupils recognised many of the challenges teachers face in preparing and delivering lessons due to a lack of resources.
There aren’t any good books in Welsh – not for our age. The teachers make things up as go they go along because they don’t have things like books, videos – music, and so we end up translating sentences like “do you like technology?” What kind of question is that? How is that supposed to help me speak Welsh?
Children’s attitudes and motivations towards learning a second language are formed at a young age (Thomas, Apolloni & Lewis, 2014). Future work needs to be concentrated on those early days of education, where children are forming opinions about the world. The new curriculum will thread the Welsh language through all of its AOLEs but training is required to foster positive attitudes towards the language; what impact does the way we speak about Welsh have on young minds?
Listening to those who experience the educational policies dreamt up in board rooms in Cathays park is vital; these individuals are the future of the language – and sowing the seed early on might just mean that they will want to be advocates for the language when they themselves enter the world of work. The new curriculum is a chance to pass the language on to all children accessing state education in Wales so that they become proponents for their country’ beating heart; Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon.
- When did you have the most success in learning a language? What do you attribute to that success?
- How important is it for pupils to enjoy a subject?
- In consideration of the new, curriculum framework for Wales, how might schools best support both the instruction and every-day use of Welsh?
Dr Mirain Rhys is a Psychology lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her research interests lie in the fields of Education and Bilingualism, especially in relation to Welsh and other minority languages. Prior to working as a lecturer, Mirain was a Research Associate at WISERD (Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data) on a variety of educational research projects, including the Wales Multicohort Study and evaluation of the Foundation Phase in education.