1:25pm Wednesday 2nd October 2013 in Letters
THE issue of bilingual education is an important one which is discussed in the columns of your paper.
I recently attended a conference at Trinity St David’s University in Carmarthen, to which experts in this field were invited.
The Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru sent representatives but it was disappointing that none of the other parties sent anyone to listen to the distinguished speakers.
The conference was jointly sponsored by the University and Cymdeithas Addysg Ewrop y Rhanbarthau [CAER] / The Education Society of the European Regions.
The title was “The Intellectual and Cognitive Advantages of Bilingual Education”.
Contributors came from various countries and included Piet van de Craen from the European Language Council and Meirion Prys Jones, chief executive of the Network to Promote Language Diversity.
There are a number of sound cultural and heritage reasons for preserving and supporting our native language.
However, the speakers stressed the educational advantages which bilingual children have.
Possibly the best known of the contributors was Dr Jim Cummins who teaches in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the University of Toronto. He has researched and analysed bilingual education in many countries. He advised the Basque Autonomous Community in the late 1970s. For the best part of 40 years he has focussed on literacy developments in multilingual school contexts.
Naturally, his main focus has been on English speaking parents in Canada who have chosen French immersion programmes for their children. This has obvious parallels with the growth of Welsh medium education in Wales from English speaking homes. He and other researchers no longer have any doubts about the advantages which bilingual pupils possess.
They have “greater executive control”, the ability to focus attention and weed out distractions; a greater awareness of language and how it works; a faster and more effective way of learning additional languages; there is no detrimental effect on their first language.
The most reassuring aspect of his comments came in his conclusions about the advantages of bilingual education.
There are questions about teaching methods in a bilingual context and links with support organisations beyond the school gates for pupils from lesser used language backgrounds, but the overall effects are positive.
The Basque presentation by Dr Julia Barnes of the University of Mondragon provided ideas which the Welsh Government and LEAs would do well to consider and follow. The total Basque population and percentage of native bilinguals is similar to that in Wales. They have offered a variety of options, but the most popular up to the age of 16 is Basque immersion with a minimum of three hours of Spanish per week. They are now developing trilingual programmes that include English curriculum content too. Surely, this kind of linguistic approach should be an integral part of raising standards in our schools based on our inherent advantage of having two languages.
As well as the historical and social reasons for developing and extending our bilingual teaching in Wales, there is sound research evidence from many countries of its benefits. Far from being inward looking as some suggest, developing a truly bilingual country would help us look outward whilst preserving our unique culture.
Carmarthen CAER Cymru/Wales