When I make choices for my children, it’s usually with the knowledge that such choices are reversible if need be. I chose to enrol my daughter in ballet at 4 as she was forever pirouetting around the house – it became clear fairly quickly that she enjoyed pirouetting at her own pace, for her own games, but was not remotely interested in learning how to pirouette properly. Fine – we stopped ballet, sold the tutu, and nobody’s any the worse off. (Well, unless you count the astronomical cost of a couple of terms lessons…) Other choices I make, I am 100% confident in my reasons for making them, so they don’t need to be reversible. Like swimming – that’s one of my non-negotiables – they all have swimming lessons, whether they like it or not, because ultimately it’s something that could save their life.
But some choices aren’t clear cut, like swimming, or reversible, like spending stupid amounts of money on ballet kit (bitter? not me!). And the biggest one I have come up against so far is choosing Welsh-medium education. If you live outside Wales, that means exactly what it says on the tin – all lessons, activities and socialising happen through the medium of Welsh.
It’s not such an unusual choice as some of our friends over the bridge think; according to Wikipedia nearly a quarter of primary school children, and over a fifth of secondary school kids, attend Welsh medium education. Many of these children come from homes where Welsh is not the mother tongue, however the theory is that because they start hearing and communicating in Welsh from such a young age, they will grow up to be fully bilingual by the time they leave school.
It didn’t seem that tricky a choice at the time, to be honest. We have chosen to make our home here, so it seemed sensible to give our children the opportunity to communicate in whichever language they choose as they grow older. I did quite a lot of reading around the subject, all of which pointed to positive outcomes for children raised bilingually, particularly in terms of the ability to pick up other languages competently in later life. The local Welsh medium school had an excellent reputation and an inspection report to match. And last but not least, there is an emotional connection for me to Wales and the Welsh language – I remember as a child my lovely Grandad (from Maesteg) telling me sadly that the nobody really used the language any more – and I often think now, how happy he would be to know that Welsh can be heard again throughout Wales, and how proud he would be that his great-grandchildren are Welsh speakers.
I did have doubts and questions – Would I be able to help with homework? What if my child couldn’t cope? Would my child feel weird coming from a home where Welsh wasn’t the main language? I took every opportunity I could to talk to other parents, both English and Welsh speaking and on balance, felt reassured by their answers, so we enrolled our kids in Welsh education, and I started learning Welsh in earnest (you can read more about my trials and tribulations as a Welsh Learner here). And what seems like about 5 minutes later, my biggest boy is over half way through his time in primary school, my daughter is about to go into year 2 (that’s infant 3 in old money) and my baby is starting at the school’s new nursery unit in September.
There have been some lessons along the way. I started out trying to communicate with the class teachers in Welsh – I figured it was only fair if I was making the kids learn that they should see me trying too. Yeah, dropped that pretty quick after it once took ten minutes and more gesticulating than a bookie on race day to make myself understood on some banal matter, while a class of five year olds waited patiently to be led into class. I also went through a phase of only speaking Welsh to the kids for the first hour or so after school – but they were so tired from speaking it all day that they’d run home and hide in the shed rather than be subjected to yet more. And I also really, really tried to communicate in Welsh with other parents on the yard – but apart from the fact that it makes me feel like a muppet, in a typical Welsh conversation I miss 30-50% of what’s being said, which makes it hard to take part in any meaningful way, and besides, what if I missed some really JUICY gossip??
Aside from my comedy efforts, the kids have become pretty proficient, and when they have friends around, will happily socialise in whichever language is dominant in that particular situation. They’ll also compete with each other to help me with my Welsh homework, and are equally at home watching Cyw or Stwnsh as they are with Cbeebies and CBBC.
I am not sure however that they are fluent – listening to them, they both use a lot of English words in everyday speech. This doesn’t worry me so much with the younger ones – YET – but as I mentioned before, my eldest is over half way through primary school now and it worries me that his Welsh vocab still seems to have big gaps in it. These holes tend to be around everyday words, which although they are very common, might well not come up in a school setting – for instance not long ago he asked me the Welsh word for shower. So now I am in a massive panic and keep trying to randomly introduce words for other basic items that he may not have come across in school just so I can be sure he knows them. Gah. And although he’s been learning to read in Welsh for four years, and in English for just nine months, he is clearly much happier reading English than Welsh. Well it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the more a child reads, the better their vocabulary gets, so I’m walking a constant tightrope trying to encourage Welsh books over English books, while not trying to squash his slowly developing enjoyment of reading for its own sake.
The trouble is, I have no idea if this is normal for an eight year old or not. I should make it absolutely clear that I have no grumbles or worries about the quality of educational or pastoral care and support my kids receive at school. But should I be worried that his Welsh vocab is smaller than his English? I don’t know. Will this have implications for his being able to express himself properly in written and oral work when he gets to secondary school? I don’t know. He is very good at Maths – but will he be able to reach his potential once more complicated concepts are introduced which require more mastery of language to understand? No – I don’t know the answer to that either. Am I just adding another layer of difficulty on to his school life that he could do without? Possibly. All these questions, and more, are constantly swimming around my head.
We’re currently waiting for the new National Test results in literacy and numeracy. As there are tests in both English and Welsh, I hope they will give us a steer on whether he is holding his own in both languages or not. I really, really hope that he is. But if he’s not – what then? Switching to English school, now or at secondary level, would be drastic for a child who doesn’t cope well with change and who is has only recently begun to grow into himself socially. It’s a nightmare to even begin to work out what the least worst scenario is here.
I would love to hear from any parents who have faced the same worries, and how it turned out for you – and I’d especially like to hear from folk who went though Welsh medium education themselves, and their thoughts on it now. Feel free to comment below, or tweet or mail me.