Thirteen Years of Welsh Lessons

Jane Houston on learning Welsh as a second language

Last Easter during a camping trip, I stopped in a shop in Tregaron to buy some Immodium and Kleenex. Everyone in the queue was speaking Welsh and laughing. I was with an English friend and wanted to show I belonged, so I smiled wryly and managed a super-confident 'Diolch!' at the checkout.    
'What was so funny?' asked my friend as we got in the car.
'Oh, just a joke.'
'Joke about what?'
'Shopping,'  I answered and tried to open a discussion on the perils of food storage in a tent. My friend was having none of it.
'A shopping joke?' 
'Think so.'
'Didn't you learn Welsh at school?'
'So you can speak Welsh then?'

I had to answer no. 

I'd love to speak Welsh. If I did I could have better insight into my national culture; I could apply for more jobs; I could make jokes in shops round the country and I would really belong! With this in mind, I've begun an online course of 25 lessons ( After one 30-minute lesson I've learnt more than in 10 years of Welsh at school. 

Although I was a something of swot in school, I still thought Welsh lessons were a waste of time. We never seemed to get beyond what we'd done in primary school. At 14, we were still drawing dragons and singing the song about the jackdaw. But that was 1994, back in the ugly days of John Redwood. 

Since then the landmark 2001 census has shown Welsh speakers on the increase and Welsh is one of the largest adult learning programmes in Wales. Most significantly, devolved Welsh Government policies mean all pupils study Welsh for an impressive 13 years, from the age of 3 to 16.  It looks like English-speaking Wales is eager to ‘siarad’ and the government wants to hear the noise. 

But there's official disappointment, Estyn's 2010-12 annual report states that standards in Welsh as a second language continue to be lower than in all other subjects in primary and secondary schools. They describe a situation in which young pupils get off to a flying start but then progress slows. One third of students do not even attain a G grade at GCSE level.

Unofficially, disillusionment among students in Wales echoes the reports. Many consider Welsh lessons worthless, few (if any) are confident in speaking Welsh and there is a downward trend in the numbers of students entered for the full GCSE. 

Why is this? Surely 13 years of language learning should result in all pupils having the confidence to attempt a conversation and should set some students on the way to fluency?  If  not then Welsh lessons are largely symbolic, reinforcing fears expressed by many including Cymdeithas yr Iaith. Welsh Government concerns are such that they recently announced an additional £400,000 ( for the subject and are researching how to improve the situation.

Interestingly, these measures have received less attention in the English media in Wales than in the Welsh, despite the fact that they concern the children of English-speaking Wales. And here, possibly, lies some of the problem. It would be easy to blame Welsh teachers for the poor quality of school Welsh but it would be foolish. They know that learning a language is not easy and their difficulties are exacerbated if the subject is seen as unimportant either in the school or beyond the school gate. It seems that the English media in Wales is reflecting the views of many young people, that Welsh in school is of little significance. This is surprising. The number of wistful conversations I've had with fellow monoglots in Wales suggests there are few Welsh people who would resist learning Welsh. It is odd that we should settle for the current situation, which not only wastes a lot of time but also ensures that 'Welsh-as-a-second-language' stays that way, embedding a two-tier education system in Wales that excludes pupils at English-medium schools, not only from a huge swathe of the national culture but also from many of the local jobs.   

Estyn reports indicate that one of the main reasons for students' lack of development is low expectations from teachers who lack confidence themselves. It seems likely that government research will suggest measures to boost teacher performance but they should also consider the need for teachers, parents and pupils to reconceive Welsh lessons as a valuable opportunity that will result in a worthwhile qualification.

Young people in Wales aren't stupid. After 13 years of lessons they should speak enough Welsh to order a meal, chat someone up and even apply for a job. It's not just Welsh teachers who need to raise the expectations of what a 16-year-old can say after 13 years of Welsh, it's everyone.

Jane Houston was born and raised in Cardiff. She is a teacher, author and consultant in education.