Passion for speaking Welsh is hotting up


Rhian Waller

THE EISTEDDFOD season is almost upon us, so what better time to  talk about the Welsh language?

Next week sees this year’s Urdd Eisteddfod land in Meirionnydd, near Bala.

Meanwhile, supporters are now working hard to secure funding for the 2016 National Eisteddfod, which will be held in Flint.

At the heart of all the song and dance lies the Welsh language and its battle for survival and prominence.

Welsh speakers and their supporters argue that the language is irrevocably linked to Welsh culture and identity, and that by protecting it, we protect Wales.

It all sounds very laudable, but, according to Bethan Williams, 40, of Twf Wrexham, an organisation which champions being bilingual, there could be something in it for us, or at least our children.

Bethan, who lives in Mold, visits young parents to talk about the benefits of speaking Welsh and English. “A lot of studies have been done on bilinguality,” she says.

“One recent study showed that knowing two or more languages slowed down the development of Alzheimer’s by up to five years.

“The theory is that when you switch between two languages, you switch parts of your brain off and on and that this forms a sort of ‘exercise’.”

So far, so good – Welsh as a health insurance policy. But there is more.

Bethan says: “Another recent piece of research indicated that, when children go into a second-language medium of education for at least six years then they typically outperform monoglot pupils in an academic setting.

“It does take six years, though, so parents have to have a lot of faith in the system.”

Plenty of parents around Wrexham seem to have faith in Welsh medium education, enough to sustain seven mixed or Welsh-medium primary schools and one Welsh-medium secondary school, Ysgol Morgan Llwyd.

“It’s happening in Flintshire too,” says Bethan. “We already have Ysgol Glanrafon and Ysgol Maes Garmon in Mold.

“Now a Welsh-medium school is on the cards in Shotton.”

Bethan’s job involves working with midwives and health visitors to offer parents the option of raising their children bilingually.

She visits children’s surgeries to talk to parents sitting in the waiting rooms and also attends pre-natal classes.

She said: “The parents attend and listen to all of the practical information about labour and childbearing and I’m given a 10-minute slot at the end to talk about the advantages of bilingualism.

“There is growing interest. When I started free bilingual baby massage classes, I had about eight families who were interested.

“Now I run one in Hightown community centre and it’s so popular I’ve had to add an extra session.”

There are some barriers to get past first, not all of them linguistic.

Bethan says: “The majority of people I see are first language English speakers. I have had people say ‘I don’t want my child to be able to use a language I can’t’.

“People can be quite scared. I don’t know if they are worried about arguments or not being able to help with homework.

“Neither of these should really be a problem. Every family is different and they all have different language experiences as well. “It’s worth mentioning about 90 per cent of children who attend Welsh medium schools come from families who don’t speak Welsh at home.

“Then again, I’ve had people come to the classes who are third-language learners, including Bulgarians and a Slovakian lady who recognised the value of it.”

Bethan says: “It is an old language, but it’s a modern language as well. There are apps for iPads, S4C has a Welsh-language equivalent to Cbeebies.

“I think the British media hasn’t quite caught up to that – there’s a sense that children are ‘still being made to learn Welsh’, which doesn’t really represent what’s happening here. Actually, the demand is there.

“All you have to do is go to the Eisteddfod to realise just how vibrant and vital Welsh is.”

Nor is it ever too late to take it up, according to Bethan.

“I actually moved here from Liverpool,” she says. “I didn’t come to Wales until I was four years of age. Welsh isn’t just for people born and bred here. It’s for everyone.”

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