British Studies Web Pages

Multilingual World


Multilingual UK - the power of Babel



Who speaks what?

Language in the family

Languages in school

The spoken word

The written word





Conclusion and references

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Languages in school

Educational policy plays a central role in determining attitudes to language. In the past, teachers in the UK – and many other countries – used corporal punishment to discourage children from using other languages. For instance, in the early years of the twentieth century, children heard speaking Welsh were forced to wear a kind of halter called the ‘Welsh not’. The only way to rid themselves of the halter was to pass it on when they heard someone else using the language; the child with the halter at the end of the day was beaten. While corporal punishment is now happily a thing of the past, negative attitudes to bilingualism have proved more tenacious. Until quite recently, it was commonplace for teachers to advise parents to speak only English to their children if they wanted them to make good progress in school. Children have been told to ‘stop jabbering’ in their home language in the playground and even made to pay a small fine when heard speaking another language in class.12

Education has been influenced by the many myths about bilingualism. One commonly held assumption is that the brain can only cope with one language and that bilinguals learn neither of their languages as well as monolinguals. Although this explanation may work on a common-sense level, the evidence points in another direction. The sound knowledge of one language would appear to help – not hinder – the acquisition of a second language and bilingual children may even have slight cognitive advantages. British policy-makers now recognise bilingualism as an educational asset rather than a problem.13

Ironically, the same education system which, for decades, played a pivotal role in the decline of the Celtic languages, is now a central pillar in their stabilisation, particularly in Wales. Since the first school was established in the 1950s, opportunities for Welsh-medium education have developed at a breathtaking pace. An extensive network of nursery playgroups prepares children for primary education where almost a third are now taught in Welsh. Over fifty secondary schools also teach a substantial number of subjects through the medium of Welsh. At the tertiary level, teacher training is available through the medium of Welsh; so, too, are degree courses in Welsh language and literature and several arts subjects.

The 1988 Education Reform Act has further strengthened the position of Welsh by stipulating that the language be taught to all pupils in almost all English-medium schools in Wales. There is also an extensive network of adult education in Welsh, while Cymdeithas y Dysgwyr (the Conference of Welsh Learners) brings together Welsh learners and fluent speakers, partly through local meetings and partly through residential activities.

Official census figures leave little doubt as to the effectiveness of these developments. Between 1981 and 1991, the percentage of children between the ages of five to nine who spoke Welsh increased from 17.8 per cent to 24.7 per cent, and the percentage of ten- to fourteen-year-olds increased from 18.5 per cent to 26.9 per cent. Further increases are anticipated in the 2001 Census.

Although provision for Gaelic is less extensive, developments in Scotland are also encouraging. A network of Gaelic playgroups feeds into fifty-nine Gaelic-medium units and one designated Gaelic school. At the secondary level, Gaelic is used as the teaching medium for some subjects in a small number of Gaelic schools, and is taught as a subject in another forty or so schools. At the tertiary level, it is possible to study for a degree in Gaelic and in Celtic Studies and courses in teacher training, business, management, the arts, broadcasting and information technology are available in Gaelic. In addition, there is an extensive network of adult courses in Gaelic which can be studied full-time, part-time and through distance learning through colleges such as Sabhal Mór Ostaig on the island of Skye.

Important changes have also taken place in Northern Ireland. An internal memo from the Minister of Education in 1928 expressed the view that ‘we should avoid carefully the impression that we desire to encourage the teaching of [Irish]’14 This policy seems to have remained unchanged for the many years during which Irish was taught as a subject in only a small number of Catholic schools. However, the government now recognises both ‘the importance of the Irish language to many people in Northern Ireland’ and its contribution to ‘the cultural identity and heritage of Northern Ireland’s children’.15 The 1988 Education (Northern Ireland) Order places a duty on the Department of Education to promote Irish-medium education. At the time of writing, there are eight Irish medium schools (seven primary and one secondary) with approximately 1,500 pupils. There are also two grant-aided Irish-medium primary units within larger schools, with plans for others to follow. At the tertiary level, two universities offer courses in Irish language and literature and one teacher training college provides for the teaching of Irish.

There have also been important developments within Deaf education which has traditionally been hostile to the use of BSL. At present about half a dozen Deaf schools have a declared bilingual policy but various obstacles stand in the way of further development. There is a serious shortage of Deaf teachers because of continuing resistance to allowing Deaf people to enter the profession. Three universities – Bristol, Wolverhampton and Central Lancashire – have established Deaf studies departments, but work at the tertiary level has yet to make an impact on Deaf education in schools. The fact that 95.7 per cent of Deaf children currently attend units within hearing schools also makes bilingual and bicultural development more difficult. So, too, do traditional perceptions of deafness as a medical problem.

The voluntary sector

Provision for community language teaching burgeoned from the late 1970s onwards and today there over 1,000 groups in London alone. The church, mosque and gurdwara (or temple) often play a vital role in the organisation of these classes. Overseas governments have also taken a lead and the teaching of Spanish, Italian and Greek, for instance, is supported in varying degrees by the High Commission or Embassy in London.

Following the publication of the Swann Report in 1985, the main responsibility for community language teaching was placed with ethnic minority communities them-selves. External support comes mainly in the form of free accommodation for classes in LEA schools, though some charitable foundations also offer limited financial support. Most teachers are volunteers rather than paid.

Many teachers in the voluntary sector worked in schools in the home country but have no experience of British education. However, growing numbers also work in mainstream schools and, as such, are an invaluable link between the two kinds of provision. Community language teaching groups recognise the urgent need for professional development, but the shortage of funding often makes this difficult. None the less, some landmarks have been achieved. The Resource Unit for Supplementary and Mother Tongue Schools was set up in 1997 to bridge the gap between mainstream and voluntary sector schools. Part-funded by the Department for Education and Employment, it offers help on staff development, teaching and learning materials and evaluation and assessment.

While community language classes on Saturday or Sunday mornings meet the needs of some communities, others have found more proactive solutions. The London Greek community – which numbers over 250,000 – is a case in point. Although a wide network of part-time classes has played a vital part in helping the community maintain its identity, this task has become more difficult with each successive generation. In 1995, GALE – the Greek Association for Language Enhancement – identified the need for a full-time school to offer children ‘a natural balance of Greek language, culture and religion’ as part of their English education. With the support of the Cyprus and Greek Governments, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Leventis Foundation, St Cyprian’s Primary School opened its doors in 1998.

The languages of the school are Greek and English. In order to meet the requirements of the national curriculum, the school day has been increased by thirty to forty-five minutes over the statutory minimum. While National Curriculum subjects are taught in English, additional staff provided by the Greek and Cypriot Education Missions teach Greek language, music and dance. Greek is also integrated into the life of the school through assemblies and subjects such as music, art and drama, and children and teachers are encouraged to speak Greek whenever possible in other aspects of daily life.

St Cyprian’s is by no means insular in outlook and works together with neighbouring English schools, as well as with schools in Cyprus and Greece. It also reserves ten per cent of its places for local children from outside the Greek community. These currently include English, Chinese and African-Caribbean children.

Community language teaching in mainstream schools

Language teaching provision in UK schools compares unfavourably with other European countries: modern languages are not as widely available and are not a popular option with students, especially boys. Yet there is little doubt that membership of the European Union is helping to bring about a more favourable climate for languagelearning. One of the general objectives for education of the 1995 EU White Paper on ‘Teaching and learning’ is to develop proficiency in three Community languages. Plurilingualism is also one of the policy objectives of the Council of Europe. There has been intermittent pressure on government to teach a wider range of languages in response to the challenge of global markets.16 Official policy has been rather contradictory. On the one hand, there was widespread agreement on the need for speakers of Japanese, Chinese and other Asian languages; on the other hand, it was not considered cost-effective to provide teaching in these languages for pupils of compulsory school age. An important departure from this general trend has been the creation of specialist language colleges in England and Wales: at the time of writing almost one hundred colleges are teaching twenty-three languages.

A project at Robert Clack Comprehensive School17 is typical of the growing tide of opinion that the linguistic capital of bilingual students should be exploited. Teachers looked through school records to identify students who might speak another language.

Students were quizzed on their level of skill in reading and writing and, if interested, were given a past examination paper to see how they performed. Those who did well were entered for GCSEs in eight languages not normally offered by the school – Italian, Swahili, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, Cantonese, Arabic and Spanish.

Most worked on their own with some support from parents. Vicki Chan, for instance, found that, although her spoken Cantonese was good, she needed help from her mother with her writing. Gokhan Evlat had feedback on test papers from his parents and brushed-up his spoken Turkish by watching satellite television. For the school, these students’ ability to speak other languages is viewed as ‘an untapped resource’ with enormous potential.

In short …

Education plays a central role in the transmission of languages from one generation to the next. In the past, the priority was to suppress the other languages in favour of English. Today there is a much more sympathetic understanding that we are not dealing with an either/or situation. Other languages are fostered in addition to – and not at the expense of – English. The most promising developments in recent times have been in bilingual education in the Celtic languages, particularly Welsh. Initiatives in a range of community languages, including Greek, are also gathering momentum.

However, there is room for a great deal more development, both in the teaching of other languages as subjects in mainstream schools, and in support for the efforts of the voluntary sector outside school hours.

12. Edwards (1983)
13. Baker & Prys-Jones (1998)
14. Andrews (1991)
15. DENI (1998)
16. Hagen (1998)
17. O’Grady (2000b)

Interesting web sites

Community Languages

Nuffield Languages Inquiry

Resource Unit for Supplementary and Mother-Tongue Schools

Sabhal Mór Ostaig (Gaelic-medium further education college)

Discussion points

  • Which is the main language (or languages) used in education in your country?
  • Which minority languages are spoken in your country? What kind of educational provision is there for students who wish to use minority languages?
  • Is it possible to be educated through other languages, for instance in the network of English language international schools?
  • Which languages are taught as subjects in your schools?
  • Are some languages more popular than others? Why should this be the case?

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