Bilingual Education in Welsh Primary Schools. Advantageous or Unfavourable?

An Evaluation of the Appropriateness of Bilingual Education in Welsh Primary Schools Based on Personal Experience

Term Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Bilingualism and Bilingual Education
2.1 Definition of Bilingualism
2.2 Definition of Bilingual Education
2.3 Types of bilingual education

3. Theoretical Framework

4. Bilingual Education in Wales
4.1 Emergence of Bilingual Education in Wales
4.2 Justification of Bilingual Education in Welsh Infant and Primary Schools

5. Personal Experience in a Welsh Primary School

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This term paper concerns the advantages as well as disadvantages of bilingual education in Wales based on personal experiences I made in a primary school in South West Wales. I chose this topic because I had the great opportunity to have a direct insight into the Welsh primary school system over a certain period of time and therefore can draw on my own personal perceptions. The relevance of this subject- matter is of great importance since Wales can be considered an international character in educating through a minority language. It demonstrates that in one society two languages can co- exist, which contributes to a stronger community- spirit and pride but at the same time exhibits different opinions concerning the effectiveness of early bilingual education.

In the following I will provide a definition for bilingualism and explain the meaning of bilingual education as well as its different types, referring to Baker. Furthermore I will introduce the theoretical framework this term paper is based on, making reference to Jim Cummins’ ‘Balance Theory’, ‘Interdependence Hypothesis’ or ‘Dual Iceberg Theory’ and the ‘Thresholds Theory’. The first two mentioned theories can be classified into the idea of ‘Separate Underlying Proficiency’ and ‘Common Underlying Proficiency’, which will be elucidated later on (cf. Baker 1988: 171, 174).

Subsequently I will move on to the emergence of bilingual education in Wales, illustrating the justification of bilingual education at an early stage of life, the infant and primary school period. Ensuing I will outline my personal experiences made with primary school children in a Welsh village called Letterston, located in Pembrokeshire, from age five to eleven, stating my own observations concerning the educational situation. Ultimately I will present a conclusion relating to the advantageous or unfavourable function of bilingual education performed in Welsh primary schools based on my own experience and theoretical background.

2. Bilingualism and Bilingual Education

2.1 Definition of Bilingualism

In order to understand the theoretical framework and the issue on which this term paper is based on as a whole, it is necessary to have a reliable definition of what bilingualism is. But this is not as easy as it sounds, since the issue is more complex than it seems to be at first sight. Generally speaking, to be bilingual is to be fluent in two languages. The reason why it is difficult to provide a clear definition of bilingualism is rooted in its ambiguity. “Unfortunately, deciding exactly who is or is not bilingual is problematic.” (ibid.: 2) The initial aspect is confirmed in the dimensions. The criteria to be called bilingual according to Mackey are based on four basic language skills. These are: “listening, reading, speaking and writing” (ibid.: 2). These skills can be further divided. In speaking two languages, for instance, people may differ in terms of the amount of vocabulary, pronunciation as well as accuracy of grammar. Referring to Mackey people have various abilities in listening, speaking, reading and writing a language (cf. ibid.: 2). These four skills comprise partial skills in vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, meanings as well as style. If we add the context of language usage to the dimensions of language skills it gets even more difficult to ascertain who is bilingual and who is not. An instance might be that, for example, one of the two spoken languages may be restricted to the home (cf. ibid.). In general one can claim that “[t]he context or domain of language usage defines when each language is spoken, to whom, where and why” (ibid.: 2).

From this it follows that a simple classification of who is bilingual is almost impossible. Between the views of absolute bilingualism and absolute monolingualism there are different ranges of categories. Therefore “[t]here are no definitive cut- off points to distinguish the bilingual from the monolingual” (ibid.: 2). But, if it is true that it is so difficult to determine who is bilingual, how do researchers approach their research sample? What populations are represented? How are people categorized concerning language ability? The main question therefore involves generalization (cf. ibid.: 3). Critics suggest that narrowing down the choice of the sample to balanced bilinguals (people who have approximately equal skills in both languages) has led to the selection of a “special and non- representative group” (ibid.: 3).

In summary it can be said that there is an essential separation between bilingual usage and bilingual ability. Whilst some bilingual speakers might be fluent in both languages but tend to prefer one of them, other speakers might be less fluent in both languages but able to switch between both languages more frequently and quickly, if needed. To put it in another way: bilingual ability concerns a speaker’s language proficiency in four basic dimensions, such as: speaking, listening, reading and writing. When a bilingual speaker moves from one situation to another, so may his or her language change.

2.2 Definition of Bilingual Education

Briefly and succinctly one can define bilingual education as “education in which two languages are used within the school” (Baker 1988: 46).

The common factor of all schools which indicate to have a bilingual education programme is merely that a few or even all of the content based subjects are conducted through a second language, which is not the mother tongue of the majority of students. Other programmes aim at bringing off students who are bilingual at the end of their schooldays. Yet others aim at facilitating the transition from a minority language to a majority language, which might, at worst, lead to losing one language while acquiring another. There are also programmes, which aspire to increase the pupils’ proficiency in a foreign language so that they have a sufficient and agreeable knowledge of that language by the end of their schooldays (cf. ibid.: 45, 46). What is important to state is that education has, apart from a few exceptions, traditionally been monolingual. Hence, teachers and parents have the right to be concerned about the “provision and occasional enforcement of bilingual education” (cf. ibid.: 45). One question that arises in this context might be, whether ‘being thrown in at the deep end’ is too much to ask for from a child at the tender age of four or five, like it is the case in Wales? And yet more interesting: Has bilingual schooling a positive or detrimental effect on students? An account of the appropriateness based upon personal experience will be provided later.

2.3 Types of bilingual education

Numerous educational systems and programmes can be called ‘bilingual’, but the extent to which the two languages are used as the medium of instruction as well as the structures of the programmes are very different. Among those variations there are two major models. These are: First, the ‘transitional bilingual education’, where the plan is to “phase out one language as the mainstream or majority language” (Baker 1988: 46). Second, ‘the maintenance or enrichment bilingual education’, where two languages are spoken throughout all or most of the teaching (cf. ibid.: 46).

In the first- mentioned, the children’s first language functions only as a preliminary medium for instruction. The purpose is the acquisition of fluency in the majority language. In the second- mentioned, both languages may be utilised in school education. The objective is to make sure that the child has good ability in both languages. Here, for instance, Wales acts as an example, since English speakers are taught Welsh to “enable them to be fully bilingual” (ibid.: 47).

A further distinction can be made between ‘submersion’ and ‘immersion bilingual education’. In submersion programmes, the student is put into a classroom with native speakers, regardless of the student’s level of proficiency in that language. The student is expected to learn the content taught in the second language, even though he or she may still be on the level of learning the language. The child is forced to adopt his or her classmates’ language, being forbidden to use his or her home language (cf. ibid.: 47).

Second language immersion programmes are focused on teaching students in a foreign language for their entire school day, like it is the case in for example the majority of Welsh primary schools. At the infant stage (ages 5-7) Welsh functions as the exclusive medium of instruction and at the junior stage (ages 7-11) as the main medium of instruction (cf. Dodson 1985: 39, 41). Immersion programmes differ from submersion programmes in that immersion is usually developed to teach majority language speakers, like standard English speakers, a foreign language. The main aspect is that the students are uniform in their starting level in the second language. The students are allowed to speak in their home language until confidence is built up and they naturally start to switch to the second language with their bilingual teachers. Programmes like that have a high probability to be very effective in promoting bilingualism in its pupils. One could say that “[i]mmersion bilingual education paints a picture of moving gradually from the shallow to the deep end” (cf. Baker 1988: 47, 48).

3. Theoretical Framework

In order to provide this term paper with an academic foundation, it is indispensable to give an account of the essential cognitive theories of bilingual education. In the following I will amplify Jim Cummins’ obsolete but for the understanding noteworthy ‘Balance Theory’, the ‘Iceberg Theory’ as well as his ‘Threshold Theory’.

The ‘Balance Theory’ needs to be mentioned for two considerable reasons. First, it counts as the theory of bilingualism that is represented by many people. A general reaction to the topic of bilingualism is the presumption that increasing or enhancing one language leads to the deterioration of the second language. The second reason is that early research on intelligence and school achievement often found that monoglots are vastly superior to bilinguals. That is why early research proned to support the balance theory. If one imagines human linguistic ability to be a balloon into which a limited quantity of input may be placed, it becomes hard to imagine a highly literate bi- or multilingual, in that there is not enough space for all the words and phrases of two or more languages. What follows was the idea that one language’s growth meant the diminishing of any other language the individual knows or knew. Another important factor playing a role was the concrete division between the thoughts and knowledge of the two languages. Cummins later named this SUP or ‘Separate Underlying Principle’, which means that each linguistic area of the brain was built on separately working foundations without the feature to interface (cf. Baker 1988: 170, 171). Briefly speaking, “a bilingual has two half- filled balloons with the monolingual having one better filled balloon” (Baker 1988: 170). Even though this theory appears plausible, yet logical, it remains unfounded. Research clearly proves that what is logically imaginable is not equally psychologically accurate. “Intellectual ability and capacity are not affected by becoming a balanced bilingual. Indeed, the tentative suggestion is that balanced bilingualism is linked to certain cognitive benefits.” (ibid.: 171) To sum up, the balance theory does not fit research as the amount of evidence is unwavering against it.


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Bilingual Education in Welsh Primary Schools. Advantageous or Unfavourable?
An Evaluation of the Appropriateness of Bilingual Education in Welsh Primary Schools Based on Personal Experience
University of Wuppertal
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ISBN (Book)
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bilingual, education, welsh, primary, schools, advantageous, unfavourable, evaluation, appropriateness, based, personal, experience
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Patrycia Gellert (Author), 2014, Bilingual Education in Welsh Primary Schools. Advantageous or Unfavourable?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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