All Must Have Chance to Grasp Bilingualism; Estyn Recently Revealed That Gaps in Teachers' Knowledge and Skills Are Preventing Some Children from Learning Welsh. the Story Provoked a Huge Response from Readers and Plaid Cymru's Rhodri Glyn Thomas Yesterday Called for a Full Review. Rebecca Williams, Policy Officer for Welsh Teaching Union Ucac, Explains the Benefits of Bilingualism in the Classroom

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IT'S NOT so long ago that buses and billboards across Wales featured a cheerful-looking sponge alongside the slogan: "Cymraeg - Kids soak it up".

Anyone who has tried to learn a language as an adult, or even as a teenager, knows that it's a long, hard slog. It requires patience, perseverance, motivation - and preferably the help of a good teacher. There's nothing sponge-like about it.

So, if we want to give all children in Wales the opportunity to be fluent in both of the nation's languages (and why wouldn't we?), where better to start than the very beginning. I'm not thinking of pre-natal language classes, but rather, the Welsh Government's flagship policy for three to seven-year-olds: the Foundation Phase.

The informal nature of the learning process during the Foundation Phase lends itself perfectly to soaking up all manner of knowledge and experiences - indoors and out - in a fun and relaxed environment. The high staff-to-child ratio is also helpful in this respect - something that is unlikely to be replicated at any subsequent point in the child's education.

It was disappointing, then, to read Estyn's recent report, Welsh Language Development in the Foundation Phase, which found that "Most settings and schools have very few fluent Welsh-speaking practitioners."

Clearly, children won't be soaking up a language they do not hear with any frequency, or that they only hear from adults who feel pressured into using a language in which, through no fault of their own, they don't feel confident.

There are those who feel that a valuable opportunity was missed with the introduction of the Foundation Phase, to "immerse" all of Wales' children in both languages from the earliest stages. After all, the short and long-term cognitive benefits of bilingualism are well-documented, quite apart from the cultural and social rewards.

However, having missed that particular boat, we really do need to ensure that predominantly English-medium settings are giving the children in their care the best shot at becoming bilingual, in the most effortless way possible. To do anything else would be to deprive those children of future opportunities, or to condemn them to the long, hard slog of learning a language in later life.

The Estyn report itself makes several recommendations aimed at schools (dedicating more time to the direct teaching of Welsh; providing more opportunities for staff to improve their skills); at local authorities (providing more training and support for schools; facilitating the sharing of good practice); and at the Welsh Government (consider measuring children's progress in Welsh language development).

Hard to disagree with any of those. …