Do you remember learning your mother tongue? No, nor me. If only we could better understand how a baby learns and acquires language! And how about babies raised in a multi-lingual household? Those geniuses in nappies that you hear about who have four languages by their 4th birthday! But that’s the point. They aren’t geniuses. There isn’t anything particularly clever or unique about them. It appears that the young bilingual or multi-lingual child absorbs language much in the same way as a child comes to learn any skill or specialty: using a spoon, tying laces, putting a toy block in the correct place, swiping an iPhone screen etc. And still, for some reason, some people are unwilling to believe that children are able to acquire several languages without ending up confused or making errors. For this reason, some are overly willing to abstain from using the immersion method, opting instead for the sandwich technique to present the language to young children. Are you following? Sounds like gobbledygook?!
In essence, the Welsh immersion method is the practice of speaking Welsh, and only Welsh, with the young child.
Essentially the sandwich technique is the practice of speaking in Welsh, then English, then Welsh with the young child e.g. tŷ – house – tŷ.
The information about use of the immersion method in Wales is limited, but it is a method of transferring language which is commonly used the world over. Mudiad Meithrin has professed the immersion method since 1971. Dr Siân Wyn Siencyn’s significant publication, ‘Siarad Dwy Iaith’, published by Mudiad Meithrin, is a concise and useful description of the immersion method at work. Here’s a snippet:
“Children don’t learn a language but acquire language. There is a world of difference between the two. Adults can feel self-conscious when learning a language. They’re keen to know how things work in another language; the rules of grammar; why, for example, that a letter at the start of a word mutates in Welsh after ‘y’ or ‘ei’. Young children never ask questions like this. They get on with it straight away!”
“The immersion method means that children are completely surrounded by the second language or target language, and acquire that language almost without realising as they play, sing, tell stories and take part in other fun activities at the cylch meithrin.”
This accepts that the adult who is speaking is speaking Welsh only knowing that a child who speaks English or another mother tongue (other than Welsh) often answers the adult in that language, especially on hearing Welsh for the first time at two or two and a half years old (the intake age of a cylch meithrin).
To anyone who works in a cylch meithrin or in the Foundation Phase at a Welsh-medium school, the publication by Dr Siân Wyn Siencyn (herself a former cylch meithrin leader) is essential reading. A Bible, if you will, for those who work with young children.
I can’t see why anyone would use the sandwich technique. It only mimics the way in which we adults (with our stubborn, stiff, inflexible brains) learn a language. Although I learnt French and Spanish at University, it was, without doubt living in Spain which gave me fluency in Spanish. In the same way, spending weeks of my youth with a family in France gave me fluency in French. No one filtered the language for me then. There wasn’t anyone towering over me saying “casa - tŷ - casa”.
It’s the wonder of the immersion method that leads to young children absorbing language. You frequently hear parents attesting to the way in which their child has learnt Welsh in the cylch meithrin and their astonishment at the child’s use of Welsh. This further develops as the child starts school and gains fluency in spoken Welsh.
Herein lies the problem. Who instructs the instructors when it comes to the immersion method? Who educates our Early Years workforce and primary teachers on the immersion method? Correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding is that only students of Mudiad Meithrin’s national training scheme (‘Cam wrth Gam’) study a compulsory module on the immersion method.
Of course, much of the workforce will ‘immerse’ effectively without realising. But others will be reserved about using Welsh, and only Welsh, with the young child (especially if the child doesn’t speak Welsh at home) and opt instead for the sandwich method.
Therefore, there is still work to do in presenting the immersion method to a workforce who in turn present Welsh to young children in cylchoedd and schools across Wales. We must consider whether the current training structures (either in a cylch or school) are sufficient to ensure an understanding of how to practically implement the immersion method.
If we are to reach a million Welsh speakers by 2050 (which is an ambitious but attainable target) further investment will be needed in the immersion method.
Often, you’ll hear an adult say that they’d like to learn Welsh if only they had a magic wand. And that’s the point. The immersion method is equivalent to having a magic wand and presenting Welsh to babies and very young children is much easier, and less costly, than presenting Welsh to adults.
Dr Gwenllian Lansdown Davies is Chief Executive of Mudiad Meithrin, is multilingual and specialises in the politics of language.