Immersion Education in Wales
Immersion Education in Wales
by Cadi Wadi
Since 1965, immersion bilingual education has spread rapidly in many parts of Europe and in Canada; by today this provision is available in several countries, including Australia, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Finland, Hungary, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa as well as Wales.
In Wales in the 1970s and 1980s there was a dramatic increase in the numbers of parents choosing immersion education for their children; this demand is continuing to increase.
The obvious advantage of an immersion education programme is that students are able to read, write, speak, understand and use Welsh as well as youngsters from Welsh-speaking homes. In addition and at no cost they can also read, write, speak and understand Welsh in a way that non-Welsh speaking students who follow a traditional programme of Welsh as a second language cannot normally do.
Such children become bilingual and biliterate as their English language skills do not suffer and are supported at school and at home, by the mass media and by the community. Immersion children thus share the added value of two languages, literatures and cultures.
In practical terms classroom language communication in immersion programmes aims to be meaningful, authentic and relevant to the child’s needs. The content of the curriculum becomes the focus for the language.
Perpetual insistence on correct communication is avoided and emphasis is placed on understanding before speaking. Learning a second language in early immersion becomes incidental and unconscious, similar to the way a first language is acquired.
Immersion bilingual education has been an educational innovation of unusual success and growth. It has influenced bilingual education throughout the world. For example, research indicates that Spanish-speaking children who follow an immersion programme not only become fluent in Catalan, but also their Spanish does not suffer.
Primary Features of Immersion Education
• The second language is the main medium of education.
• The immersion curriculum is the same as the first language curriculum.
• The school supports the development of the first language (i.e. English).
• Additional bilingualism occurs. No English language skills are lost.
• The children will mostly hear the second language in the classroom.
• Children come to the school with similar levels of competency in the second language (limited or none at all).
• Every teacher is bilingual.
Language Development in Immersion Education
In immersion programmes, the second language is the main medium of instruction. However the child’s first language is used as a means of communication in some situations.
For the first four years of early total immersion (starting in Year One), students tend not to progress in the first language as do monolingual students in mainstream classes. Reading, spelling and punctuation, for example, are not so developed. Since such children are usually not given first language instruction for one, two or three years after starting school, these results are to be expected. However, the initial pattern does not last. After approximately six years of schooling, early total immersion children have caught up with their monolingual peers in first language skills. By the end of elementary schooling, the early total immersion experience has not affected first language speaking and writing development. Bilingualism has been achieved at no cost to first language development.
When differences in achievement between immersion and mainstream children have been identified by research, it is often in favour of immersion students. These findings usually correspond with the cognitive advantages arising from bilingualism (see the links on the right hand side of this page). If bilingualism permits increased linguistic awareness and greater flexibility in terms of thought processes, such advantages may help to explain the favourable progress of early immersion students in the curriculum.
Generally international research shows the value addedness in achievement in the curriculum from immersion schooling. Evidence also suggests that immersion children learn a second language at no cost to their first language.
Immersion Education in Other Countries
Classroom features of successful immersion programmes in the Basque Country, Catalonia and Wales:
The time required for immersion in the second language is a minimum of four to six years. Around the end of primary schooling, immersion students show equal or higher performance in the curriculum compared with their mainstream peers.
In French immersion in Canada, French medium teaching and learning may represent from 50% to 100% of the school week. In Wales it is normal for Welsh to be used as a medium of teaching for up to 100% of curriculum time during the first three years of learning.
Teacher Skills in Immersion Education
Teachers in immersion classrooms usually have native or native-like proficiency in both the languages of the school. Such teachers are fully able to understand children speaking in their home language but speak to the children almost entirely in Welsh.
Teachers are thus important language models, identifying the immersion language with something of value. Immersion teachers also provide the child with a model of pronunciation and style in the immersion language.
Immersion teachers are typically highly committed to bilingual education, enthusiastic about bilingualism in society, acting as bicultural and multicultural ambassadors.
Centres for Latecomers
As a result of the substantial immigration into rural Welsh-speaking areas of Wales during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a network of centres for latecomers was established.
This network was initially established in the old county of Gwynedd, with centres being established in those areas that had the highest densities of Welsh speakers. These centres proved themselves to be very effective in terms of providing an intensive Welsh course, for children usually between 7 and 11 years old who had no previous contact with the Welsh language. Over a period of years, the numbers of centres for latecomers increased and a number were established in the old counties of Dyfed, West Glamorgan and Clwyd.
Pupils attend these centres either on a fulltime basis for one complete term or over a period of two terms, spending 3 days at the centre and 2 days in their own schools.
The centres are very popular and ensure that children are able to return to their Welsh speaking village schools and to integrate into the life of the school and the community.