Page last updated at 15:21 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bi-lingual schools thrive in nations

By Colette Hume
BBC News, Belfast

School children at Gaelscoil Eanna in Belfast listen to Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Iriish
Story time at Northern Ireland's newest Irish-medium school

At lunchtime in a small classroom on the edge of Belfast, a small group of five and six year olds are listening to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears - nothing unusual about that, except that they're being read to in Irish.

Gaelscoil Eanna, on the outskirts of Belfast, is the newest Irish-medium (lesson taught in Irish) school in Northern Ireland. Set up a year ago, just 12 children were on the school roll - now there are 28.

It is, admittedly on a very small scale - a handful of temporary classrooms, high on a hill, next to a Gaelic football pitch.

The school is already recruiting next year's intake and its acting principal Mairead Ni Chonghaile has high hopes for its future.

She is enthusiastic about the benefits of immersing children in another language.

Cultural identity

"Our children are always thinking in two different languages - they're more embracing towards people of other cultures, and people who are different to themselves.

"And they're more likely to take on third languages," she added.

Stephanie Quinn's daughter Eimear is one of the 28 pupils.

Stephanie Quinn with her daughter Eimear
I want my daughter to experience the whole cultural awareness and identity that is her birthright
Stephanie Quinn, parent

For her the decision was based on a desire for her daughter to connect with her culture and identity.

She said: "I chose an Irish-medium education for my child because Irish is the indigenous language of the island of Ireland and I want her to experience the whole cultural awareness and identity that is her birthright.

"The children develop a full understanding of the Gaelic culture, whether it be Gaelic games, the arts, music or culture, and I don't think any other educational medium offers that."

The Irish-medium sector as a whole is still small, but has grown at a rapid rate since the first school opened in the early 1970s.

By 1992, 484 children were being taught in Irish in the state sector. By 1997-8 that figure had risen to 1247 and by 2007-8, it had risen again to 3285.

In Wales, the figures are on a much, much bigger scale.

The most recent figures show that nearly 55,000 children - that's one in five - are now taught at Welsh-medium schools.

The sector is without doubt the strongest within the Celtic nations.

In recent years, Welsh-medium education has seen increasing numbers of pupils from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds moving into education in Welsh.

Impressive results

Results have traditionally been better within the Welsh-medium sector, and the strong cultural and artistic ties have helped to encourage more and more people from non-Welsh speaking backgrounds to send their children to Welsh speaking schools.

Around 80% of parents who send their children to Welsh-medium schools don't speak the language themselves.

In Northern Ireland the figure is even higher - 90%.

So why the rise?

For many parents, sending their children to a Welsh-medium school is viewed as a way of reclaiming part of their culture which wasn't available when they were young and the sector was much smaller.

Others are acutely aware of the impressive exam results delivered by many Welsh-medium schools, while for some, the changing face of Wales and the post devolution world could explain their choice.

'Increasingly important'

In the decade since Wales voted by the narrowest of margins for devolution, the Welsh language has gained new strength and a much higher profile - aided by a Welsh Language Act which puts Welsh in the public sector on an equal footing with English.

There are many more jobs for people who can speak Welsh - in translation services in the National Assembly, and in broadcasting.

Both the BBC and the Welsh Channel Four S4C have strong Welsh-medium services on television, radio and online.

There is also a strong Welsh presence in the arts, while in politics the ability to speak Welsh is seen as increasingly important by many politicians.

Irish language
Some parents want their children to identify strongly with their nation

At a government level, Welsh-medium education is seen as crucially important to the development of Wales as a nation.

The fact that Welsh is a compulsory subject up to GCSE level - when modern foreign languages are not - begins to give you some idea of where the language sits in the political landscape.

But in some parts of Wales, the demand for Welsh-medium education has had a profound impact on local provision.

'Higher IQ'

In Cardiff, Welsh-medium schools are all heavily oversubscribed and the local authority is currently attempting to institute an ambitious city-wise reorganisation plan which takes into account this swing towards education in Welsh.

But it has been highly controversial - initial attempts to close some English-medium schools with falling rolls has met with huge opposition.

And new plans have now been put forward.

In an effort to meet the demand in the meantime, the authority has set up classes in Welsh within the grounds of some English-medium schools in the city, described by some as schools within schools.

It is meeting the demand for the language, if not in the setting parents would ideally like.

Scotland, like Northern Ireland, has a small Gaelic language education system, but it is also growing.

In 2006 the country's first dedicated Gaelic-medium secondary school opened in Glasgow.

Its head teacher, Donalda McComb, said: "I didn't ever think that I would be in the position that I'm in today.

"I'm very proud. I've worked long and hard in all my teaching career to be involved in Gaelic-medium education and it's just amazing that we're at this stage."

Language learning isn't limited to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In Cornwall, after school clubs have been set up to encourage the use of the language and there's a Manx-language primary school on the Isle of Man.

There is one other factor which could help to explain the rise.

A growing body of evidence indicates that children who are able to speak more than one language have a higher IQ, better reasoning skills and a greater ability to deal with complicated theories and problems.

Professor Colin Baker from the University of Bangor, an expert on bi-lingual education, says those working in the field have no doubt that bi-lingual children have an advantage over their monolingual peers.

And he believes the ability to speak more than one language makes children more tolerant and accepting.

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