Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A bit of local pride

Last night at the painting class the air was fairly buzzing. First of all there were the ladies declaring that they were going on the demonstration called by the mayor, Abel Caballero, against the merger of Caixanova and Caixa Galicia, two Galician banks. They were not doing it, they said, for Abel Caballero but for Vigo.

One of the problems, as I understand it (and I have to admit to a very limited understanding), is that the main offices of Caixanova are here in Vigo whereas after the proposed merger the head offices would probably be in La Coruña. I have been told before about a longstanding rivalry between Vigo and La Coruña. There is some feeling that Vigo missed out on money that was spent on improving La Coruña. And then, of course, there is the vexed question of the airports, although it may be that Santiago de Compostela is winning that one. Mind you, all three Galician airports could well have missed the boat (or the budget aeroplane) as Oporto seems to be doing much better.

Whatever the case, the ladies were determined that they were going to stand up for Vigo. Mr Feijoó, President of Galicia, on the other hand, has been heard to say that if Caixanova and Caixa Galicia don’t go ahead with the merger, one or other of them might end up merging with some other bank that has its head offices in Madrid! And we don’t want that do we?!? He is determined to continue defendiendo los intereses de Galicia which seems to be what everyone here really wants to do, isn’t it? They just have some difficulty making their minds up how to do it.

Meanwhile the ladies at the painting class had moved on to the equally vexed question of schools and which language subjects should be taught in. The general consensus was that they approved of gallego being taught as a subject but didn’t really see the point of insisting that Maths, for example, should be taught in that language. They didn’t want gallego to disappear and even switched over to speaking that language to show their allegiance. Some of them had learnt gallego at school and were quite satisfied with the experience.

So I told them about something I had read in La Voz de Galicia about Wales, that country on the edge of the UK with some similarity to Galicia. The population of both countries is roughly the same, they are both rather hilly and both have an extensive coastline. The article didn’t mention rainfall but most of my visits to Wales have involved wearing a raincoat.

One big difference, though, seems to be that whereas Galicia is concerned about the possibility of losing gallego speakers, the number of Welsh speakers is going up: 18.7% of the population in 1991 and 20+% in 2004. Not a big increase but still an increase! The language is spoken more in the North and East of the country. In some places, such as Newport on the English border, you will hardly hear it. (One reason given for this that in the past the miners in the area were forbidden to speak Welsh, a measure of control by the mainly English owners of the mines that sounds rather familiar!) But on the whole Welsh is felt to be doing quite nicely, thank you!

One of my companions in the painting class was unaware of Welsh as a language. At best she thought it was dialect of English. How shocking? Cymraeg is apparently one of the oldest languages in Europe. It survived invasions by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans, probably because many of the speakers lived in hamlets in the hills, rather like the Basques. Its usefulness as an international language is limited as it is only spoken in Wales and in an area of Patagonia in South America, taken there by emigrants. Oh, that’s another similarity to Galicia!

In 1990 it became obligatory for all 5 to 14 year olds in Welsh schools to learn Welsh, even if they had moved into the country from other parts of the UK. In 1999 this was extended to include up to 16 year olds. (This, of course, stands rather oddly alongside the decision taken in 2004 to make the study of modern foreign languages in English (and presumably Welsh) schools after the age of 14 optional rather than compulsory with a resulting drop in numbers of youngsters studying French, Spanish and German. That, however, is a different story.) The Welsh Language Assembly says that 41% of all 4 to 15 year olds can now speak Welsh.

So what is the secret of their success? Contrary to the views of the painting class ladies, part of the answer is immersion in the language. 1000 nursery schools in Wales use Welsh so the small people are learning it as they play. In some 400 of these nursery schools parents have the option of staying and learning Welsh alongside their children as they play. This does mean that the parents need to have the leisure to opt to do that. It is a different matter if both parents have to dash off to earn a living but getting the parents involved is a BIG plus factor. What is more, this model was successful enough for the Basques to copy it in their network of ikastolak – primary and secondary schools where most or all of the teaching takes place in the Basque language.

Another factor seems to be a measure of autonomy, even within the strictures of the National Curriculum. By no means ALL schools in Wales follow the immersion pattern. Some 55 secondary schools use Welsh for the delivery of more than half of the curriculum. The remaining 170 use English for most subjects but in some cases teach a few subjects in Welsh. 464 primary schools go for the 50+% in Welsh pattern while 938 use mainly English.

So teaching predominantly in Welsh is by no means the norm but still1 in 5 children in Wales are learning in Welsh - well doing 50% of their learning in Welsh. Research shows no detrimental effects on children’s progress in English, something that concerns parents quite a lot. And it appears that those schools using the immersion method do get better results, not just in Welsh but in all subjects. Better results mean access to better universities which in turn means better job prospects. And, of course, the ability to speak Welsh improves job prospects in Wales itself. Parents do like their offspring to do well.

It’s interesting that no-one is saying that subjects MUST be taught in Welsh in ALL schools. Neither is anyone saying that parents must be able to choose which language their children are taught in although effectively this is happening as those parents who CAN choose are opting to send them to the most successful schools. Enough said!

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