British Broadcasting Corporation

Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Local UK languages 'taking off'

Welsh lesson
Demand for Welsh-medium education is overtaking supply

More and more state schoolchildren in the UK are being taught in Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, the BBC has learned.

The number of Northern Ireland children learning Irish grew from just 484 in 1992 to 3285 in 2008.

In Wales, 20% of schoolchildren are now being taught entirely in the Welsh language - up from 16% in the 1990s.

Some experts believe that bilingual children are at an advantage at school, because learning two languages boosts their ability to learn.

Welsh schoolchildren are still far more likely to learn their native language than those in Scotland or Northern Ireland - however, the statistics suggest Gaelic and Irish are growing in popularity.

In 1997 just 112 Scottish pupils learned Gaelic. In 2007, 2,601 students were learning it, either in an exclusively Gaelic school, or in a bi-lingual one.


Devolution has meant profound educational changes, says the BBC's Colette Hume, in Northern Ireland, as a demand for speakers of these languages grows.

It seems having two languages in the brain stimulates it

Professor Colin Baker, University of Bangor

And she said that the growth in demand for this type of education may reflect a growing sense of identity and confidence in the nations of the UK.

She visited a tiny Irish-medium school in Northern Ireland which opened last year with just 12 pupils, but now has 28.

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

The BBC launched a Gaelic channel, BBC Alba, in September last year, which promotes the Gaelic language, while hoping to appeal to audiences across Scotland.

The latest figures from the Welsh Assembly Government show that 40,756 secondary schoolchildren out of a total of almost 207,000 are being taught in "Welsh medium schools" - where most or all subjects are taught in Welsh.

David Reynolds, a professor of education at Plymouth University, said learning Welsh had "really taken off" and that any reservations about learning the local language seemed to have disappeared.

"In Wales, the evidence is that 40% of children are fluent in Welsh, and 20% of their parents.

"In terms of use, you are able to sell your language in a way you couldn't 20 years ago, and it is of direct use to you because of burgeoning employment in the devolved states."


Professor Colin Baker from the University of Bangor is an expert in bilingual education, and says bilingual children have an advantage in terms of intelligence.

Irish language
Some parents want their children to identify strongly with their nation
"They actually have a higher IQ," he said.

"It seems having two languages in the brain stimulates it, adds extra associations into the brain and deepens thinking."

Professor Reynolds identifies a further reason why this trend towards learning a local language appears to have taken hold.

He said that in an increasingly globalised world, people are more keen to keep sight of their identity, and one way of achieving this is through learning your local language.

"Knowledge of your own local area gives you identity and roots, I think," he said.

"If you look at why it might be happening, I think it's a desire to root children, and also adults, in a local experience."

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22 Sep 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Launch day for new Gaelic channel
19 Sep 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Government sets out bilingual bid
29 Jan 09 |  Highlands and Islands
Language fear over schools merger
05 Jan 09 |  South West Wales
6m 'promised to Irish language'
17 Jun 08 |  Northern Ireland


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