Wales

How Wales Works: Welsh or English? Lucy Owen's Big School Dilemma

It is a dilemma familiar to parents across Wales and it is dividing newsreader Lucy Owen and her Welsh-speaking husband Rhodri like never before.

Should they send their son Gabriel to a Welsh or English-medium secondary school?

As part of BBC Wales's How Wales Works season, Lucy explores the issues with families, teachers, experts and rugby international Jamie Roberts.

Lucy went to English language primary and secondary schools growing up and says: "Nobody I knew spoke Welsh, it just wasn't on the radar for me at all."

Seven-year-old Gabriel is currently at a Welsh-medium primary school, but she is concerned if he goes on to Welsh secondary education she will not be able to give him as much support with homework and will feel isolated in her own family.

For her husband Rhodri, the opposite is true: "I always went to Welsh school... He's my boy. He's Welsh, I'm Welsh, my grandparents are Welsh. We all speak Welsh and that's what we've done."

Lucy starts her journey sitting in on a lesson at the Welsh secondary school Ysgol Gyfun Rhydywaun, near Hirwaun.

At this school 97% of pupils have parents who do not speak Welsh, so they have developed an bilingual app so mothers and fathers can help with homework.

She meets the mother of a pupil who tells her the school is "immersive with parents" so she does not feel like an outsider.

But another mother she meets has switched her daughter from a Welsh primary to an English-language secondary school and says she feels better equipped to support her child.

Another couple tell Lucy they do not want their daughter learning Welsh as they believe modern languages will be more useful.

Andrew Williams, head teacher at English-medium Radyr Comprehensive, tells Lucy: "I think there's a fear among some parents that if they're in a Welsh medium school their English will suffer.

"I see a lot more at A Level because sometimes, I think, there's a parental perception that going on to university it's all delivered through the medium of English, so they prepare them by doing their A Levels through the medium of English."

It is a concern of Lucy's that going to a Welsh-medium secondary school will make university harder for Gabriel.

She goes to Queens' College, Cambridge where Wales rugby international Jamie Roberts is studying medical science to ask if being schooled in Welsh has hindered him.

He says: "Ultimately, in science, the concepts are the same regardless of the language... It was just a case of learning a whole host of words because there's quite a bit of carry over from A Level into your first couple of years in medicine.

"My parents took the view... that life shouldn't be easy, why worry about making it difficult? We should be more excited about making it challenging and rewarding and picturing the end product.

"I would definitely have my time again in Welsh secondary education and one day when I have children, touch wood, I would send them to Welsh schools."

Lucy has struggled learning Welsh herself and asks Prof Guillaume Thierry, a cognitive neuroscientist at Bangor University, if it is possible to be equally strong in two languages or if Gabriel's English will suffer.

He says: "There have been some studies looking at the level of achievement of bilinguals in two languages and it is true there is a tendency for the vocabulary, for the mastery of grammar, to suffer a small delay in development.

"This being said, there's this myth... we keep thinking that we can only store so much information and once the bucket is full that's it. It's exactly the opposite. The human brain has almost limitless space."

Prof Thierry adds that by translating his homework from Welsh into English for Lucy, Gabriel would become a "mini teacher as a child and that's the best way to learn".

He said: "We are in a global world. Today, bilingualism is the norm. Tomorrow, multilingualism is the norm."

Welsh or English? Lucy Owen's Big School Dilemma will be shown on BBC One Wales at 20:30 GMT on 25 January.