By Dr Gwennan Higham, Senior Lecturer, Swansea University

25 November 2020 - 12:25

Welcome sign in many languages

Dr Gwennan Higham

Dr Gwennan Higham looks at the future of language education in a multilingual Wales.

The current pandemic is changing the lives of many worldwide. Migrants, especially refugees and asylum seekers, face particular challenges in their struggles to find sanctuary amongst nation states and to get access to basic resources such as housing, food and healthcare. In the United Kingdom, immigration has been a central topic to discussions regarding the future makeup of society, particularly in the setting of Brexit. The Home Secretary promises to revamp the UK asylum system in years to come by making it increasingly challenging for new migrants to settle in the UK. Critics of the current asylum climate state that this direction will take the UK down an even more inhumane path. 

Wales: First Nation of Sanctuary

Although many nation state governments in the 21st Century are set on reducing the number of migrants within their borders, many sub-state governments uphold a different stance on immigration and integration. The devolved governments of the UK are a case in point. Although asylum is governed by UK immigration laws, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh Governments exercise powers over certain aspects of life such as education, culture, health and social services. Instead of endorsing Westminster’s policy, the Welsh Government is an example of a devolved government that exercises a different sub-state version of integration. Its strategy, launched in 2019, to become the world’s first Nation of Sanctuary, indicates the desire to portray Wales as a hospitable people and nation. 

The multilingual and multicultural reality of Wales 

While the UK’s integration model is based on allegiance to the English language and culture, the devolved government of Wales propagates bilingualism. Strategies such as ‘Cymraeg 2050: A million Welsh speakers’, aim to increase the number of Welsh speakers from all spheres, ages and backgrounds. Indeed, a third of Wales’ population is born outside its borders and international migration has also doubled in the last decade. The multilingual and multicultural reality of Wales is therefore increasingly present. This reality has undoubtedly influenced the development of the ‘Languages, Literacy and Communication’ Area of Learning and Experience for the New Curriculum for Wales, whereby a ‘multilingual and plurilingual approach’ to language learning will contribute to ‘developing learners as ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world (Welsh Government 2020) 

Welsh and English language provision for adults are separate

Nevertheless, language provision for migrants in Wales has been focused on the English language, including areas of Wales such as Gwynedd with over 70% of its inhabitants Welsh speaking. Although ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutors are encouraged to incorporate elements of Welsh language and culture, research shows this is rarely carried out or considered to be a possibility (Welsh Government 2017). Welsh and English language provision for adults are separate and, in many cases, targeting different societal groups. Interviews carried out with language teachers and Welsh government officials revealed that introducing Welsh to migrants was thought to complicate and confuse attempts of migrants to integrate into Welsh society (Higham 2014).

Learning Welsh was viewed as a resource to an already multilingual repertoire

Such views have nevertheless been challenged by ethnographic research including pilot Welsh language classes carried out with migrant adult students in Wales (Augustyniak & Higham 2019). While prior knowledge of Wales, including language, culture and history, was minimal, results indicate that learning Welsh was viewed as a resource to an (already) multilingual repertoire. Indeed, Welsh classes for migrants have proven to be a medium for negotiating multilingual experiences of migrants as well as highlighting commonalities between their own (minority) languages and cultures. Research further shows the desires and expectations of migrants to gain access to employment opportunities in both host languages of Wales. Further initiatives have enabled refugees and asylum seekers to obtain free Welsh classes with the National Centre for Learning Welsh, although a clear strategy on Welsh language provision for migrants has not been established. English, for many, is still considered to be the sole language of social cohesion in Wales. 

These ‘voices’, if listened to, challenge monolingual assumptions

With attention given to the Black Lives Matters movement in Wales as well as conditions at Penally asylum camp in Pembrokeshire, the voices of these minorities are starting to be heard. Indeed, the research findings mentioned above highlight the voices of migrants in Wales vis-à-vis language and integration. What is interesting is that these ‘voices’, if listened to, challenge monolingual assumptions, attitudes and categorisations concerning languages and integration in Wales. It also suggests that if migrants are to have agency in the decisions that affect them, then language and education policies need to be rethought and redesigned for their benefit.

Providing a Welsh language provision for migrants is one way of addressing inequalities in formal adult language provision. Informal language provision, such as language partnership schemes, can also provide ways of involving the host society. More importantly, widening access to both Welsh and English opens up new ways for migrants to participate in the host society. 

Ensuring that language provision is rooted in multilingualism, inclusivity and care for others enables migrant families to pave a path towards meaningful notions of multicultural citizenship. While the new Curriculum for Wales embraces the multilingualism of migrants, it must also cater for the social and economic as well as cultural and linguistic barriers that migrants experience while settling in Wales and the UK. Without support and intervention, the result of these barriers may end in migrants devaluing their own linguistic backgrounds. 

Encouraging the multilingual ‘voices’ of migrant families

’Linguistic hospitality’ (Ricoeur 2004) is a concept that could be applied to the area of ‘Language, Literacy and Communication’ in the New Curriculum. This would mean ensuring teachers are equipped with skills to engage with migrant learners as individuals with valuable cultural and linguistic resources. This would also mean encouraging the multilingual ‘voices’ of migrant families and ensuring a communal platform for them to discuss commonalities and differences in their words, expressions, traditions and ways of life through language. The importance of this is clear: denying multilingual capabilities of learners can result in social exclusion (Piller 2016) and educational under-achievement (Tsimpli 2017). Rather than developing global Welsh citizens, not giving space for migrants to use and develop linguistic resources, whether it be Welsh, Persian or Polish, can impede full participation of migrants or rather leave them in a position of ‘dis-citizenship’ in their new host societies (Ramanathan 2013).

The reality is that some migrants leave Wales. Some may be moved by the UK Home Office and some may decide to move to other parts of the UK. However, some remain, including those with families. Language education in Wales therefore has an obligation to ensure that the Welsh language is accessible and available to families from migrant backgrounds, including refugees and asylum seekers. Ysgol Hamadryad is an example of a community school in Butetown, Cardiff, established in 2016, with a direct approach to raise awareness of Welsh medium education amongst the multicultural inhabitants of South Cardiff. With a third of pupils from BAME backgrounds currently attending the school, it is by far the most culturally and linguistically diverse Welsh medium school in Wales. Increasing the number of migrant children in Welsh language education demands that the curriculum considers multilingual needs of migrant parents and pupils alike.

The future of language education in a multilingual Wales must debunk the myth that migrants must focus only on learning English. Migrants themselves show that languages are fluid and complex processes just as their own journeys and stories of settling in Wales. Migrants further show that languages are resources for social and economic investment as well as forms of empowerment to change, challenge and reshape meanings and ideas – including what it means to be a citizen of Wales and a new speaker of Welsh. The future challenge is for us to consider what it means to be ‘hosts’ in a hostile environment, to reach out, listen and learn from migrants and the stories and languages they carry with them. Languages, after all, are windows to other worlds – worlds, thanks to migration, which are now right on our doorstep.  


Dr Gwennan Higham

Dr Gwennan Higham

Senior Lecturer, Swansea University