Every year, thousands of adults return to classrooms in Wales to learn a new language. But this is not a language that they will only have the opportunity to use two weeks a year while they are on holiday in France or Spain. After learning Welsh at a further-education college or community centre, people can practise their new skill by speaking to neighbours or colleagues. There is also more chance that they will understand what their children are doing at school.
While only 21 per cent of the three million people in Wales speak their native language, interest is growing. Since Welsh became compulsory for schoolchildren up to the age of 16 under the national curriculum 10 years ago, a Welsh for Adults scheme, which began in the 1980s, has taken off dramatically. Last year, a record 25,324 people enrolled on Welsh for Adults courses at FE colleges, community education centres and universities. This compares with 15,894 in 1994/5.
"Numbers have gone right through the roof," says Geraint Wilson-Price, the Welsh for Adults manager at Coleg Gwent. "The growth during the past five years has been phenomenal."
Coleg Gwent is one of the largest providers, and this year expects to run about 160 Welsh classes for up to 1,800 adults. During the past few years, drop-out rates have fallen and more adults are studying Welsh for two or even three years. The college has also noticed a change in the type of learner. "Ten years ago, most people were in their fifties and sixties," he adds. "It's difficult to attract young people into adult education, but we are getting far more in their late twenties and early thirties."
All of which is music to the ears of the Welsh National Assembly, which, earlier this year, published a bilingual action plan calling for better-quality Welsh courses.
Adults normally learn Welsh for one of three reasons. Some wish to keep up with their children, while others, who may have moved from England or elsewhere, believe that it will help them to integrate.
A third reason is to find work. Growing numbers of employers - especially in the public sector - now require at least an understanding of Welsh to provide bilingual services. Where employees do not speak Welsh, their employer often pays for them to attend a course.
According to the Welsh Language Board, the number of Welsh speakers rose from 508,100 (18.7 per cent) to 582,400 (20.8 per cent) between 1991 to 2001. But only about 15 per cent of adults speak their native language, compared with 41 per cent of children aged 15 and under.
Meirion Prys-Jones, the board's deputy chief executive, says that there is a new attitude towards Welsh. "I don't think picking up any language is particularly easy. It's a long, hard grind," he says. "But there are growing examples of people who have become fluent because they want to fully integrate into Welsh society."
Einir Wyn Kirkwood, senior manager for training at Education and Learning Wales (ELWa), which funds post-16 learning, says that there are also "emotive reasons" for learning Welsh. "Sometimes people want to learn the language because their grandparents spoke it," she says.
The Assembly's action plan, named Iaith Pawb , or Everyone's Language, has led to a major evaluation of courses so that there are similar standards across the principality and between providers. In spite of increasing enrolments, progression is still seen as a major problem. "Many people enrol for one year and then drop out," says Kirkwood. To encourage adults to learn Welsh to a higher level, ELWa funds more intensive courses in universities that involve attending classes more than once a week. "The best providers are in higher education," she adds. "We want them to lead the field."
As part of the drive to raise standards, ELWa is also encouraging more lecturers to gain teaching qualifications. Colleges in particular tend to rely on part-time lecturers (only half of whom are trained teachers) to deliver classes. Gavin Thomas, a consultant to Fforwm, the employers' body for Welsh colleges, says that everyone is fully behind better training. The Further Education National Training Organisation is producing new occupational standards ahead of training programmes due to start in 2005. "We are desperately short of teachers," he says, but strongly refutes the suggestion that standards in colleges are lower than in universities, pointing out that FE caters for people who wish to learn at a "more leisurely pace".
Ioan Talfryn, director of policy and development at Welsh Unlimited, a company that runs classes at three colleges in north Wales, says: "The best learners are people who retired early or young mothers whose children have just gone back to school."
Informal learning is also encouraged, including "chat boxes" where adults can get together without a teacher. "You need to create environments in which people can speak Welsh even though they are not yet fluent," he adds.
But Talfryn does not believe that the £3.3m that the Welsh Assembly is spending on Welsh for Adults this year is anywhere near enough. "We are scraping for money to promote Welsh in an environment where most people speak English, which also happens to be the strongest language in the world," he says.
'WHEN YOU'RE LEARNING, YOU NEED FRIENDS WHO ARE SYMPATHETIC'
One of the first dilemmas that Judith Prys-Jones faced after starting to learn Welsh was how to communicate with her friends. Many people in and around Denbigh, in the north of Wales, are bilingual. Prys-Jones, who moved from Yorkshire 15 years ago after marrying a Welsh man, was used to talking to them in English. But after joining a class at the Welsh Language Centre, she realised that there was another option.
Her friends, of course, were more proficient in Welsh than she, and the easy option would have been to revert to English. But she was delighted that they were willing to give her a chance.
"You suddenly find that you have quite a lot to say and can go beyond 'good morning' to talk about the weather and your children," she says.
"But you need friends who are sympathetic and willing to go along with you. They don't realise how helpful they have been."
It is 10 years since Prys-Jones started attending weekly classes at the Welsh Language Centre, which is affiliated to Denbigh College. While her progress was slow, she eventually gained a GCSE in Welsh after attending an accelerated course involving 12 hours of tuition each week.
Her children, aged 10 and 12, are reasonably fluent but, ironically, her husband Oliver has never got around to learning his native language properly. Recently, she began tutoring in free taster classes for beginners. "I feel that I can bring something to the classes because of the way that I picked up Welsh," she says.Reuse content