Welsh children in bilingual families doing well

11 June 2007

Children in Welsh-English bilingual families appear to be rising to the challenge of mastering two languages before they reach school.

Children in Welsh-English bilingual families appear to be rising to the challenge of mastering two languages before they reach school.

A study that compared three-year-olds brought up in Welsh-English bilingual and English-only homes found almost no difference in their English vocabulary and “school readiness” assessments. Professor Heather Joshi, director of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), said: “If anything, the average scores were higher in the Welsh-speaking homes, but not significantly so.”

The researchers gauged the children’s vocabulary by showing them a series of everyday items and asking them to name them. The school readiness assessment measured their understanding of colours, numbers, counting, sizes, shapes, letters and comparisons.

The assessments revealed that the average vocabulary score for three-year-olds in Wales was slightly below the UK average but the top 10 per cent of youngsters in Wales did as well as the top 10 per cent in England. The school readiness results in Wales were similar to England’s but below the UK average.

“Concerns have been expressed that having to cope with two languages could be a challenge for very young children but we are pleased to report there was no evidence of this,” said Professor Joshi. “The dual language context in Wales is clearly different from the one we find in other parts of the UK where bilingual children in immigrant communities face difficulties in learning English.”

The study, which is being conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, is tracking the development of more than 15,500 children in the UK who were born between 2000 and 2002. The assessments of vocabulary and school readiness involved nearly 1,900 children in Wales. About one tenth of the children’s families reported speaking some, or only, Welsh at home. A slightly lower proportion of children with serious behaviour problems was found in the Welsh-speaking homes than in the English-only homes.

The researchers also report that the majority of three-year-olds in Wales were thriving, even though the country’s poverty rate is higher than the UK average, which makes more of its children vulnerable. Only 3 per cent of the children surveyed in Wales had a limiting long-term illness.

Among the study’s other findings are that:

  • Parents of three-year-olds in Wales were more likely than those in other UK countries to have gained qualifications since their child was nine months old (23 per cent of fathers and 19 per cent of mothers)
  • Wales had the highest proportion of mothers who said their child never, or almost never, had a regular bedtime (9 per cent, compared to 7 per cent in England and Northern Ireland and 5 per cent in Scotland)
  • Seven per cent of Welsh fathers said they never read to their children, compared with 5 per cent in England and Northern Ireland and 3 per cent in Scotland.
  • 30 per cent of the families in Wales were living below the survey’s poverty line. The UK average was 26 per cent
  • The researchers also note that differences within countries — between socially advantaged and disadvantaged groups — were more significant than differences between countries.

Notes for editors:

The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre based at the Institution of Education. The Centre houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. The Millennium Cohort Study is co-funded by a number of government departments, as well as the Welsh Assembly Government.

2. The second sweep of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS2) collected information from 15,590 families of children born across the UK in 2000-2 when they reached the age of three. Almost all of these families (14,898) had been in the first survey when the children were nine-months-old. An additional 692 families were recruited for the second survey in England who had been eligible for the first survey but not included. The study’s first sweep, carried out during 2001-2, laid the foundations for this major new longitudinal research resource, involving a year-long cohort of around 19,000 babies. It recorded the circumstances of pregnancy and birth, the all-important early months of life, and the social and economic backgrounds of the families into which the children were born. The second survey data allow researchers for the first time to chart the changing circumstances of these children and their families and offer some direct measurements of the children’s development at the age of three which can be related to their earlier experiences. The sample was designed to provide adequate numbers for separate analysis from areas with high proportions of minority-ethnic residents (in England) and high child poverty, as well as each country in the UK. The first MCS survey covered 2,760 children in Wales, and the second, 2,232. A small number of families opted to do the child assessments or adult interviews in Welsh.

3. Three-year-olds who were assessed as part of MCS2 took the British Ability Scales (BAS) Naming Vocabulary subtest, which is part of a suite of cognitive tests designed for children aged between three and 17 years. The test is individually administered. The interviewer asks the child to name a series of pictures of everyday items. There are 36 items in total, although the number each child is asked about is dependent on their performance. The assessment is terminated if five successive items are answered incorrectly. BAS assesses the expressive language ability of children.

4. School readiness was assessed using six subtests of the Revised Bracken Basic Concept Scale, which measures children’s knowledge of those ‘readiness’ concepts that parents and teachers traditionally teach children in preparation for formal education. The test has been designed for children in the age range of two-and-a-half to seven years and 11 months. The six subtests comprise the assessment of children’s basic concepts such as colours, letters, numbers/counting, sizes, comparisons and shapes. This test is also individually administered. As a non-verbal test, requiring the child to point, but not speak, it could be given in oral translation to children who did not speak English. Both cognitive assessments were administered using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing by interviewers who were specially trained but were not professional psychologists.

5.   Other research has pointed to the advantages of bilingualism. See, for example, http://www.psych.yorku.ca/labconference/oral_presentations.html and Colin Baker (2006), Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4th Edition.

6. Fathers were interviewed if they were living with the cohort child.

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