It’s St Andrew’s Day today – Scotland’s national day, so what better excuse than to have a wee keek at the state of languages in my home country.
Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is not exactly famed for its ability in foreign languages. This has made the news again recently with British Council Scotland warning that a decline in Foreign Language Assistants could affect student numbers and the quality of foreign language education. Lloyd Andersen, Director British Council Scotland said:
Assistants perform a vital role in supporting language teachers by bringing a cultural dimension to language-learning that enthuses and inspires young people
Teachers are in no doubt this helps increase linguistic fluency and makes it more likely a young person will continue studying languages to a high level. In an increasingly globalised world, Scotland needs to be outward looking.
The Scottish Government, which provides funding for the FLA programme, has set up a working group to implement their programme of learning two languages plus ‘mother tongue’ but some see this as unrealistic.
2 + 1 is not a new initiative, nor is it an invention of the Scottish Government. Both the European Union and Council of Europe place emphasis on citizens being able to communicate in ‘mother tongue plus two languages.’ From the current level of foreign language education, this may be difficult to achieve, but I applaud the Scottish Government’s recognition of it as an important target nonetheless.
I also think there is another important point which cannot necessarily be separated from the foreign language debate – and that is the fact that Scotland is not historically or currently a monolingual country. As well as English, Scotland has two other main languages – Scots, a language which shares a common root with English, and Gaelic.
Scots and Gaelic receive financial and political support from the Scottish Government, where the Minister of Learning and Skills, Alasdair Allan has a particular responsibility for these languages. At a time of economic turbulence, the time and money spent on languages which are not as widely spoken as English is criticised by some, who also see it as pro-independence propaganda from a Scottish Government where the Scottish Nationalist Party has a majority.
However, these initiatives are not solely the result of an SNP government. Scots has been ‘back on the agenda’ in education since the 5-14 curriculum was introduced in 1991 and both Scots and Gaelic are covered by Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was ratified by the UK Government in 2001. As with foreign languages, Scotland and the UK are following the EU and Council of Europe’s lead, with the European Charter considering that:
the protection of the historical regional or minority languages of Europe, some of which are in danger of eventual extinction, contributes to the maintenance and development of Europe’s cultural wealth and traditions… the right to use a regional or minority language in private and public life is an inalienable right
This does not mean they should be taught to the detriment of English, clearly there is a need to learn it, but considering English’s dominance I find it unlikely that this would happen. Rather, Scots and Gaelic should be included in education instead of being sidelined to languages of the playground or home or as part of the once-a-year Burns Night celebrations. As recently as the 1960s, the Scots language was looked down upon as ‘not being proper English’ and even today it is often criticised for being a dialect or, worse, slang. Ayrshire, Glaswegian, Doric and Lallans are all dialects of the Scots language and, as anyone who has encountered a Glasgow taxi driver knows, they are spoken frequently outside of school.
If proper acknowledgement was given to this language in school, many children might have a different relationship with language learning. Instead of being ‘bad at English’ they can suddenly speak two languages. With this knowledge, confidence and enthusiasm at learning a foreign language might in turn increase.