Learning Languages on Holiday

As a Brit, I admit that we are not generally known for our ability in foreign languages. I often enjoy seeing the surprised looks on people’s faces in Berlin when I speak to them in German. But, according to research, we are getting better. As Anne Merritt writes in the Telegraph:

According to the survey, 59 per cent of British holiday-goers try to use the local language while travelling abroad. But we’re not just struggling to remember our GCSE French; more and more British travellers actively study the local language.’

I am encouraged that only one-in-ten responded that there is no need to speak the local language because everyone speaks English. But it’s not all good news. Recent figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that the number of students accepting places to study modern languages has declined. We might be happy to learn a couple of words to help us order ice cream, but there is clearly a long way to go before the UK can celebrate its plurilingualism. I would love to see the interest tourists show in languages continue once they are back home. Maybe language departments should recruit on the beaches?

Whatever your holiday plans, I hope you are having a great summer and have the opportunity to learn a new language. And if you are one of the hundreds of thousands planning on taking in some shows during the Edinburgh Festivals (the Fringe opens today, the International Festival on 9 August, and the Book Festival on the 10th), you might enjoy a light-hearted introduction to some Scottish words that I wrote for British Council Germany earlier in the summer.

Happy holiday!

Scottish Parliament launches inquiry into foreign language learning

On Friday 14 December 2012 the Scottish Parliament European and External Relations Committee launched an inquiry into the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools:


“Earlier this year, the Government recommended that children should learn a second language from Primary 1 and that learning of a third language should start no later than Primary 5. The Committee has determined that it wants to look at this policy aim, the capacity within the curriculum for this, and the role of languages in supporting the economy.

The Committee would welcome views from parents, teachers and pupils for its inquiry. A call for views has been published at the Committee’s website at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/57808.aspx

Issues to be explored in the Committee’s investigations include funding (including use of EU funds); the skills base and teaching resources available for language tuition; the capacity within the curriculum to accommodate greater language study; the choice of languages for teaching; and the role of languages in economic development.”


You may also be interested in the Language Rich Europe research in Scotland and the following blog posts:


Language Rich Europe hits the headlines

– Scotland – a multilingual country?

Edwin Morgan – poetry’s ambassador for multilingualism


Language Rich Europe hits the headlines!


In the midst of busy preparation for next weeks LRE Conference for stakeholders and partners it is easy to lose sight of why our project is so relevant. Language Rich has been making news in the UK these last two days and that make us happy!

Check out today’s news story from Northern Ireland, “Northern Ireland ‘ill prepared’ for business future, says language report“.

Yesterday we made news in Scotland where a similar story took shape: “Foreign language skills ‘cost Scottish businesses’

This BBC video clip from Wales highlights the call for language learning in Wales.

Don’t forget to join the conversation next week at least virtually! Have your say on why language learning is so important.


Scotland – a multilingual country?

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.

Edwin Morgan – Poetry’s Ambassador for Multilingualism

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of Edwin Morgan, one of Scotland’s greatest poets. Born in 1920 in Glasgow, Morgan was Professor of English at Glasgow University until 1980 and went on to serve as Glasgow’s first Poet Laureate until 2002. In 2004 he was appointed the first ‘Scots Makar’, a position created to recognise Scotland’s rich history of poets (makar is a Scots word for poet).

Edwin Morgan loved language and languages, playing with how words sound and, through his concrete poetry, how they look on the page. In his poems he gives voices to unexpected objects including computers and an apple, and gives language to Mercurians and the Loch Ness Monster. He also translated poems from a number of languages including German, Hungarian, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian and English (into Scots) and published a book of Collected Translations in 1996.

One of my favourite poems by Edwin Morgan is the science-fiction poem ‘The First Men on Mercury’, which sees humans and Mercurians swap languages. Here is an excerpt, but you can, and should, read the poem in full on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website.

– We come in peace from the third planet.
Would you take us to your leader?
– Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stretterhawl?
– This is a little plastic model
of the solar system, with working parts.
You are here and we are there and we
are now here with you, is this clear?
– Gawl horrop. Bawr Abawrhannahanna!
– Where we come from is blue and white
with brown, you see we call the brown
here ‘land, the blue is ‘sea’, and the white
is ‘clouds’ over land and sea, we live
on the surface of the brown land,
all round is sea and clouds. We are ‘men’.
Men come –
– Glawp men! Gawrbenner menko. Menhawl?

The Scottish Poetry Library is home to the Edwin Morgan archive, and yesterday the Director, Robyn Marsack posted a tribute to the poet on their blog Our sweet old etcetera…