International Scotland – with independence we must conquer the Tower of Babel

imageThere has been much chagrin recently in the dark nether regions of internet and in the unionist press, over the cost of Gaelic being promoted in public spaces.

For the record I like many, found the spat of interchanges over the subject manufactured and frankly insular. To those of us aware of the weight of history, it is a given that Scots Gaelic is relevant not only from a prospective of historic re-balancing but that also there is a heavy cultural and economic argument in favour of such promotion.

However the following post is not about the Scots, Doric, English, Orcadian and Gaelic divide but rather to how languages are treated from outside Scotland and Europe. A series of UK governments in their patch have been for the last 30 years utterly woeful in the encouragement of languages on a wholesale level or their utilisation in areas of industry, culture and diplomacy. This has also been exaggerated by having the luxury of being the natural speakers of a language of dominance in the exercise of political and economic affairs. Why bother learning another language? Why should this lack of depth and use in our skills be of concern?

But the world has been changing. With the ascendency of the BRIC nations has come their overtaking of Europe and the US in areas of heavy industrial now their politicians and intellectuals seek to further this trend. Already the focus in China (not withstanding the recent slump) has been a relentless drive to create, design and invest in light industry and technology. Their economies will depend on the creation and exchange of ideas that will drive further economic development. Despite the Anglo sphere’s monopoly on linguistic power it is wise to have a radical and holistic national strategy which gives nations an advantage when going to trade and develop diplomatic ties. A future independent Scotland will need to capitalise on linguistics as well as all its natural resources and its position as a centre of scientific crucible.

“But can the child from Penicuik, Dumbarton or Kingston upon Hull dream of taking off and just doing? Can they access another set of opportunities abroad and thus act as a connection back to Scotland developing Scotland’s economy further?”

Yet what of our economic armoury of linguistics? A nation such as Scotland can be a powerhouse that emphasises its variety in the amount of skills it can bring to bear. Not only are both the Scottish and UK governments record on language development and education woeful but it is very Eurocentric. I must put a caveat, that in my view the Scottish government has done wonders with native languages such as Scots, Gaelic, Doric etc.

The previous point is understandable seeing as our political classes are obsessed with forging closer ties or (in the case of the UK elite) breaking ties with Europe. They are not asking the fundamental questions. That in a world economy that is gearing away from the old world to newer rising areas; why are we focused on old skills and languages of old importance? Why should we be complacent about skilled persons hailing from other nations having access to our economy but having no access to theirs. Again I emphasise going beyond Europe, which will always be our base but not our limit. Scotland small?

For English only provides a skin surface approach to creative and industrial capacities. From experience I can tell you doing a branding exercise for a Chinese green technology company goes down far better when it’s done in Mandarin. Some Scots already have the skills but we must increase the chances for the young and for the cause of our nascent state.

Earlier lask year the Scottish government came under fire for its failure to effectively monitor The Confucius schools set up to aid the teaching and Mandarin and Chinese culture. There had been concerns raised by EIS that these were used to promote the Chinese government’s actions over Nepal and human rights. There were no such qualms in Sweden which became the first country in Europe to offer Chinese lessons to all schoolchildren under plans floated by the Swedish education minister in 2011.

“Some Scots already have the skills but we must increase the chances for the young and for the cause of our nascent state.”

Jan Björklund said giving future generations’ access to Chinese language tuition was crucial to national competitiveness. “I want to see Sweden become the first country in Europe to introduce instruction in Chinese as a foreign language at all primary and secondary schools,” said Bjoerklund, who heads the Progress Party, a junior member of the centre-right ruling coalition. “Not everyone in the business world speaks English. Very highly qualified activities are leaving Europe to move to China. Chinese will be much more important from an economic point of view than French or Spanish,” he said.

This point was of course at the time correct and supports my own experience working in the East. It additionally stands as much for Portuguese in the case of Brazil or Russian. When working for a communications company in London I had worked part time in Zurich and St Petersburg. On finding myself without employment after a contract reached its conclusion I decided to up sticks and go Hong Kong. I could only do so because I had the opportunity to learn languages at home and through extra courses at university. It was an expression of my own will and interest and certainly not out of a culture of institutional education at any early age.

But can the child from Penicuik, Dumbarton or Kingston upon Hull dream of taking off and just doing? Can they access another set of opportunities abroad and thus act as a connection back to Scotland developing Scotland’s economy further? Sweden has long been known for having among the highest level of English language skills outside the Anglo-Saxon world. Its proposed embrace of Chinese could be seen as a symbol of a shift in power towards Asia. I noticed at the time how during meetings I was often the only person from the British Isles able to communicate on the island and mainland. All the other contacts I made while working were German, Swedish, Australian, India etc.

“The recognition is there but the habit towards Euro centrism is limiting and disappointing.”

In the Language Learning in Scotland A 1+2 Approach by the Scottish Government Languages Working Group: Report and Recommendations; Recommendation 1states that: The Working Group recommends that schools offer children access to an additional language from Primary 1.

It stated that: “The Working Group considered the rationale for promoting specific languages but decided not to set a hierarchy of languages to be learned by pupils in Scotland. This is a matter for schools and local authorities to decide, taking account of the local context. The Working Group nonetheless believes that continuing to engage with our nearest neighbours in Europe will remain a priority for young people in Scotland.”

“Learning French, German, Italian and Spanish will continue to have an important place. There is, however, also a case to be made for taking account of new economies of the future, as Scotland has already started to do by encouraging the promotion of Chinese. The Working Group noted the strong case to be made for other languages, such as Portuguese (Brazil), Arabic and Russian, as well as other eastern European languages, including Slavonic languages.”

“A future independent Scotland will need to capitalise on linguistics as well as all its natural resources and its position as a centre of scientific crucible.”

The paper of 2011 was rigorous in its detail and determination to address Scotland’s language teaching deficit. However there were gaps in methods of teaching and in precise cooperation between local authorities and central government when it comes to enthusing and improving language teaching across Scotland. The recognition is there but the habit towards Euro centrism is limiting and disappointing. Admittedly the progress of the Swedes has been slow yet steady, more importantly the intent has been consistent with regards to ambitious diversity in languages access for primary and secondary school children. We now need this urgent intent from the Scottish government.

For more analysis I recommend the research from the University of Uppsala by Hanna Sahlberg Wu.

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  1. Dismayed says:

    Sorry, but this is utter garbage. Bella seems to be dying.

    1. Sorry you feel like that. What is it that you liked about Bella in the past that we’re not delivering for you?

      1. Dismayed says:

        It just seems like absolutely anything would get published here now. Read this piece back to yourself. I’m not trying to be horrible, but seriously.

      2. Julia Gibb says:

        You must be joking!!!
        How many comments do you need for the wake up call?

        Bella is a mere shadow of the site that led the path through 2013/15.

        It has a very biased political view compared to the energising YES drive. It is a private play ground for a few individuals who insist their view dominates. I return every month in the hope that it returns to it’s roots as quickly as it was “taken over”.

        However for an editor to act surprised by a critical remark astounds me – do you never read the feed back.

        Hint: read articles from 2013/14 and compare it to the material on display now.

  2. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    The business sense and positive career implications of this post are surely overwhelmingly sound.

    Yet perhaps I may be indulged a pious bleat (which no doubt the author would fully endorse in principle) against a reductionism of language to economics. The latter does seem to be Scottish society’s default approach. Hence the clamorous prevalence of what we might call the ‘Fix the Potholes First!’ brigade. Any occasional “Hey, I can maybe make a bawbee out of this!” insight might at least winkle out a modicum of support for our struggling national linguistic heritage. Chinese patently needs no such support as a language per se. (Lest I be misunderstood here, I reiterate that the post is in my opinion completely valid and persuasive advice.)

    To pursue my “reductionism” point, the value of languages cannot be weighed in gold (or tallied in bitcoins). A language is first and foremost a unique reservoir of human consciousness, an escape-route from Orwellian global-media mind-control, and, not least, a personal adventure of frustration and delight.

    Anyhow, having dabbled amateurly in Chinese a while back, the odd word struck me as possibly having entered our common speech from the time of the British control of China. One was 窺 (kuī, kuǐ – peep, watch, spy on, pry) which seemed a likely candidate for the (obsolete?) “Coo-ee!” beckoning call when seeing someone at a distance. Another was (so it seemed to me) a plausible origin for the Scottish exclamation “Jings!”, namely: 惊 (jīng – start; surprise; shock; alarm), or maybe: “惊喜” (jīngxǐ – nice surprise). I am if course entirely open to correction from those who are wiser…

    1. Patrick says:

      If were not by Native American the II World War would be losses.

  3. Alf Baird says:

    “Scotland’s language teaching deficit” is most obviously the fact that we do not teach our bairns their ain leid – i.e. the Scots Language – unlike Sweden or indeed any other self-respecting un-cringed nation.

  4. Broadbield says:

    Education to supply a skilled workforce for Mr Gradgrind. Not only are schools expected to get better and better every year, they’re expected to teach more and more every day. Might need a 26 hour day to fit it all in.

  5. K. A. Mylchreest says:

    Has Kingston-upon-Hull somehow joined Scotland? Maybe we could swap it for Berwick-upon-Tweed?

    On languages in schools, are there any reliable statistics on how many pupils taking school courses actually become proficient in a foreign language, proficient as in able to use it out in the ¨real world¨, as opposed to say writing essays on French or German literature? I suspect the numbers would be very low indeed, but then I could be completely wrong.

    1. Patrick says:

      My suggestion learn as many languages you can and as plasticity your brain allow, but overall learn as many Digital language you can, because the 4.0 Revolution is here, where robot will occupy your place in factories, automobiles, planes, vessels and even if you have the money a robot-wife with all attributes you want.

  6. Marcia Blaine says:

    Whenever I hear ‘working group’ and ‘strategy document’ one thing is for sure: we’re in for a long wait.

  7. Paul Codd says:

    After 10 years living in Spanish speaking countries I’m finally getting my head round Spanish. As a youngster in primary school in Scotland I was part of an experiment to teach languages to primary kids. In my generation that radical experiment meant a paltry 1 or 2 hours of Italian per week for a mere 2 years! Most European countries manage to churn out high school kids with English that is practically as good as ours. Apart from the valid economic arguments the author gives for teaching languages, learning a new language opens a world of culture, art, history, technology, perspectives, social connections and personal enrichment.
    There are things that English can’t say, and that people who only speak English tend not to think. Just as when a foreign person will often use an unusual turn of phrase which sometimes causes us to think about something in a different way, sometimes we will not be able to see that new way of seeing things unless we understand the speaker’s original language structures which give them that turn of phrase in the first place. It has been measured and proven scientifically that learning a language opens new neural pathways that did not previously exist, and increases neuro-plasticity, ie the ability to learn and adapt to anything new.
    I’m no polyglot, with only very basic abilities in languages other than English and Spanish, but I’m led to believe that in general, learning a third language is easier than learning a second, a fourth is easier than a third, and so on, as your brain begins to develop a meta-language of its own which transcends individual names of things and ways of saying stuff. Given that as an adult it has taken me 10 years to get to a point where my second language is no longer a barrier to my being able to do subtler aspects of business, such as present, negotiate, communicate on different levels at the same time, and so on, it is clear to me that learning a language is not a trivial undertaking. So I do regret that my Scottish education didn’t better prepare me for this aspect of my adult life. Even if my second language had been Scots or Gaelic I would have been a better and faster at picking up my chosen language of Spanish.
    I believe the issue of language learning is strongly linked to the kind of Scotland we want to be, to our identity in the world, and the possible the roles we may wish to play in it. For me the fact that some commentators think this is irrelevent, or a waste of time here on Bella, is disappointing, but not unsurprising. Schools have limited time, and a vast amount of “content” which needs stuffed into wee heads as we’re growing up. There are other hard issues to spend our time worrying about. But in the midst of this I would gently offer that unless you have felt the thrill of communicating with people, and in ways, that were out of reach for you previously, you may not have developed the kind of life experiences to be able to understand the importance or rewards of putting in the hard graft to learn an additional language.

    1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      I was on the whole agreeing with you until at the very end you used the expression ¨hard graft¨.

      True, much of the language work I did at school was indeed tedious and unpleasant, and as a result largely ineffective. Growing up in a 99.9% anglophone monglot environment, language ´learning´ was just one of many pointless traditional rituals you had to go through to pass exams.

      IMO you will learn languages as and when you actually need them, and to the extent you actually use them. As a research student I needed to read a proportion of original papers in French, and so developed sufficient reading knowledge for this task. I had no real interest in that language per se. When I met French colleagues they always insisted on speaking English, making any attempt at learning to actually speak French rather silly.

      Forgive that personal digression. My point is that if you are interested in a language, either out of sheer curiosity, ¨because it´s there!¨ or out of a need or desire to access material that happens to be ´coded´ in that language, then you will acquire it, be interested in it, enjoy it in fact!

      If you´re not enjoying the process, if it really is ´hard graft´ then honestly something is probably wrong and you spend your time more productively doing something you really do enjoy.

    2. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      Dha-rìribh!
      Hear! Hear!

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        My “Hear! Hear!” is directed at Paul Cobb’s comment.

    3. Alf Baird says:

      Excellent points, and very well made Paul.

      A shuirly howp thon SNP Scottish Cultur Meenister an Language Meenister micht be listenin tae ye, an mebbe e’en thair ower Anglicised heid ceevil servants fi ‘elite’ uni’s anaw (e.g. Oxbridge, St. Andrews, Edinborough, etc. whair Scots is conseedert ‘bad English’). (Mebbe thon Meenisters shuid be cawed ‘Meenisters for Anglicised-Scots Culture & Language’ tae richtly reflectit whit thay dae? i.e. thay refuise tae taucht ‘Scots’ tae oor bairns an aw fowk wha bide hereaboots)

  8. hamish says:

    Teaching and Learning of foreign languages is now at an appallingly low level in Scotland. Making bold statements about teaching everyone two foreign languages will change nothing. Personally I would be satisfied if one foreign or classical language was learned to a level of competence. Alas this requires organisation. self-discipline and hard work. Aint’t gonna happen !

  9. Pepsi and Shirley says:

    Sorry Robert but this comes across as something you read from a press release. ‘I add to that the caveat of the wonderful work by the Scots Govt on Gaelic Doric etc’ Really? Statistics statistics. Are people really so well-educated and more literate than they were 30 years ago? No. The output from Gaelic education is appalling. Woeful. Incomprehensible and unrecognisable. Sad. I can read any press release /statistics / proclamations of wonderfulness anywhere. But if I have a conversation with someone / watch a play (artsy event) / and I don’t think to myself wow I’m impressed that’s a literate sentient human being then no amount of being told otherwise will persuade me. Because if I believe Gaelic being promoted to ‘new speakers’ has been a success then I’m like Winston in 1984 after being in Room 101. ‘I love Big Brother now.’

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