A fascinating conversation flashed amongst the Twitterati yesterday on the unevenness of foreign language teaching ability in Scottish primary schools, despite a recent move to introduce a second foreign language there. Let’s leave aside for a minute whether the Doric constitutes a foreign language and contemplate a few home truths: we’re shite at languages. And we’re not getting any better.
For over half a century, the brightest kids is Scottish schools have studied foreign languages (mostly French) S1-S4. And while our subsequent French graduates and scholars can hold their own, you don’t have to spend much time around tourist spots in France to hear their language being mangled by Brits from all parts of these islands—because it is not just the Scots who seem inept when it comes to using languages.
Scandinavian countries are famous for embarrassing us Scots in this department. To quote from the This Is Finland website (English-language, of course: my Finnish is non-existent):
“Finnish schools emphasize foreign language studies. The first foreign language is generally introduced in the third year of comprehensive school and the second domestic language (Swedish for Finnish-speaking pupils and Finnish for Swedish speakers) in the seventh year, if not sooner.
In addition, pupils may opt for up to six different languages by the completion of upper secondary level. The most common foreign languages are English, German, French, Russian and Spanish.”
For the avoidance of doubt their “comprehensive” means primary, not secondary, school which is entered after three years at nursery where much time spent exploring outdoors even in the -20degC Finnish winter—but that’s another blog.
You may not have encountered a Finn and had the chance to appreciate just how relaxed and articulate they are in speaking English. This is one of the subtleties we Scots seem poor at appreciating: the gulf between the ability to shop at a supermarket or order lunch and the fluency necessary to operate fully in that language. Once you can chat with a stranger on the phone (where there is no body language to help out), you’re getting close to being fluent.
Our schools have tried to improve the manner in which they teach languages by moving away from rote and ritual of declensions and cases a focussing more on how language is actually used. Our teaching graduates are no less capable than anyone else’s. We joined the EU 40 years ago. Why are we lagging so badly in the language race?
Our geographic position doesn’t help. Whereas foreign-speaking tourists pour into London in their millions, perhaps a tenth of those make it to Scotland and any Spanish-speaker found in Airdrie is almost certainly lost. So Scots lack much local opportunity to use any language skills they have gained. But, each year, we are finding more and more foreign tourists discovering Scotland and—when you think of it—Finland is even more disadvantaged by geography, so that can’t be a major reason.
A second reason may be that everyone seems to speak English anyway. There is much truth in this. Because of America’s cultural dominance of the planet from film to Coca-Cola, the bulk of the world’s technical manuals, films, TV programmes, games and much of its literature are all created in English. Spanish had its chance in the 18th century and Russian in the 20th but since the end of the Cold War, the lingua franca of the planet has been English and, unless the Chinese standardise one of their several languages and make it widespread beyond the Middle Kingdom, that will remain so.
It is galling to walk into a boulangerie, point to croissants and stutter “J’en veux deux, s’il vous plait” and be greeted with “with or without chocolate?” But this is deceptive. Though many can speak English, they are more at home in their own language and the ability to acknowledge this cuts considerable ice. Off the beaten track, especially with less common languages like Portuguese, even a few phrases do so much more for international relations than simply speaking louder in English.
Scots take too much comfort from the omnipotence of English, especially as a business language. Especially now that we are on the cusp of regaining some of our tarnished reputation for solid and creative engineering through top-notch oil services companies like Weir and Wood Group and the emerging renewables businesses, these will need to be sold around the world against competitors like the Danes whose English puts them on a par with us in that language and gives them the thick edge learning the customer’s.
But, perhaps most importantly, we Scots have lost the concept of a foreign policy that is our own. For three hundred years, we have been active participants in the British Foreign and Colonial offices as our windows on the world. As a colonial power, that brought much trade and more than a few glorious scuffles, culminating in WW2. Since then, from Korea to Afghanistan, UK foreign policy was still too influenced by the glory days of empire that has not moved with the times.
Though, thankfully, the phrase “wogs begin at Calais” gets little airing these days, that lies behind not just the BNP but the non-racial but nonetheless xenophobic positioning of UKIP, neither of which encourages the embrace of foreign culture, far less their language. Unfortunately, Scotland suffers from the same immigration restrictions, the same bossy border controls, the same faint disdain for things foreign among our officials that might have had basis when our gunboats dominated world trade—but has none now.
More than anything, this residue of greatness, this idea that once prevailed of “making the world England” still pervades much unionist thinking. There, at least, it has a logical basis. But in family homes across Scotland, few could handle non-English-speaking exchange students if they were to be billeted on them; few yet see the point of preparing for that or a similar eventuality. They would rather their children nailed another Higher and secured university entrance than that they had the fluency to live a gap year surfing in Biarritz and earn enough to save for uni while there.
Travel around Europe—Benelux especially—and you are struck not just be the open borders of Schengen but by the cultural flexibility with which business, products, services, transport, flow across borders, language barriers and old enmities. Cologne to Brussels or Lille to Utrecht, the only difference with Edinburgh to Glasgow is proper motorway with more lanes and less holdup. People there aren’t thinking in country boxes any more and languages are the keys to open up international possibilities.
This is what Scotland needs to learn: that languages aren’t just useful but essential for a 21st century nation with ambitions not just to sell to the world but to be seen as a willing and valued participant in it. At this point, the UK does not qualify. With a revival of attitude they once embraced in medieval times, an independent Scotland could.
But it will take business to demand language skills in their new hires, government to support that far-sighted initiative and parents to understand that their Micky Mechanic or Eloise Engineer will get twice the salary and see more of the world if they can talk Halbleitertechnik and not just semiconductors. Putting part-qualified teachers into primary schools will not be enough: it will remain an initiative without a context.
And we need to grasp this particular thistle as a country fast—before we’ll also have to consider Urdu or Mandarin as further essential languages to introduce at primary level.