Monday, 12 December 2011
Will They Listen?
Back in the 50s many Scottish primary school pupils were introduced to the French language. That included me. We were taught French grammar (no conversation in those days) by rote and because the subject continued into the 'big' school, it's very possible that a number of today's 65+ year olds who experienced a Dundee state school education, can still disgorge the tenses of popular French verbs. French was the language chosen by those 'in authority'. Perhaps it was because Scotland had what was thought to be a special relationship with France, through the 'Auld Alliance', but no other language other than Latin - which I found was most exotic and on occasion still study - was offered until after the third year of senior school.
My parents decided to move to the Borders when I was 15 when I was beginning to specialise in various subjects for my highers. The school was very much smaller than my city equivalent and struggled to meet the subjects I'd developed. My parents insisted my music studies would not be disrupted (that's another post) and I was desperate to drop French because it held no interest for me.
I expressed an interested in learning a language other than French. At the time those connected with my itinerary must have thought I had very definite views but they would have been wrong. My interest in learning another foreign language came from my brother. We've never been competitive to any degree but I idolised him and because he'd been recently 'crowned' as the youngest member of the Institute of British Linguists, I wanted to be part of his success. In fact I wanted to show him that even though I hadn't attended Sorbonne - he worked his way there - I could still succeed in speaking another language with some competence. Strangely I didn't want more French even though my brother's qualifications are in French, Russian and Mandarin. If you're interested he also speaks quite good Spanish, Swedish and nonsense! That doesn't make him a linguist in my eyes. He's a far better jazz musician and although well into his 70s now, he still trundles his band round the haunts of Vancouver as he blows his heart out on his saxaphone.
When my Peebles school suggested I try a German class little did I realise such a small decision, caused not by an effort to accommodate my desire but more to fit me into the school timetable, would be so important in my adult life. Not only was my German teacher inspiring but her German assistant clinched the 'deal'. Her enthusiasm and delight with Scottish culture and the comparisons with her own culture, required her pupils to want to visit Germany. As far as I know quite a few of us did, although I know of only one who lived there - me. In fact I had many happy years there.
A long time ago Scottish education binned teaching a foreign language in primary and recently only a few councils have continued to employ foreign language students in secondary schools. A neighbour used to provide accommodation to these young people - who were usually French - but about 10 years ago she was told the local secondary school would no longer be using the services of a French speaking student. Thus, with the sweep of a pen, a valuable tool for pupils was dumped in Perth and Kinross council as well as most others. Such short sightedness.
Suddenly the Scottish government has woken up to the fact that other countries are concerned about the cuts in the numbers of foreign language assistants in Scottish schools. Where have our politicians been for the past 20 years? Too busy ensuring classes about climate change, sex education, various religions and other issues, not relevant to their future employment opportunities, take precedence?
The Scottish government is urgently seeking talks with the diplomats of various countries with regard to foreign language assistants now that they have expressed their concerns that their has been an 80% fall over the past few years.
Our foreign language assistants cost little but do so much, just as British students do in foreign schools. They are usually young people in the midst of their studies and decide to make Scotland their workplace assignment.
What Scotland should be doing is using them in our primary schools, as well as secondaries, to introduce the young to another language. Few want to know Gaelic and I understand their reasons. Gaelic is not a language which will take any person round the world and be understood. Whereas my knowledge of German has done and will continue to do so.
Dr Alasdair Allan, the minister for learning and skills in the Scottish government, said:
“I share the concern expressed by the consuls general … and this government takes their views very seriously.
He should ensure that our primary children are introduced to a foreign language. No child is incapable of learning one if they're capable of learning their native tongue. If Scotland wants to improve its educational standards where better to start?
Will they listen? Our young are wide open to experiences and language. They ought to be given the chance to learn how to communicate with the world.