Language // The Guardian languages debate: No voice for UK minority languages?

Port Beag

Last month, the Guardian launched its Languages Debate, in partnership with the British Academy and complete with twitter hashtag (#languagesdebate), aimed a sparking a public discussion on language learning in the UK. The recent publication of statistics showing a decline in the numbers of foreign language graduates in the UK has will only add to current concern. Apparently, even Foreign Secretary William Hague has also been stressing out about the situation and its implications for his ministry, our general employability, and the UK’s competitiveness.

While this drop in graduate numbers isn’t great, the picture wasn’t exactly rosy beforehand. We in the UK are notoriously bad at learning languages, and many of the reasons for that come into play long before we reach university. So as a language-lover, as well as a language teacher, I agree with head of education for Guardian Professional, Wendy Berliner: it is time for a national debate on language learning.

National debates, however, are quite tricky things to pull off in the UK, made up as it is of several nations. Indeed, one of the articles published in the lead-up to the debate’s launch, by David Bellows, was entitled, “A-level languages: is Britain at risk of turning into a nation of monoglots?”, based on statistics showing a drop in the numbers of students taking A-level languages. Straight away, alarm bells are ringing; A-levels are not a Britain-wide qualification, and so any extrapolation based on that data is already flawed. The error is compounded in Rebecca Ratcliffe’s article, published under the #languagesdebate banner and entitled, “Why is UK language teaching in crisis?”, boldly beginning with the statement, “British foreign language skills are in crisis.” However, as the article looks exclusively at A-levels and GCSEs, and as its observations are largely limited to England, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about language teaching or skills in the rest of Britain or the UK.

Not to worry. In Scotland, we have long been used the London-based media mistake of conflating Britain, or even the UK, with England, and while Wales sometimes gets an honourable mention, due perhaps to shared systems or sheer southern proximity, the other UK nations are rarely included. (Indeed, by talking about “Britain” rather than “the UK”, you’re already booting Northern Ireland out of the discussion altogether).

With its separate education system, Scotland is completely ignored in these articles, and while that omission might be understandable in the particular context of A-level number-crunching, it would at least be good manners to acknowledge it, particularly when you are drawing conclusions about the UK as a whole.  You might even go further, and say it have been been good journalism to compare the systems in other parts of the UK. (If only SCILT, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, had published a handy digest of the Intermediate and Higher language statistics for 2013…)

The bigger problem with these various articles, however, is the total absence of any reference to any of the UK’s indigenous minority languages. David Bellows’ article rightly highlights bilingualism, or even multilingualism, as the norm with English speakers around the world, but goes on to single out “British” schoolchildren as the notable exception:

“Today too, when “everyone speaks English”, most of its speakers worldwide also speak something else. Just one small group (as a proportion of English speakers overall, it is very small indeed) seems set on isolating itself from the world: British schoolchildren who have no second language at home.”

While this may be true for the majority of British schoolchildren, and particularly for schoolchildren in England, it is not the full picture. In fact, this would have been an ideal time for Bellows to mention the many Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic medium schools operating in the UK. The majority of these pupils have no second language at home; they speak English as a mother tongue, and learn their second language at school from a very young age, emerging from primary school able to speak and write in both languages and bucking the British-schoolchildren-as-monoglots trend Bellow’s is complaining about. Surely, then, this warrants a mention as a model of good practice, or, at the very least, a point of interest? Apparently not, as Bellows fails to touch on Welsh, Irish, or Gaelic (never mind Manx or Cornish) at all, despite going to mention 21 different languages in the course of his article (including other European minority languages, Breton, Alsacian, Catalan and Provençal, as well as the long-dead Punic).

There are similar issues with Louise Tickle’s #languagesdebate article, “What does the future hold for primary languages?”, which again focusses on the situation in England. While this of course isn’t a bad thing in principle, we encounter the familiar muddying of the waters with talk of “the UK” and “British schoolchildren” while looking, in fact, at the situation in England alone. But, as with Bellows, the biggest problem with the article is the failure to acknowledge those systems which are successful in bringing primary school children” to fluency in a second language: Welsh, Irish and Gaelic-medium education.

While the numbers admittedly aren’t huge, they definitely should not be ignored; almost a quarter of schoolchildren in Wales are educated through Welsh, there are 30 Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland, and a new Gaelic-medium school has just opened in the Scottish capital due to increasing demand from parents. There is also a Manx-medium school on the Isle of Man. And though there are serious debates within minority language communities as to their effect on reversing language shift, one thing is certain; in terms of attainment levels in language, these education systems are head and shoulders above the English-medium alternative.

For example, a recent study in Scotland showed that Gaelic-medium pupils’ attainment levels in Gaelic were as good as English-medium pupils’ attainment levels in English. While the English-medium pupils could only perform in one language, the Gaelic-medium pupils could perform in two, and indeed out-performed their English-medium counterparts in English. Though no-one would claim that the systems are perfect, in terms of language teaching, something is clearly working, and working well. So why has this been left out of the “national debate”?

One explanation is that these articles are concerned with “modern languages” or “foreign languages”; in other words, languages which will get you a good job in the global marketplace or the Foreign Office. But, as young people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland know, being bilingual with Welsh, Gaelic or Irish can greatly increase your employability in the respective nations, as demand for services in those languages increases. Irish also has the advantage of being one of 24 official EU languages, so those fluent in Irish and English are able to apply for a number of EU posts for which two EU languages is a requirement. And as both Bellows’ and Ratcliffe’s articles touch on the importance of “community languages”, it’s clear that the Guardian debate is not limited to employability-boosting French, Russian or Chinese.

Nor is it limiting itself to languages in rude health, with huge numbers of speakers; one of the articles published as part of the debate is Josephine Livingstone’s “Why you should learn a dead language”, where the virtues of learning Latin, Old English and Middle English are extolled. The author goes on to mention Old French, Old Norse, Occitan, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, but there’s no mention of revived Manx or Cornish.  It would seem that any tongue is worth talking about, any language worth learning – except our own indigenous minority languages.

For all I know, the Guardian could be commissioning articles on Welsh or Gaelic or another minority language as we speak: I sincerely hope they are. But why this glaring omission thus far in the debate? Why, in a series of articles about language learning in UK schools, do none of the journalists even mention the most successful language education model we have?

The sloppy London media bias is part of the issue here; however, a bigger cause for concern is the lack of respect, attention and even of acknowledgement given, both in the media and in UK society as a whole, to the fact that our linguistic identity is not exclusively English. The perceived low status of our indigenous minority languages has long been a driving force in the decline in speaker numbers; unfortunately, that’s something that’s harder to heal if they continue to be airbrushed out of “national” debates.


* If you have links to articles on minority language learning in the UK, whether it relates to Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Manx, Scots, Cornish or any other minority language, indigenous or otherwise, please feel free to post below.


2 responses to “Language // The Guardian languages debate: No voice for UK minority languages?

  1. Pingback: Language // The Guardian languages debate: No v...·

  2. Excellent article. The kind of deliberate ignorance of minority languages in the UK was also evident in the BBC’s 2011 series ‘Fry’s Planet Word’ written and presented by Stephen Fry. Despite discussing the language strata of the UK – albeit in rather typically insulting tones – Scots was not mentioned at all, and only ‘accents’, not dialects, were given any airtime, and then mostly in parody. Scottish Gaelic wasn’t mentioned.once, and Fry curiously chose to go to the Republic of Ireland to highlight bilingualism (Gaeilge/English), instead of staying ‘at home’ and discussing Scottish Gaelic. Ethnocentrism is a core part of the British Establishment, and will not end willingly.

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