Here in the UK, we are very quick to tell ourselves, and any passing polyglot who’ll listen, that we’re rubbish at languages.
We’re pretty good at reeling off the reasons for this, too, chief of which is the fact that English is now a global language, meaning that, wherever we go and however honourable our intentions, we inevitably hear our own tongue talking back to us, from reception desks, public announcements and nightclub sound systems.
Another part of the narrative is that we are linguistically isolated monoglots, marooned on a cluster of islands on the edge of the Atlantic. If we were in the mix of mainland Europe, we tell ourselves, we’d be blethering away in at least two languages. Of course, things were different back in the good old Middle Ages, but the number of marauding European invaders has dwindled over the centuries, and while it probably wasn’t that enjoyable at the time, at least the Norse and Normans kept us on our toes linguistically.
Many contributors to the current Guardian languages debate have rightly called for improvements to language teaching in UK schools and a more open mind towards language learning as adults. Many different languages have been put forward for our consideration, from old O-level favourites French and German to the increasingly popular Spanish and Italian, to global bruisers like Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. We’ve also heard about ancient and extinct languages, as well as European minority languages, and that bilingualism, or multilingualism, is the norm in Europe, if not the rest of the word, and that we monoglots in the UK are the odd ones out.
Except, as you read this, people the length of these islands are using indigenous languages other than English to communicate with friends, family, teachers, colleagues and public services. That they are in the minority doesn’t meant that they don’t exist. In fact, the numbers of primary school-age speakers are growing; almost a quarter of school pupils in Wales are educated through the medium of Welsh, Northern Ireland is home to 30 Irish-medium schools, Scotland’s capital has just opened a new, dedicated Gaelic school due to increasing demand, and the Isle of Man has a Manx-medium school.
All of these children are also fluent in English; indeed, in the case of Gaelic-medium pupils, they outperform their English-educated counterparts in English tests. Their bilingualism bucks the monoglot trend of the majority, much lamented in these pages, yet it hasn’t been mentioned once. In fact, despite touching on over 30 different languages, this debate has so far failed to mention any of our indigenous minority languages. Isn’t that a bit… neònach?
There are those who would claim that such languages aren’t “useful” in the modern world and the global job market, and are therefore irrelevant to the current debate. “Why are you wasting your time with Welsh/Gaelic/Irish/[insert your minority language of choice] anyway?” scoff the naysayers. “We should all be learning Chinese!” Needless to say, the so-called reasoning behind such statements isn’t about getting to know China’s culture, heritage and people; rather, it’s about how it could help you make money. But while Mandarin Chinese may well be useful for an international businessperson of the future, we don’t only use language to earn money and do deals: we use language to communicate. To say there is no worth in learning a language that isn’t economically useful is like saying there’s no point in being friends with somebody unless they’re going to help you get a better job. It’s a spectacular, cynical miss of the point.
It’s also inaccurate. My minority language skills have allowed me to earn a living, by teaching Gaelic to adults at various colleges and universities in Glasgow and in the West Highlands of Scotland. The same is true for many of my friends, whether they’re schoolteachers, journalists or musicians. While the vast majority of Gaelic learners are not doing so for economic reasons, being a Gaelic speaker does open up employment opportunities that wouldn’t be available to somebody without those language skills. There are also specific job opportunities for those fluent in other indigenous minority languages, with Irish also having the added bonus of being an official language of the EU, giving speakers access further job opportunities.
When it comes to representation in the media, the successful establishment of separate minority language provision has absolved mainstream channels of the responsibility to feature them. Even programmes explicitly about languages, such as Stephen Fry’s Planet Word, broadcast by the BBC in 2011, seem to airbrush them out. The episode on identity saw him head for a fishing boat in the Republic of Ireland and a posh restaurant in the Basque Country to discuss indigenous minority languages, without acknowledging that we have nine of our own*.
But must our indigenous minority languages be ignored outwith their own niche media outlets? Would it really be so bad if the occasional news item allowed a minority language-speaking interviewee to respond in their own language, with English subtitles? Or if a contestant on the Great British Bake Off did the odd subtitled piece to camera in an indigenous British language that wasn’t English? Or if newspapers like this one published an online article each week in one of our indigenous minority languages? Or, might such measures actually better reflect, and raise awareness of, our multilingual makeup? Might more people consider learning these languages? Might more speakers be inclined to use them more often, in more situations?
Whether it’s their medieval literature, interesting turns of phrase or modern theatre performances, these languages make us more interesting. Yet, while they enjoy some support at local and European levels, at a UK level they might as well not exist. In some ways, this is to be expected, made up as we are of three small nations (where the minority languages are strongest) and a much bigger nation (where they are largely, but by no means totally, absent). There is also sometimes a faint whiff of bigotry surrounding minority language issues, a hangover from centuries of othering of Celts, and of travellers, by a British state who saw them simultaneously as subordinate and a threat. Commentators attacking minority languages often have little knowledge of the subject, and disregard data in favour of bare-faced prejudice.
Different aspects of our cultures and beliefs, our habits and history, not to mention our humour, are all encoded in our languages. By knowing them, we know ourselves better. Thankfully, they have clung on to these islands despite decades, if not centuries, of cruel and systematic persecution; the people of Man and Cornwall have stared the awful reality of language death in the face, yet still they speak. There are now growing opportunities to learn many of these languages, and not just in their traditional heartlands. If you can, grab them with both hands; you will be the richer for it.
There is no question that learning another language is a good thing, culturally and socially if not also economically. Many will prefer to take on Chinese or get to grips with German – and good luck to them. But let’s not ignore our indigenous languages. They too should be given the respect and acknowledgement they deserve.
* There are ten languages indigenous to the British Isles and still spoken today – English, Scots, British Sign Language, Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Angloromani and Shelta.
For more information on learning Gaelic, visit learngaelic.net
An edited version of this article appears here on the Guardian online.