Why learning Scots is having a moment

More than 1.5 million people said they spoke Scots in the 2011 census, and now this language is enjoying a resurgence in the classroom. The learning benefits are immense, writes Kirsty Crommie
8th November 2019, 12:05am
Great Scot & Language
Kirsty Crommie


Why learning Scots is having a moment


There are thought to be more than 7,000 languages spoken across the world, with many more not yet known outside the small communities in which they are spoken. Around 330 are spoken in Europe and more than 2,000 in Asia. Over 850 languages are spoken within Papua New Guinea alone (Miaschi, 2017) and, within the thousands of languages spoken worldwide, there are countless dialects and regional variations, rich in vocabulary and sounds.

Language lets us share, discover and make connections. But it is also a representation of culture and identity, and it symbolises the incredibly diverse world in which we live - so, with 75 per cent of the world's population not speaking English, it is imperative that we encourage the learning of languages throughout school.

And this must include the Scots language: by studying our minority languages, such as Scots, we are celebrating our diverse and fascinating linguistic heritage, as we should.

In primary schools across Scotland, at least one additional language is being taught. The Scottish government's 1+2 model for languages has a target of ensuring that by 2021, every Scottish school will offer children one additional language from P1 and a second from P5; many schools are well on their way to meeting that goal.

It is a target that is not without its challenges: staff must receive relevant training if they are to effectively deliver the teaching of a language of which they may have little or no experience. But the benefits are such that these challenges must be overcome.

Curriculum for Excellence: Modern Languages Experiences and Outcomes clearly lays out the benefits. Not only are literacy skills enhanced, but pupils learning a new language will also:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of their first language and appreciate the richness and interconnected nature of languages.
  • Enhance their understanding of their own and other languages and gain insights into other cultures.
  • Develop skills that they can use and enjoy in work and leisure throughout their lives.

The benefits apply just as much to children learning minority languages. In Scotland, there are three native languages: English, Scots and Gaelic. While English is the most common, more than 1.5 million people said they spoke Scots in the 2011 census, while over 57,000 said they spoke Gaelic.

A number of schools exist to provide teaching and learning through Gaelic, particularly in the areas where it is spoken most, but the teaching of Scots is generally left to schools and teachers with an interest in and enthusiasm for Scots, although some have opted to include Scots as part of their 1+2 approach.

Burning issue

Scots has a vibrant and exciting past and it is fascinating to see how the language has developed over the years. Scots is a branch of the Germanic family and has been spoken in Scotland for centuries. Its origins lie with the arrival of the Angles 1,400 years ago. During the Middle Ages, a distinct Scots language began to evolve. At that time, it was very much the dominant language in Scotland, spoken by kings and queens and used in literature and official records.

In the 17th century, however, Scotland's relationship with England began to change. Scots began to give way to English and it has never regained its status.

Today, there is one Scottish writer and poet whose work in Scots is celebrated the world over. In 1759, Robert Burns was born in Alloway (not in an alleyway, as a P5 pupil once proudly informed me after doing some independent internet research). His influence on the Scots language since then cannot be underestimated, particularly in education. If asked to identify a writer who wrote in Scots, it is likely that most children would be able to name Robert Burns. I suspect many children and adults alike would struggle to name any others, past or present.

Every January, Burns suppers take place up and down the country and across the world. In primary and secondary schools, pupils take on the responsibility of delivering the Address to a Haggis and the toast to the lassies. Poetry is recited and renditions of Auld Lang Syne are belted out. We feel happy and content that we have done our bit to celebrate our linguistic heritage.

I do love the way that we embrace and celebrate Scots language and all things Scottish in January (Burns Night is a far bigger affair in Scotland than St Andrew's Day, which is coming up on 30 November but passes with relatively little fanfare). My absolute favourite memories from school are of reciting Scots poems in the annual Burns Federation poetry competitions. Every year, I spent night after night practising the words and actions ready to perform. My own children now do the same. Reciting Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket in front of the school at assembly sticks in my mind as a highlight of my youth.

It is still one of my favourite things, hearing Scots poetry performed with such enthusiasm. It is particularly inspiring to watch a child whose first language is not English, or a child who is otherwise reluctant to speak, performing a Scots poem with confidence and gusto.

As a teacher and parent, I find it wonderful that we continue to celebrate Scotland's national poet and feel pride in his work and influence. I just wonder, though, if that is enough.

Curriculum for Excellence has put Scots back on the agenda in recent years, and teachers now feel that they have permission to deliver lessons through the medium of Scots. The Scottish Qualifications Authority offers secondary school students an optional Scots-language award, a course that allows learners to delve deep into the history and development of Scots, and many teachers are embracing this opportunity.

Yet Scots has long faced criticism and discrimination in society and in education. Accusations of it not being a real language, of it being simply slang and a slovenly version of English, continue to ensue. It has been suggested to me that teaching Scots is a waste of time and money, that we should let the language die. Some people remember getting the belt at school if they spoke Scots. We have certainly progressed from then, but negative attitudes continue to prevail and we need to challenge them at every turn.

The value of language

Without a doubt, there are amazing things happening with Scots in primary and secondary schools across Scotland, and it is wonderful that we spend time in January dedicated to Scots poetry and more. But there are so many more things we can do in schools throughout the year.

There are wonderful examples of primary schools bringing in books in Scots to help promote a culture of reading for pleasure. By using them for class storytimes and ensuring books in Scots are in libraries and class-reading areas, we normalise the use of the language and encourage children to embrace it. There is an ever-growing number of Scots translations for children and young adults - books by Roald Dahl, J K Rowling and David Walliams among them - and we are seeing more and more original work.

I have also seen Scots signs, labels and greetings used effectively to promote a multilinguistic environment in the classroom. Again, incorporating the language into the everyday normalises its use.

And there are so many teachers in Scottish secondary schools passionately delivering Scots language modules at different levels and making it easier to study texts in Scots as part of students' studies. This was apparent at the recent inaugural Scots Language Awards in Glasgow, where Scots was celebrated in all walks of life, including education. A really inspiring line-up of schools and teachers was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work being done in schools around the country.

When we teach Scots and through Scots, we reinforce the fact that we value the language that many of our pupils bring with them to the classroom. We are celebrating our cultural and linguistic heritage. We are having fun with a language that is rich with the most amazing vocabulary.

But the delivery and approach to teaching Scots is very much dependent on where you are in Scotland. In an area where the majority of pupils come from a Scots-speaking background, the approach and desired outcomes are going to be very different from an area with little or no Scots. I would argue, however, that the benefits are the same in any school.

In 2019, it feels like a really exciting time for the Scots language. There is a real sense of acceptance and appreciation of the language: Scots is being recognised on a level that it is has not been for a very long time.

Whether talking about the languages of our own country or languages from across the world, the benefits associated with learning them are immense. We need to make languages fun and exciting for learners and to celebrate the wonderful diversity of our own country and the world beyond - and that must include Scots.

Kirsty Crommie is a primary teacher, children's book blogger and a student at the University of Stirling, where she is completing a part-time master's in professional education and leadership. On 30 September, she won the Scots Teacher o' the Year title at the first Scots Language Awards

This article originally appeared in the 8 November 2019 issue under the headline "Great Scots and our linguistic heritage"

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