Earlier this month, the press reported that schools in some areas were less likely to offer modern languages due to the socioeconomic environment. Statistics showed that pupils in prosperous districts were more than twice as likely to sit a foreign language exam compared with those in more economically challenged neighbourhoods. However, these figures referred to England and contrasted affluent Kensington in London with Middlesbrough in the deprived North East.
Despite similar headlines in Scotland, the story is not the same. Looking at middle-class Jordanhill and working-class Drumchapel, there is no gap in the uptake of modern languages due to deprivation in Glasgow. So why were journalists so keen to report the comments of modern languages lecturer and author Francisco Valdera-Gil to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee without doing a basic fact check?
I think the remarks, which Valdera-Gil has since apologised for, were seized upon in part because the story buys into an underlying snobbery about poverty and foreign languages that has existed in Scottish culture, probably since the industrial revolution. You hear it from those working in Castlemilk, jokingly referring to the housing scheme as “Chateaulait”, the irony in the contrast of the melodious French and the harsh reality. Modern languages teachers in all of Glasgow's outlying schemes must be sick of hearing, “Would you not be better trying to teach them English?”
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Despite welcome progress in tackling racial and sexual stereotyping, there is still a lazy typecast of working-class lives being narrow and lacking culture, and so when someone from the Scottish Council of Deans of Education backs this up, then, of course, it will be latched on to. As if anyone from one of Glasgow’s housing schemes would have aspirations to travel, work for a company with foreign contacts or simply have an affinity for a different culture, so why bother teaching them another language?
Access to modern languages
In fact, in an individual school, access to modern language learning depends on the weight a headteacher puts on the importance of languages, coupled with the availability of subject specialist teachers. So while there is a catchment area lottery about a school's tendency to do French, Spanish, Italian or German, it is not dependent on the school's factors of deprivation but on access to teachers.
It is a pity Valdera-Gil's unfortunate choice of words drowned out his important warning about the decline in the teaching of languages in Scottish classrooms and their role in improving literacy. In fact, he might instead have highlighted that our teaching of modern languages is far more democratic than across the border in England, where restricted access to learning a language is a growing problem triggered by a past UK government decision to make modern languages optional at GCSE in England.
Perhaps those invited to Holyrood to share their expertise should use their time in front of the education committee more usefully, by stressing the importance of keeping languages as part of the core subjects in Scotland.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland