Do mind the language gap

Better teaching of community languages such as Arabic, Polish, Chinese or even Tagalog could boost Scotland's economic position, according to a new report.

The study into the provision of community languages in Scotland finds a wide disparity in the well-developed resources and support available for Gaelic, compared to the minimal support for other indigenous languages such as Scots, including Doric, British Sign Language, and the languages of Travellers.

For none of the other indigenous languages is there a policy which either "recognises the need for formal provision or considers the most appropriate forms of support", it says. Some 80 non-indigenous community languages are largely ignored.

The report adds: "A key issue for the UK in the age of globalisation is which languages are likely to be of most benefit for the economy, for trade, and for international relations in the 21st century. Some of the most widely spoken and studied community languages - Urdu, Turkish, Chinese, Bengali and Arabic - are likely to be on that list."

The report by Joanna McPake, depute director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (Scottish CiLT) for the Scottish Executive, finds that at least 106 languages are spoken by at least 12,000 children in Scottish schools - although this may be an under-estimate, as fewer than half the local authorities in Scotland collect data about the languages spoken by pupils. But provision exists for only 21 of these languages.

It contrasts the community language opportunities in Scotland with those in Finland - a country of a similar size - where "municipalities" undertake to make provision for community language learning whenever five or more children interested in taking up such provision can be identified.

"These children may be attending different schools within the municipality, but the municipality arranges transport to bring the children to a central point for after-school provision," it adds.

Dr McPake adds that her research suggests that there is no provision for the formal learning of some 80 languages spoken in Scotland. In some cases this may be because only small numbers of children speak these languages.

"But some of these languages, such as Portuguese, Thai or Tagalog (also known as Filipino) are in widespread use across Scotland and are of considerable economic significance around the world."

Dr McPake says: "Traditionally, issues relating to provision for learning indigenous languages such as Gaelic, Scots, sign languages and the languages of Travellers have rarely been considered in the same context as languages such as Urdu, Arabic or Chinese. While recognising that some languages constitute 'special cases' in Scotland, there are compelling reasons for addressing provision for all community languages in the same context."

Of the non-indigenous community languages, Urdu has the most extensive provision, with Standard Grade Urdu available since 1999, and Higher being offered this year for the first time. However, of the other 20 most commonly spoken community languages, students can enter only GCSE, AS or A-level exams.

The report also suggests that Scotland follow the practice in England where formal teaching qualifications are available in languages education.

"Scottish teacher education institutions offer initial teacher education in no community languages other than Gaelic. There are no opportunities to train to teach Urdu, therefore Urdu teachers employed in Scottish schools have had to qualify as teachers of other subjects; our survey showed that over a third (38 per cent) did not have any specific training in language education at all," the report said.

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