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Sarah Breslin

The director of SCILT, Scotland's National Centre for Languages based at the University of Strathclyde, talks about the 1+2 policy, the benefits of CfE and how to persuade pupils to stick with languages. Interview by Henry Hepburn

The director of SCILT, Scotland's National Centre for Languages based at the University of Strathclyde, talks about the 1+2 policy, the benefits of CfE and how to persuade pupils to stick with languages. Interview by Henry Hepburn

What is your languages background?

I had a forward-thinking P6-7 teacher who introduced us to French. At secondary I had the option to do Higher French, German and Italian, then I continued French and German at university. I had a year in both France and Austria, then qualified as a teacher and wanted to go abroad for teaching experience. I ended up in Catalonia for 15 years, and learned Spanish and Catalan.

Why did you enjoy languages?

I wanted to explore the world. And as the youngest of seven children I was quite shy; I liked the mask - nobody knew you. Also, I love music, so the sounds of languages have always been attractive. And the notion of cracking the code - it's like a puzzle.

What is your favourite phrase in a foreign language?

In German, they say "Autumn has lovely days, too" to mean you're never too old: "Auch der Herbst hat noch schone Tage."

How would you sum up the state of languages in Scottish schools?

Mixed. There are schools where they are absolutely flourishing, others where there are clear concerns.

Is it a problem that pupils believe there's no point because everyone speaks English?

I'm reasonably confident perceptions are changing. In our schools we have much more of a cultural and linguistic mix. Everyone has been hooked on subtitled Scandinavian TV dramas - that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago. And recent Eurobarometer results, including the UK, showed 90 per cent of adults considered mastery of other languages key to their children's success.

What is the best way to persuade pupils to stick with languages?

Schools that actively promote languages will have higher uptake. If pupils have a fantastic learning experience, they'll want to continue.

What's going wrong where that doesn't happen?

There's what happens in the classroom, but also the ethos around them - parents, school - or practical issues like timetables.

Is it about getting across the broader benefits of learning languages?

Yes, the transferable skills: problem solving, communication, those inter- cultural skills that employers really value. UK job adverts don't very often specifically ask for languages - but they ask for an international outlook and strong communication skills.

What will be the impact of the Scottish government's 1+2 policy?

It's early days, but we're already seeing decision makers in schools and local authorities sitting up and taking notice. This will increase teacher morale - support from management is absolutely critical. Elements of the policy, like starting in P1, seem radical but there's a sound rationale.

Should Scots and Gaelic count in 1+2?

Absolutely. That's the real positive of the 1+2: it allows us to bring in community and heritage languages.

What would you say to the view that these languages are no use abroad?

That's a utilitarian approach. While it's important to point out specific needs and languages to learners, the development of skills is the same across all languages.

Are early-immersion programmes the best route into languages?

There is a strong body of research that shows an early start is advantageous, provided the experience is positive and there are opportunities for continuity.

Is there enough emphasis on languages in initial teacher education?

We're not there yet, but the time is ripe because universities are changing their BEd degrees and the Donaldson report talked about specific subject input, mentioning languages as an area of concern.

How damaging is the dramatic drop in foreign-language assistants?

It's such a shame - they are the living embodiment of language and culture. But there has been a slight increase this year and we're working with the British Council to help them develop projects suitable for their school.

Is CfE good or bad for languages?

Good, without a shadow of a doubt. The whole philosophy is the embodiment of best practice in language teaching. But that doesn't mean there aren't issues.

To what age should languages be mandatory?

I'm not sure compulsion is the right approach, but we need to make sure languages are an essential part of learning, at least until people are able to make an informed decision.

What do you make of the languages baccalaureate?

It's a fantastic qualification. There are logistical issues, but more and more universities are recognising its value. The projects the young people have undertaken are out of this world.

Can German's decline be reversed - and should it be?

It must be. Germany is the UK's largest non-English-speaking trading partner; the majority of non-English-speaking tourists in the UK are from Germany and they are leading in green technology, as is Scotland.

In 30 seconds, persuade someone of the value of learning languages

Languages reflect our humanity; the more we speak, the better we can understand fellow human beings. Ezra Pound, the American poet, said: "The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language."


Born - Glasgow, 1964

Education - Notre Dame primary and secondary; University of Glasgow, MA hons French and German language and literature

Career - TEFL teacher and director of a language school in Catalonia; head of international and EU programmes at James Watt College; worked for Scottish Qualifications Authority on education policy; 2009 - director of SCILT.

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