A leaf out of European books

8th June 2007 at 01:00
What might Scotland learn from other European countries about supporting the growing range of community languages in use among our schoolchildren?

Multilingualism is on the rise in Scotland. Statistics from the 2006 pupil census revealed that 137 languages in addition to English are spoken by at least 28,000 school pupils (4 per cent of the school population). Polish is now the fourth most widely spoken community language - after Punjabi, Urdu and Cantonese.

Research has shown that plurilingualism is an asset. It is obvious that someone who speaks two or more languages benefits by being able to communicate with a wider range of people than someone who speaks only one. But plurilinguals also have cognitive advantages which can translate into educational gains, in terms of creative thinking and certain verbal and non-verbal skills. Moreover, they find it easier to learn additional languages.

Wider society benefits too: the more languages Scotland's citizens speak, the greater the opportunities for trade, cultural exchange, tourism, responsive public services, diplomacy, and aid and development.

We have good examples of the extent to which children can benefit from educational opportunities to develop two languages simultaneously. Studies of Gaelic-medium pupils' attainment in English, maths and science at the end of their primary education have shown that they perform at least as well as, if not better than, their peers educated in English-medium classes, in addition to becoming fluent in Gaelic.

But similar opportunities for other languages do not exist. Pupils from Urdu-speaking families can study their language as a "foreign" language at secondary and only up to Standard grade level, although Higher Urdu will be available in 2007-08. A wider range of languages - including Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Arabic, Polish and Bengali - is available from English examination boards, and some Scottish pupils are entered for these, but always as "foreign" languages, and often without opportunities to study them at school.

The VALEUR Project, an initiative supported by the European Centre for Modern Languages in Austria, investigated provision for community languages across Europe, to help different countries to learn from each other about the most effective ways of supporting plurilingual pupils.

Good examples from across the continent have been identified. A school in which children are educated in Hungarian and Mandarin has recently been set up in Budapest; an Austrian school operates trilingually in German, Italian and Slovene; and a Finnish school has an Estonian-medium unit, supported by the Finnish and Estonian ministries of education; the Netherlands documents children's developing skills in their community languages in a European Language Portfolio; in Spain, the Portuguese and Moroccan embassies offer classes run by teachers trained in these countries to enable children to develop formal skills in Portuguese or Arabic.

Could we see such developments in Scot-land? Before the election, the group charged with developing the Languages Strategy for Scotland published a draft for consultation. Among the stated aims was "to encourage people living in Scotland to learn languages other than their own". The findings from VALEUR, whose final report will be published in the autumn, provide concrete examples of how this could be achieved.

Joanna McPake is director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research at Stirling University

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