Cultivating languages from an early age is key to success

26th August 2011 at 01:00
Scotland needs to tackle the problem of monolingualism, starting with the young - and that means pre-school

First of all, a confession. Since I became a headteacher in 1987, I have been passionately committed to including Mandarin in the languages taught in our schools. As convener of the Scotland-China Education Network I have worked with the learning directorate of the Scottish Government, what is now Education Scotland, the Confucius Institute for Scotland at Edinburgh University and a whole range of individuals in schools, authorities, colleges and universities who are equally passionate that our young people should learn about China and have the opportunity to learn Mandarin, the language of 1.3 billion people. But I do not speak Mandarin. In fact, I am terrified of speaking any language other than English.

Why is this? My own grammar school education, 1957-1962, was excellent for its time. I learnt Latin, French and a bit of Greek. I am enormously grateful for that. Even today I can recite Kennedy's Latin Primer by heart, including the footnotes. But languages when I was at school meant knowledge and accuracy; they did not involve communication. I received a priceless gift from my teachers of Classics and French and it has informed my mind ever since. But I am still terrified and embarrassed at the thought of speaking in anything other than English.

We have been aware of the shortcomings in modern language learning in Scotland for some time now, but there is a growing consensus that we must act. The scale of the problem emerged very strongly at this year's conference of SCILT, Scotland's national centre for languages. Many of our international visitors take our ignorance for granted; now we are becoming ashamed of their fluency in English while we do so little in return.

Critical friends, such as the German Consul General, Wolfgang Mossinger, point out to us gently but clearly that we have not grasped that we must do better if we are to relate to visitors to Scotland and play the part to which we aspire internationally. We simply must act if we are to give our young people the chance to be employed in businesses that operate on a global scale and to follow in the footsteps of the Scots of past centuries who took so many roles across the world.

Fortunately we are reaching an agreed view nationally on what must be done. The Modern Languages Excellence Report, published in March, emphasises the need for leadership at school and authority level and the principle that languages must be part of a broad general education for all our pupils. All our schools must be developing external partnerships at home and abroad, and our increasingly interdisciplinary approach to learning should encourage all teachers to appreciate the contribution of modern languages throughout the curriculum.

The Scottish Government is giving us a strong lead: the Education Secretary, Michael Russell, and the Learning and Skills Minister, Alasdair Allan, have pointed the way to the 1+2 languages model: all pupils should learn two modern languages in addition to their native tongue. Dr Allan is very convincing: a speaker of Gaelic, his doctorate is in the Scots language. Not for him my feeble approach to speaking other languages in public!

So, how can we all take this forward? We face an immense task and we must not leave it to our teachers of modern languages alone. We must start young, as Professor Antonella Sorace of Edinburgh University argued in TESS (15 July) and has demonstrated very clearly in her research. "Young" does not mean upper primary; if possible, it means pre-school.

There is no point whatsoever in saying that the task is beyond us. How else will the next generation take its place in the world? It is for the leadership of every school and every authority to find a way. Dr Allan is chairing a new working group on modern languages to tackle the issues; it meets for the first time on 15 September. We can be sure that Sarah Breslin, who chaired the Excellence Group and is director of SCILT, will be a powerful member.

All of us simply have to take this huge problem seriously. The Excellence Group report on modern languages must be read and its case studies examined. The work of pioneering primary school leaders, such as Aileen Spence of Woodhill Primary in East Dunbartonshire, has to be analysed and followed. We must encourage not only the next generation of primary teachers, but those who are teaching young pupils now, to be bold, to learn a new language, to teach abroad for a time.

What is SCEN doing, even with its feeble English-speaking convener? We are working with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to hold an event for primary and secondary pupils on 7 September, entitled Plants of China and of Scotland. Over 300 pupils from five authorities will be there, enjoying plant trails, celebrating the Royal Botanic Garden's long-standing links with China and sharing their own work on plant diversity and conservation, their links with China, and their learning of Mandarin. The day will model the importance of language learning and its links with other disciplines and schools and pupils abroad.

In addition to Education Secretary Michael Russell, Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews will be there, and the Chinese Consul General, Li Ruiyou. There will be contributions in Mandarin, of course, but also in Gaelic, from the Gaelic co-ordinator of Education Scotland, Cathie Macleod, and in Scots and Welsh.

Languages should be part of all we do. We have a huge task ahead, but plenty of leadership and enthusiasm. Even oldies like me can learn: perhaps, one day, the convener of SCEN will have the courage to learn Mandarin and not to be afraid of making mistakes.

Judith McClure is convener of the Scotland-China Education Network and a former headteacher.

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