Eschewing languages is a false economy

25th March 2011 at 00:00

Last month, TES Scotland ran a feature about Euroscola, a European project where 25 Scottish pupils participated in an international debate - in French - with their peers from 18 other countries in the Strasbourg parliament. These sixth-year pupils did their country proud and punched above their weight, as their mentor, Gerry Toner, put it. It was a memorable story because Scottish youngsters came out of their shells, stood up in a major public arena and showed other countries what they were capable of - in a foreign language.

How do we reconcile a story like that with news reports we have been reading over the past months about the decline in modern languages in Scotland, and the call for a debate to halt it? We have our own debate in this week's News Focus (pp10-13), where TESS surveys reveal that more than half of Scottish local authorities have at least one secondary school where modern languages are no longer compulsory in S1-3, and two-thirds of Scottish councils have cut foreign language assistants to save thousands of pounds. But at what cost?

Scotland has always prided itself in providing a broad education. Pupils would be expected to study a language and if they were doing an arts degree, they would be required to have one. It wasn't just about relevance; it was part of our culture. These islands may be small, but Scottish education looked outwards; Scots were Europeans. Some would say it went back to the Auld Alliance.

In 1970, 12,000 pupils took Higher French, and many looked forward to jobs in the European Economic Community, as it then was. Forty years later, in 2010, only 4,500 followed in their footsteps. In the Seventies, Glasgow University had some of the biggest language departments in the UK; now, principal Anton Muscatelli proposes to cut whole swathes of them: German, Russian, Italian, Czech and Polish have all been mooted. They are, he has said, victims of the decline in pupils doing Higher languages at school; but languages at school were also victims of the university's decision that they would no longer be a requirement.

Since then, it has been a rapid spiral downwards, compounded now by the need for easy cuts. But we should beware false economies. Languages are becoming more important in an increasingly global market, and as unemployment soars our youth may be forced to compete for jobs abroad. What's more, the ability to speak a language is not merely about words, or business in other countries. It is about communication and understanding, comprehending how other peoples think. Whether it is children from Dyce Academy picking up Swahili to speak with friends in Kenya (p18), or JF Kennedy announcing "Ich bin ein Berliner" in 1963, these are the words which forge true global links.

Gillian Macdonald, Editor.

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