It is the word and world of Confucius

15th August 2008 at 01:00

When the British Olympic team touched down in Beijing, our athletes would probably have had much to say to the English-speaking media, but they would likely have left communicating with the locals to translators.

However, members of the Portuguese team would have been less reluctant to exchange the time of day. Earlier this year, the Olympic Committee of Portugal signed an agreement with the University of Lisbon to give lessons on Chinese language and culture to their athletes. They have been attending the university's specialist Confucius Institute.

The Portuguese have recognised a fact which we in Scotland are gradually waking up to: an inability to communicate can hold us all back in our globalised world.

In most other countries, the first choice of a second language almost always goes to English. Here, we tend to choose French or German because that was the most pertinent choice 30 years ago when the UK was looking to forge closer ties with Europe.

Now, Scotland is looking further than the continental mainland to do business and so the demand for languages is changing. Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Russian are emerging as popular choices in universities. Events like this year's Olympiad serve to heighten interest in new cultures, and we should embrace them as opportunities to further advance our desire to make Scotland smarter.

Learning another language is an important part of intellectual development. The ability to reason and accommodate different ways of thinking is essential today, and one of the best ways to do this is by learning a language.

Yes, navigating grammatical complexities can be difficult. After all, French has two words for "you", German three and Spanish five. The Japanese have several words for "water" where we have only one.

But that is what makes learning a language a wonderful thing. It is not only about unlocking grammar but about awakening to new cultures. Because the English language follows a particular form, it does not mean other languages will follow that pattern. Just because we have set ways of approaching business in this country, it does not follow that it is the same around the world.

Where better to start than with the workforce of the future - our young people in school today. That is why the Scottish Government is putting a renewed focus on learning languages with the introduction of A Curriculum for Excellence, which will raise the bar for language learning and teaching in schools, and a Scottish Languages Baccalaureate, aimed at producing a multilingual workforce equipped to go out into the world and contribute to making Scotland a more dynamic and outward-looking nation.

Earlier this year, the first National Qualifications courses in Chinese languages at Intermediate level were launched in Scotland, to be followed by Higher and Advanced Higher next year.

In 10 days' time, when the sporting spectacular comes to a close, the challenge will be to stay in the competition for the long run. Scotland is limbering up to do that by giving our young people the best start possible. After all, the word - and world - is out there.

Maureen Watt, is Minister for Schools and Skills.

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