It's their language, so let them use it

7th November 1997 at 00:00
The Gaelic 5-14 programme gives clear recognition to the social and educational value of Scotland's original community language. The same argument can be applied to more recently seeded community languages in our multicultural society: Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, Chinese and Arabic. Teaching children and young people their own first language is good not only for them but for their monolingual peers.

For bilingual children, it helps to provide continuity of learning between home and school and to develop self-esteem and maintain cultural identity. Moreover, recent American research has convincingly demonstrated the long-term educational efficacy of bilingualism. For monolingual children, it increases language awareness and knowledge of linguistic diversity within a multicultural society and helps to combat ignorance, prejudice and racism.

Unlike Gaelic, however, Scotland's other community languages have been struggling to survive almost entirely outside the mainstream education system - despite consistent evidence of both need and demand. With varying degrees of official encouragement and support, classes have been conducted out of school hours and at weekends by volunteer tutors, mostly women, from the minority communities. In Edinburgh alone there are 42 community language classes supported by the city council: 21 in Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), seven in Urdu, four in Bengali, three in Arabic and Farsi, and two in Punjabi and Hindi, with a total of 522 students.

In some cases, this important if largely invisible work has been actively supported by progressive local authorities which have provided modest levels of funding and specialist support to train volunteer tutors, develop study materials and co-ordinate local activity. Elsewhere it has been a matter of community self-help, with little or no external recognition or encouragement. Despite uneven levels of official support, this work has been so successful that a Standard grade examination in Urdu will be introduced in 1998 with a target of approximately 100 entrants.

Ironically, however, just as the value of all this hard work and community effort is being recognised its future is coming under threat. There are three main reasons for this. First, the cash crisis in local government means that anything not regarded as essential gets squeezed out, and too few people with loud enough voices notice to make a fuss. The communities themselves feel powerless to make their voices heard. The part-time RSA diploma in teaching community languages at Moray House Institute in Edinburgh, the only course of its kind in Scotland, has now been suspended because no local authority funding is available to finance training and support students, in spite of demonstrable need and demand. The former Strathclyde Region's pilot project in teaching Urdu in primary schools has suffered a similar fate.

Second, devolved school management and incorporation in the further education sector have inevitably concentrated funding within institutions, leaving less and less to be spent outside in local communities. Finally, the reorganisation of local government has led to a disastrous fragmentation of area-based initiatives and impeded strategic intervention and co-ordination. In view of this, it is worth noting the former Lothian Region's explicit policy commitment to follow through the recommendation of the 1975 Bullock report that "no child should be expected to cast off the language and culture of the home . . . nor to live and act as though school and home represent totally separate and different cultures which have to be kept apart".

The reality today, however, it that this kind of thinly spread, community-based work is in danger of simply falling through the net. Where it survives, it does so in an increasingly patchy, piecemeal and ad hoc way, often dependent on the goodwill of individual advisers and headteachers.

There is now a real danger that as Scotland enters a new era of democratic renewal the distinctive voices of minority ethnic communities will be silenced. Our common citizenship of what could and should be a vibrant, diverse and multicultural Scotland will be sadly, and perhaps irretrievably, diminished.

We should not let this happen. Linguistic and cultural diversity is a rich resource which we can ill afford to lose. Or do we really want to live in a tartan version of the kind of nation sought by Norman Tebbit?

Ian Martin and Dharam Pal are on the staff of Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh.

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