Listen to the tongues of a new Scotland;Platform;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

19th November 1999 at 00:00
A national language policy is launched today at a conference in Edinburgh of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland. Alison Paget sets the scene

THE SCHOOL assembly hall was full of chatter as people of all ages gathered from the many black and minority ethnic communities of Dundee. It was the first awards ceremony held by the Dundee Communities Languages Advisory Group, which runs weekend classes in seven languages.

The awards were for six young people who had passed Standard grade Urdu in June. Each came from a bilingual family where Urdu is used at home and English at school. The event was the result of liaison among the Urdu tutors, the bilingual pupils' support service, the city council and the school's principal teacher of modern languages.

The advisory group has had many inquiries from across Scotland on how to attract funding and access exams. But primarily the local black and minority ethnic community has begun to realise that language heritage is being valued and promoted.

Community language learning has gained credibility among bilingual pupils and their peers and within the whole school - with managers, teachers and other staff. Greater awareness of the multi-talented abilities of bilingual pupils is evident within the wider community of Dundee.

This example of good practice is funded by the lottery and the city council and will run for three years. It is not part of a national policy and is likely to be unique. A shadow is cast over the longer-term situation.

The critical question is when will Scottish education acknowledge the abilities of bilingual pupils and seek to nurture linguistic diversity? Languages like French and German are regarded as essential, but what of Urdu, Arabic and Chinese, to name but a few? What about support and development of first home languages? Where is the investment and recognition to develop the bilingualism that already exists in many homes in Scotland?

Scotland is a linguistically complex country. Some people think that this diversity is a threat to national identity and cohesion, and there continue to be misconceptions and prejudices that the learning of two languages at an early age creates confusion and limits progress. Initial and in-service teacher education fails to give sufficient weight to bilingual skills and issues. There are few training opportunities for community language teachers.

These are some of the concerns identified in Bilingualism, Community Languages and Scottish Education, produced by the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland and compiled by a 12-strong working party from education authorities, local racial equality councils and black and minority ethnic organisations.

The document reflects comments from a national consultation last year, and its launch today (Friday) is intended to draw attention to the value of bilingualism for practitioners and policy-makers at all levels throughout Scotland. At its heart is the belief that the new Scotland should be culturally inclusive and open enough to consider a distinctive language policy providing national and other bodies with a clear framework for supporting the development and use of the country's languages.

The document starts with a definition which is central to the debate. Bilingualism is an appreciation by society of the importance of languages (both majority and minority) in the shaping of individual, social, cultural, political and economic identity. This includes a valuing of community and heritage languages and the promotion of language diversity, maintenance and restoration within all aspects of education.

Bilingualism benefits society at four levels: in education, social equality, human rights and economically. Much has been done to recognise the range of cultures and religions. But there has been a failure to give the same recognition to linguistic diversity.

In terms of education, the first action point suggested to the Scottish Executive is to include community languages and the particular needs of bilingual learners in the national debate on languages. Local authorities are asked to ensure that schools include the monitoring and evaluating of appropriate provision for bilingual learners. There are action points for nurseries through to adult education. Institutions offering professional training are asked to monitor applications and take-up of courses so that bilingual students are fairly represented.

Bilingual skills should be a desirable skill for recruitment and selection in teacher education and community education courses. Positive action (not positive discrimination) should be taken in partnership with local authorities to encourage applications from bilingual speakers. All courses should include mandatory modules on language awareness, bilingual issues and multicultural anti-racist education within initial training. In-service training on language awareness should be available to qualified teachers in all sectors of education.

In cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, Punjabi and Urdu are the most commonly spoken languages next to English. The pupils celebrating in the Dundee school were enabled to develop both their first and second languages. Do we leave such opportunities to ad hoc good practice? Or should we be bold and visionary by developing a coherent national language policy?

Bilingualism, Community Languages and Scottish Education is available at pound;5 (plus p amp; p) from CERES, Floor 2, Room 5, Charteris Building, Moray House, Edinburgh University, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ (O131 651 6371). Alison Paget, a member of the CERES working party and former teacher, was a bilingual pupil support worker with Dundee City Council.

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