Lloyd Anderson

4th January 2013 at 00:00
The director of British Council Scotland discusses the vital role of language learning in a world of expanding international markets, the battle against a 'creeping parochialism', foreign-language assistants in schools and the place of global education and citizenship. Interview by Henry Hepburn Photography James Glossop

Why should Scottish teachers know about the British Council?

This comes to the heart of our World Scots campaign. We believe young Scots must be able to operate on an international stage. We connect kids in their schools with kids abroad. We manage a number of schemes: Fulbright Teacher, Comenius, Connecting Classrooms, eTwinning, and so on.

How badly are poor language skills affecting Scottish job prospects?

I would turn that round. At the University of Aberdeen they're offering language classes to engineering students. That improves your CV when the job market is so tough for young people.

How does Scotland compare with other countries in terms of language learning?

Not well. We were a partner for the Language Rich Europe report. Since 2003, we've seen a decline in kids studying foreign languages, from practically all students down to 67 per cent - a third are not studying a language. The past 10 years have not looked good in Scotland. In England, the coalition is bringing in a baccalaureate, which will require a language. Scotland hasn't made languages compulsory, although Sarah Breslin (director of SCILT, Scotland's languages centre) says you don't want to force people.

What would you say to a youngster who says there's no point in learning languages as everyone speaks English?

You will miss so much of other cultures and understanding people. Even learning a few words makes all the difference. People appreciate that you've made the effort. And not everyone speaks English. In Germany, I remember arriving at the airport and nobody spoke English.

Why does it matter that languages are 'on the verge of collapse' in FE colleges, as a British Council report found?

Wolfgang Moessinger (former German consul general) always quoted Willy Brandt: "You can buy in your own language, but you've got to sell in the language of the people you're selling to." The British Council did a survey of business leaders - 70 per cent couldn't find young people with the skills their companies needed. We did a survey of students, and most weren't interested in work experience abroad. There's a disparity between what business leaders say and the aspirations of students. Ken Greer, director of education in Fife, says there is a creeping parochialism: people not moving out of Scotland, or even their local area.

Why is that? Economic circumstances?

I suppose it is. There's a sort of closing in of horizons, an insularity. It's odd, because the history of Scotland is of adventure and very broad horizons - I hear a third of the foreign office is Scottish. The British Council is dominated by Scottish families.

What will be the most valuable language to learn in years to come?

Chinese - also Portuguese and Spanish.

What do you think of Scotland's 1+2 languages policy?

It's a great idea, but how you implement it is the question.

And the idea that Scots and Gaelic could count towards the additional two languages?

I do think that makes sense. When you're young, gaining the ability to speak a third or fourth language is easier if you're used to some form of bilingualism.

There has been a slight rise in the number of foreign-language assistants (FLAs) this year, but numbers remain very low. What's your prognosis?

Unless there are more resources for local authorities, they're going to be looking for savings everywhere and foreign-language assistants will be one area that gets cut. But they're not that expensive, and they bring their culture, history and geography - schools are getting a lot more than a native language speaker. We had a campaign last year, so it's an issue that's much more in people's consciousness, which may make them think twice about cutting FLAs.

How well is Scotland doing with global education and citizenship?

I think it is working quite well, when you look at figures we've got for things like Connecting Classrooms and Comenius. There are a good number of schools making active links with schools abroad. Scotland's doing better than England and holding its own with other European countries.

What's the general view of Scotland from abroad?

Very good. Sometimes, in post-colonial countries, that's because it's not England! In Germany and France there's an almost ideal image of Scotland: unspoiled countryside, warm and friendly people, tartan and whisky. But if you asked people what they knew about contemporary Scotland, they'd start to struggle.

What is the British Council Scotland hoping for in 2013?

There's a lot of work to be done in terms of this contemporary image of Scotland - with the independence referendum coming up, getting Scotland better understood abroad would be a very good thing. We'd like to see more people involved in our programmes, and the number of foreign-language assistants going up - and more English-language assistants going abroad. And perhaps for us to engage more with the business world, and to become less Edinburgh-centric.


Born: London, 1955

Education: Highgate School and Imperial College London; PhD, Lancaster University

Career: Researcher, University of Edinburgh; first secretary (health), British Council, India; researcher, Animal Health Trust, Suffolk; senior scientific officer, Natural Environment Research Council, Wales; scientific administration, Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire; British Council since 1998 - global director of science, deputy director (Moscow), director (Georgia), and since 2011 director, British Council Scotland.

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