No place for our native tongue?

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Raymond Ross asks whether Scots really does have the position in the classroom it is supposed to have

The Scots poet William Soutar, who lived from 1898 to 1943 and is famed for his bairn-rhymes and whigmaleeries, or fantastical poems, once wrote that "if the Doric is to come back alive, it will come first on a cock-horse".

His justification for concentrating his efforts on writing Scots poetry for children could be taken as a maxim for those wishing to promote the "mither tongue" as a living language in Scottish schools.

The centrality of the Scots language, or dialects, to the curriculum is recognised - at least theoretically - in the English language 5 - 14 guidelines, where "the language children bring to schools" is seen as a starting point "to develop the notion of language diversity, within which pupils can appreciate the range of accents, dialects and languages they encounter".

With current trends in child-centred education and the growing interest in Scottish culture generally, it is easy to applaud such sentiments from the sidelines. It is more difficult to apply the necessary strategies in the classroom.

Liz Niven, a secondary teacher with some 20 years' experience, formerly Scots language development officer for Dumfries and Galloway, delivers Scots language in-service training to teachers across Scotland.

"While there is a greater acceptance of the children's own voice than there was 20 years ago, the situation is still greatly variable," she says.

"There is no general acceptance of 5 - 14 guidelines on Scots, probably because teachers find it difficult to introduce a more relaxed attitude to it. Not enough is done at official levels, including in-service and the setting of individual schools' policy. More discussion is needed at a higher level, as teachers often still fear that parents - and the exam system - might not be happy.

"Teachers still need official encouragement to pursue Scots. They didn't get any training in it. Colleges may focus on some Scottish literature and history, but when it comes to tackling head-on children's spoken language, we still have a lot more to do," she says.

Niven says that the disparity between studying Scots literary texts and eschewing the use of Scots speech in the classroom may also counter the 5 - 14 guidelines' aim of encouraging in pupils "a conviction of the worth of their own accents and dialects".

"There's a lot of good material for pupils to work with, but as textual study outstrips linguistic practice, they will probably begin to ask why they are allowed to read or study material in Scots but not allowed to speak it, " she says.

But what exactly is meant by the term "Scots"? George Reid, Edinburgh's adviser in language and communication, says: "There are so many forms of Scots - I don't think you can teach it as a language, sending pupils home to learn six words a night. That would be too deliberate and there's not enough space in the curriculum anyway.

"I'm keen to promote the idea that children have a heritage of their own, but we also have to empower them with English. We have to be realistic.

"The teaching of Scots materials is better left voluntary. In some schools the question is raised of why, if we are using Scots material, we are not using Urdu or Hindi as well. You have to remember there are a lot of English pupils in some schools too."

The use of Scots speech in the classroom is rare in Edinburgh, according to Reid, though "good teachers do encourage Scots writing" and a lot of Scots resources are used.

The Scots Language Resource Centre in Perth has set up a Scots database, including a web-site, as "a major tool for supporting and furthering the ongoing use of the Scots tongue".

The centre's director, Stuart McHardy, is excited by the fact that its new teachers' network already has some 200 members and is expanding all the time.

But he takes issue with George Reid's dismissal of the idea of teaching Scots as a separate language: "You don't need to teach it as a separate language in schools. You simply have to make pupils aware that they already have it.

"As to teaching from Hindi or Urdu resources, why not? But here it is a question of numbers. According to the 1996 General Register Office Survey there are 1.6 million Scots speakers. Educational progress is about letting bairns learn that what they speak is not Untermensch-speak.

"Growing anti-educational attitudes among young working-class Scots, particularly urban Scots speakers, are rooted in linguistic oppression or, at least, alienation."

Robbie Robertson, of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, struck a similar note when he introduced the Scottish Languages Project in 1993: "Forcing one dialect on top of another, privileging one at the expense of another, does not create a unified concept of language or - more importantly - of the self.

"More sinister, it can also create additional learning difficulties for children whose acquisition of language is proving difficult, by making their natural linguistic abilities seem worthless."

It was partly to counter this situation, that the project was set up and the relevant 5 - 14 guidelines drawn up. Robertson described the language curriculum four years ago as "an alien place for our native languages".

"The lack of attention to Scots and Gaelic in a high proportion of Scottish schools," he said, "should be read as arising from intention rather than neglect or accident".

It was to counter this situation that the SCCCproduced last year's TES ScotlandSaltire award-winner The KistA' Chiste, a 160-page anthology and teachers pack of ready-to-use classroom materials in Scots and Gaelic, designed for language work in the 5 - 14 curriculum and beyond. Certainly, things have changed since the legendary anglocentric HMI Report of the late 1920s which stated: "Scots is still spoken in the playground, but things are improving. "

It may well be too early to say whether or not an effective implementation of the guidelines is being achieved. Either the jury are still out or an interim verdict peculiar to Scottish law has been reached: case not proven.


The centrality of Scots in the curriculum is recognised in the English language 5 -14 guidelines: * the language children bring to school is a starting point for developing the notion of language diversity;

* the central principles of acceptability should be that the pupil is making a genuine attempt at communication, is trying to achieve a real or agreed purpose and, especially for older pupils, adopting an apposite speech form;

* terms such as dialect and accent should be explained and used, with examples, to encourage discussion and develop perceptions of Scottish languages, and how they relate to the lives and experiences of Scottish people.

The purpose here is not only to demonstrate the continuing language history of Scotland but also to inculcate a conviction of the worth of the pupils' own accents and dialects and develop greater empathy with those whose languages and cultures are different.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today