This is not guffie

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Scots is the language of Matthew Fitt's 'head and heart', which is why he is so keen for pupils to learn it - and love it SCOTTISH SCHOOLCHILDREN have such a poor grasp of their own language some don't even know the simplest words like "brae" and "kirk", says writer Matthew Fitt.

Fitt has visited more than 500 schools in the past four years to enthuse pupils about the Scots language, but is often dismayed at how little children know about it. When he asks children "What is the language Scottish people speak, other than English?", he is usually met with puzzled faces.

Recently, he put the question to a group at Tulliallan Primary in Kincardine in Fife, and replies ranged from "It's Gaelic" to "It's what neds use". One girl offered: "My mother says it's guffie" (not very nice).

Not one of the 27 pupils in P6 got the answer right - Scots.

Dundee-born Fitt, 38, started out as a teacher before he turned to writing and became a co-founder of the Itchy Coo imprint, writing and producing Scots books for children, and working as a schools development officer for the publishing programme, for which he has Scottish Arts Council support.

Such is his passion for Scots, which he describes as "the language of my head and heart", he produced a sci-fi novel, But n Ben A-Go-Go (Luath Press) in 2000, one of the first modern novels to be written completely in Scots. He wrote the book to show that the language is "not just from grannie's heilan hame", but can be contemporary as well.

He believes the lack of Scots teaching in schools is part of a wider attitude to Scottish culture. And it's what fired him up to produce the Itchy Coo books to begin with, along with fellow writer James Robertson, for Black and White Publishing. The idea was to make Scots more accessible, and acceptable.

"In the past, Scots wasn't used in the classroom and children were told off for speaking it, and although the teachers may have spoken it elsewhere, they tended not to use it in the classroom," he says. "Children are coming out of school not really speaking English or Scots, but a kind of indistinct half-language."

He also says many children don't speak Scots any more because their parents do not speak it to them, because they can't, or won't, for much the same reason it isn't spoken in schools.

It's all part of what Fitt believes is the Scottish cringe about our identity and the feeling that Scots is inferior to English, and is miscast as a dialect of it, even though it's a language in its own right, a sister language to English with its own rich vocabulary, idioms and grammar and spoken by 1.6 million people in Scotland.

And while it's no longer banned in the classroom and is in the Scottish curriculum, Scots is only a small part of the English language programme, which Fitt believes is not adequate. He hopes his classes will at least inspire pupils to go out and learn more about Scots.

In class, Fitt gives an introduction to the language and easy exercises where children play-act simple situations speaking it. To improve youngsters' vocabulary, he uses the Itchy Coo books, the most recent of which is The Eejits, his Scots translation of the Roald Dahl children's classic, The Twits. In secon-dary schools, there is a similar format and reading from harder texts on history and culture.

Allowing children to express themselves in Scots at school, makes them much more confident, says Fitt.

At Tulliallan, one 10-year-old boy came up to him after the class with a copy of The Eejits in his hand. "I've never read a Scots book all the way through, but I will now," he said. "I like reading in Scots, it's my language, the language I use."


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