Plight of languages in Scottish schools should speak volumes to everyone

15th April 2011 at 01:00
A dearth of children willing to learn a foreign tongue is sadly just one indicator of the wider demise of literacy

The discovery of a secret world concealed in a nook or cranny of everyday life is an enduring device in children's fiction. For instance, Alice's stumble down a rabbit hole to find a surreal underworld continues to enchant successive readers. Wielding his words like an artist's brush, Lewis Carroll illustrates Alice's powers of reason, gives her identity and explores the rules of language.

Babies come into the world wordless. However, within the brief span of about three years, they acquire the conventions of syntax to the extent that they have a handle on the cow jumping over the moon or the dish running away with the spoon.

Noam Chomsky, the philosopher linguist, believes that children are born with an innate capacity to link into a set of plans for the grammatical machinery that powers all human languages.

The human mind is apparently highly flexible. It can shift Gestalts, reconstruct events, imagine hypothetical scenarios and match all of these mental manoeuvres with appropriate language. Wittgenstein reflects that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world".

Then there's all the fabulously exciting allusions found not just in great literature, but in everyday "speak". I can't imagine a world without Trojan horses, Achilles heels, the journey of the Magi, the Midas touch or the task of Sisyphus.

Thus it was with dismay that I read the major news story in TESS on 25 March about the decline of languages in Scottish schools. Only 241 candidates sat Higher Italian in 2010. Higher Classical Greek had five candidates and Higher Russian didn't fare much better with 25 takers.

There is a disturbing sense of impotence about all this. Teachers of modern languages are standing on their heads to produce strategies to dazzle disaffected youngsters. For a long time, there has been a significant move away from the linear, grammar-based methodology with which I learned French, German and Latin.

Most kids now can't or won't put in the graft required to make a good job of learning a language other than their own. The withering of foreign languages is a visible tip of a very large iceberg. Underneath the surface, literacy in the broadest sense is shrivelling. The children of the texting generation have less and less access to the magic of their own language.

The instinctive sense of curiosity in infants is not being nurtured, if we are saying that appreciating their native tongue and learning foreign languages is too hard for Scottish kids. In accepting this view, we are complicit in the dying of all language. Without words we have no concepts or shades of meaning. Language is not just a window into the world of another - it is also the special mode of communication which makes humans unique.

Marj Adams, Secondary teacher

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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