Why this house believes the EU is in danger

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Students debate European politics at multilingual event

"I can't see any hands going up. No one has a question for the speakers? I would really like you to ask some questions!"

No translation was needed for the brief awkward silence at the end of a multilingual debate in Edinburgh as the chairman opened up the discussion to the floor on the impact of Scottish independence on the future of the European Union.

But it was soon clear that the fast-approaching referendum in Scotland was fuelling young people's interest in languages and politics. The occasion, hosted by Heriot-Watt University last week, attracted more than 400 secondary school students from across the country.

The annual event was established to give translation students at Heriot-Watt a chance to practise their skills in a setting modelled on international parliamentary debates. But it also addresses concerns about the falling numbers of students in Scotland taking languages, which are not compulsory in the later years of secondary school. Between 2012 and 2013, uptake of Higher French fell by 10 per cent.

For language teachers, the debate is a useful way to show students what a career in translation and interpreting could be like, as well as stimulating discussion about topical issues.

Faced with the motion "This house believes that the fragmentation of existing member states could endanger the future of the EU", teenagers in the audience were well aware that they were about to exercise an unprecedented right after eligibility to vote in Scotland's national referendum was extended to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time.

Rory Barraclough, 16, who is studying Higher French at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh, raised the prospect of growing instability with the panel of experts.

He asked: "With fragmentation [of member states], some countries won't want to remain part of the EU.Would you agree that this may endanger not the future existence of the EU but the future power of the EU [to keep the peace]?"

He was answered in Chinese by Dr Richard Jin, co-director of the Confucius Institute for Scotland, who argued that breakaway nations would not want to leave the EU.

Translation students took turns to interpret what panel members had said into several languages, including French and Spanish, transmitted via headsets to everyone in the room.

Peter O'Connor, a former Heriot-Watt interpreting student who now teaches French and Spanish at James Gillespie's, said: "I was in one of those booths a few years ago, so I know the fear of `Is there going to be a really difficult word [to translate]'. For my students, seeing languages being used like this is quite awe-inspiring, and that's a very motivating thing.

"We do talk about the EU in Higher and Advanced Higher classes, and a lot of my students are very interested and concerned. I had a pupil in S1 come to talk to me recently about the referendum - and they can't even vote."

Talking afterwards, Rory said he would like to take Advanced French. "The thing I was most interested in was the effect of language on the debate," he added. "If I was a politician in the EU and I was trying to have a debate while someone was speaking in my ear [translating], I would be behind, even if it was only by a few seconds, which must slow down the debate."

And the result? A clear majority believed that independence for Scotland - or for Catalonia from Spain - could threaten the EU's future, with 61 per cent supporting the motion initially, rising to 68 per cent by the end of the debate.

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