Viewing languages as a luxury? Nuts to that!

19th February 2016 at 00:00

In 1995, I boarded an Aberdeen train for a marathon journey to the picturesque French town of Le Puy-en-Velay, where I was to spend a year as an English language assistant.

I’d done six years of French at school and another two at university. Now I was ready to throw myself into the land of Gainsbourg, Camus, Piaf, Truffaut, Depardieu and (my main cultural reference point) Astérix. Or was I?

As the latest of several trains trundled past Bourgogne vineyards, I headed to the buffet car. I had a craving for peanuts.

Only I didn’t know the French word for peanuts. I pulled out my battered pocket dictionary and flicked to P. And there it was: “cacahuètes”.

“Je voudrais un paquet de kaaa-kaaa-hooo-ettz, s’il vous plaît,” I enunciated deliberately.

The man behind the counter shrugged his shoulders and flicked his palms upwards: he hadn’t understood. I tried again; the same response. A queue was forming and, feeling self-conscious, I randomly altered the pronunciation; still, no peanuts were forthcoming.

Another two aborted attempts, and sweat was trickling down my forehead. Finally, I gave up. I waved my finger in the general direction of the peanuts until the barman settled upon them. He handed the packet over with that look of Gallic disdain reserved for particularly slow-witted foreigners.

After eight years of learning French, I couldn’t even order a bag of peanuts.

Scotland may be renowned for many things, but proficiency in languages isn’t one. Perhaps, though, something is changing.

It’s easy to pick holes in the 1+2 policy, which states that by 2020, every child in Scotland should have proficiency in two additional languages before leaving primary school (see “A week in primary”, page 8). But how many primary teachers have the linguistic proficiency to handle this? And, with the uptake of languages at Higher level falling sharply, and pupils likely to take fewer Nationals than they would have Standard grades, languages seem to be getting squeezed. The pool of future teachers with such skills may be getting even smaller.

What’s more, 1+2 will not be enforced. As budget cuts bite and primary schools contend with national assessments in literacy and numeracy, isn’t it likely that foreign languages will be tossed aside as an unaffordable luxury?

In the UK, languages have traditionally been ignored or rated on their utilitarian value: will French get me a job; will Spanish make ordering from a Magaluf restaurant easier? In mainland Europe, where most countries have vivid memories of occupation or the ravages of war, a more high-minded view is taken: languages are the social lubricant for European integration, the grand project to ensure that the darkest of days never return.

Yet the idea that Scots see little point in learning languages may be a myth: in the 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 89 per cent of respondents agreed that doing so from the age of 5 was important. Some 21 out of 32 local authorities are on course to deliver that first extra language to all P1s by this summer – and at least Scotland aspires to turn its children into linguists.

Languages boost cognitive function and career prospects, but they also make us more rounded, outward-looking people. The 1+2 project has its flaws, but its progress over the coming years will tell us something about the type of nation that Scotland wants to be.

@Henry_Hepburn

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