The word on the street

Henry Hepburn

Learning Scots is as crucial to immigrant pupils as it is to the natives. Why, then, are Scottish books absent in schools?

The absence of Scottish books in schools damages immigrant children every bit as much as youngsters native to Scotland, according to research at Glasgow University.

It finds that learning Scots is crucial to young asylum seekers' attempts to fit into new surroundings - but that opportunities to do so in class are almost non-existent. Researchers James McGonigal and Evelyn Arizpe spent a year working with 14 children, all but one of whom was a first-generation immigrant. The other was a Pakistani boy born in Scotland.

They looked at how the children - who were in P6 when the project started - reacted to stories, poems and comic strips that use Scots language, including The Broons and Oor Wullie, Janet Reachfar and the Kelpie by Jane Duncan and Tigger by Anne Donovan.

There are scenarios where "only Scottish texts will do", as they explain, "for this is the non-standard English of the playground and the street - subversive, quick-witted, rough and ready - that immigrant children will have to learn in order to 'belong'". They find that "Scots texts and language can achieve effects that other texts cannot, since they touch the complex actualities and tensions of the refugee's present linguistic world".

Asylum seekers' children responded enthusiastically and imaginatively to the Scottish texts.

One girl, "Neylan", when asked to fill in speech bubbles from an Oor Wullie strip where Wullie is caught by his pals reading a school book instead of the Beano, suggested - in a perfect Scottish accent - "Och, you get out of here, you've brought shame to Fat Boab's shed. Get oot o' here, yi bring shame to us!"

But, as has been the case for generations of native Scottish children, immigrant youngsters' attempts to communicate in Scots have been undermined by a paucity of Scottish resources in schools.

Immigrant children have been heard to dismiss Scots as "slang", despite their enjoyment in speaking it. Their parents, meanwhile, are suspicious of Scots and would rather they learned "proper English". The researchers show that Scots gains credibility among children when it is seen written down.

Yet researchers found little evidence of Scottish texts being used in the classroom, other than some poems by Robert Burns which "emerge shortly before Burns Night".

When the researchers - who also worked with some native Scottish youngsters at the three Glasgow primaries where the project took place - brought in their texts, it was the first time pupils had seen Scots written down.

Teachers generally welcomed the prospect of using more Scottish texts, but some felt that immigrant pupils should get to grips with standard English first. Inexperience with Scottish texts, meanwhile, meant teachers themselves lacked the confidence to use them.

Professor McGonigal and Dr Arizpe, who were commissioned by the then Scottish Executive, call for a national policy rethink, underlining that the type of work they had done fits in with A Curriculum for Excellence - notably the aim of turning out "confident individuals" - and the national languages strategy."The study of carefully selected and confidently read and enacted Scottish texts can benefit both native Scottish and immigrant pupils, because of the contexts these provide for quite wide-ranging discussions of language, culture and heritage," they state.

"Knowledge about language is enhanced and issues of identity and social change in Scotland can be sensitively discussed."

Author Matthew Fitt, whose poem "Blethertoun Rovers" was used in the project, said the report was "excellent and important", but questioned why there had never been any similar research into why "the Scottish establishment has treated its own children whose home language is Scots as if they were outsiders or 'asylum seekers' in their own country".

He believes more research of a similar calibre is required to help teachers "find their way" with Scots.


Knowledge about Scottish culture is often based on stereotypes. Scottish manners and habits, identified by the children, included "swearing, helping people such as a blind man across the road, murders, drinking, pubs, stay out late (sic), parties, dressing up like punks". The media is thought to be largely responsible for such perceptions.

Immigrants learn quickly about sectarianism in Glasgow. One boy, "Hashid", said: "Like they try to brainwash you, especially when it's football, they are always like fighting (sic) if somebody's got a football top like a Rangers man a Celtic guy sees him he beats the hell out of him."

Children like that in Scotland there is "free medicine for kids" and that "the city council is very good, they fix things that are broken". A girl, "Precious", said the council had been welcoming to immigrants.

Immigrant children often speak in broad Scottish accents, which may be partly attributable to the popularity of the BBC's Glasgow-based soap River City.

An Algerian boy, "Abdul", observed that while being a "TP" (teacher's pet) in Scotland was undesirable, this would make you the "cool guy" in Algeria where, in contrast, "children will make fun of you if you're dumb".

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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