- The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick):
The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-03004, in the name of Alasdair Allan, on why languages matter—improving young people’s opportunities.
- The Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages (Dr Alasdair Allan):
Bonjour. Guten Tag. I am delighted to open the debate on why languages matter—improving young people’s opportunities. This is a welcome opportunity to discuss where Scotland stands in terms of language learning and what aspirations we should have for our young people and society in engaging with an increasingly globalised world. The debate follows on from the publication last week of the languages working group report, which meets our commitment in the curriculum for excellence action plan that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning announced on 21 September last year.
As someone with a passion for languages, I believe that the case for languages is pretty self-evident. It strikes me as intrinsically interesting that Norwegian puts the definite article on the end of a noun or that Gaelic has no words for yes and no. However, as last year’s modern languages excellence group report set out, in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we are often confronted with negative or lukewarm attitudes towards learning other languages. Perhaps the most disappointing of all such attitudes was one that I heard in the media this week, when someone suggested that teaching languages might somehow be “wasted” on children from working-class backgrounds. I am happy to say that that was not the dominant reaction.
The excellence group report stated the positive case for language learning, framing it within the benefits that language learning offers the individual learner as well as the economy and society. The report also sought to debunk common myths about languages, such as the idea that everyone in the world speaks English and that therefore learning other languages is unnecessary. In fact, 75 per cent of people in the world do not speak English and, of those who do, most do so as a second language. In any case, that view ignores research that points to the competitive advantage that multilingual youngsters from other countries bring to the competition for jobs with their UK counterparts in global companies and organisations.
The Government is determined to be ambitious for the people of Scotland. In last year’s election, our manifesto included a commitment to introduce, over the course of two sessions of Parliament, a norm for language learning in schools that is based on the European 1+2 model, to create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue.
We therefore set up the languages working group to consider how a 1+2 model might be delivered, taking account of Scotland’s circumstances. In particular, the group was asked to consider how such a model could be delivered within the framework of curriculum for excellence. The working group report, which was published last week, and the accompanying report on the link between languages and employability further emphasise the economic benefits of improving the language learning experience of Scotland’s young people. The reports also present a strong argument for giving our children and young people the opportunity to learn languages from an early age, thereby providing them with similar opportunities to those that are available to their counterparts in many other countries.
We need to recognise that multilingualism among children and young people is viewed as a norm in many parts of Europe in a way that is almost difficult to believe in Scotland. When I visited Luxembourg some years ago, I was astonished to see that almost every nursery school, it seems, advertises the fact that it is capable of operating in not two but five languages: Luxemburgish, French, German, English and the main immigrant language in that country, which is Portuguese. In Friesland, in the Netherlands, I know of at least one school where children are expected to be fluent in Frisian, Dutch and English by the age of eight. In France, they are rethinking their language teaching with a new plan that includes an increased focus on early years learning, on improving the language teaching skills of kindergarten teachers and on how primary school staff can learn language teaching skills from secondary school teachers.
By way of contrast, in Scotland we have seen a steady decline in the overall uptake of languages at secondary over a number of years. That is inconsistent with a modern globalised world in which people travel widely for jobs and leisure and speak several languages. I believe that it is now time for Scotland to create a cultural and educational environment that can help to attract children and young people to learning other languages; one that shows how languages can open doors to new cultures and literatures and that helps young people to see the world in different ways, as well as offering them many practical and economic advantages.
Many schools are already working hard to provide young people with opportunities to develop a deeper understanding of other cultures, both European and non-European, through the study of languages. In addition, over the past couple of decades we have developed in Scotland a successful example of bilingual education in the Gaelic-medium sector. We now have many excellent examples of Gaelic-medium education in schools throughout Scotland and our aim is to see that ideal promoted and expanded. We are also seeing young people using their Gaelic language skills in post-school education and in employment.
The introduction of Chinese into some of our schools and the contribution of the Confucius hub schools have helped many children and young people to develop a better understanding of a culture that is considerably different from our own, ranging from an introduction to tai chi, to an understanding of what it is like to be a pupil in China.
Confidence in languages can lead young people to form strong relationships with their peers in other countries, as pupils at John Ogilvie high school in South Lanarkshire have done with young people in Spain. Such examples show that it is possible to overcome the cultural, societal and attitudinal barriers to language learning that we often encounter in Scotland.
As a Government, we recognise the possibilities for young people’s life chances that come from learning other languages. We want schools to work towards a new model of language learning and teaching that is based on the mother tongue plus two additional languages, as first set out in the European Union’s Barcelona agreement of 2002. We acknowledge that this is a bold and ambitious objective—one to be delivered over several years.
The languages group has come forward with 35 recommendations. I am grateful for the work of Simon Macaulay, who chaired the group, and to all those who contributed to its deliberations. The group has sought to strike a balance between the level of ambition that a 1+2 model represents and an honest critique of where we are starting from.
I asked for a radical report, and the group did not disappoint me. I welcome the group’s key messages: that Scotland can and must do more to provide our young people with a better language learning experience; that language learning is life enhancing and can enable our young people to participate more fully in a globalised society and economy; and that Scotland’s increasing diversity of languages, including Scotland’s own languages, should be celebrated. I also welcome the group’s considered view that although introducing two additional languages is an ambitious goal, it is one that, over time and with the engagement of all those with a broad mind or an interest in languages, can be delivered.
I do not intend to respond today to all 35 of the group’s recommendations. Some of them will need some time for careful consideration and discussion with stakeholders. However, I am particularly pleased to see the group’s recommendations in relation to language learning at primary school—in particular, its recommendation that Scotland needs to start language learning earlier, from primary 1, rather than from primary 6, which is currently the norm for most schools.
- Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (Lab):
I welcome the key messages in the report. The report says that in most European countries children start to learn a second language between the ages of six and nine. What is the evidence for starting them at four or five rather than at seven or eight? I am aware of the evidence of the advantages for children of being brought up bilingually from birth, but I genuinely wonder what evidence there is of the advantage of starting them at four or five rather than seven or eight, which seems to be the norm in Europe.
- Dr Allan:
I thank the member for that considered point. The situation varies very much not just from country to country, but from school to school. We would be realistic about what kind of language learning a four or five-year-old would be asked to undertake—we would not expect fluency or anything resembling it from a four or five-year-old. Nevertheless, I think that we should introduce four and five-year-olds to the concept that there are other languages out there. In the past, that concept has not been introduced to such young people in our schools.
- Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD):
Will the minister take an intervention?
- Dr Allan:
I have just taken one. Give me a moment.
- Liam McArthur:
It is on that point.
- Dr Allan:
Well, why not?
- Liam McArthur:
I thank the minister for relenting. My comment relates to Malcolm’s Chisholm’s point. A lot of the evidence suggests that, by the time that children reach the age of seven or eight, they are far more self-aware and inhibited about their learning. Therefore, if the process of learning a language starts a bit earlier, by the time that they reach seven or eight, they will have a fluency that will give them the confidence to go on.
- Dr Allan:
I readily agree with that. The younger that we introduce language learning, the more receptive children are likely to be to it. Implementation of the recommendations around that will set a bold new direction for language learning in Scotland’s schools. The policy will help to reinforce the ambition for modern languages as expressed in the curriculum for excellence, which is about raising the bar, with all young people expected to reach at least the second level by the end of primary.
However, the group was aware that current experience has shown that modern languages, when left to primaries 6 and 7, can be vulnerable and are sometimes reduced to an add-on with limited input, which makes it very difficult to reach the desired level. Therefore, the group took the view that a new approach was needed, with language learning beginning in primary 1 and being embedded in the fabric of the primary curriculum. By the end of primary 7, having started vibrant language learning in primary 1, young people will have a deeper understanding of how language works, a deeper understanding of their first additional language, in particular, and better skills in talking, listening, reading and writing in the modern language than was possible previously.
We recognise that the proposals will set significant challenges for our schools. However, some schools are already providing earlier access to language learning and are offering more than one additional language. Only last week, I visited Sacred Heart primary school in Bridgeton, Glasgow, where I saw a deeply committed staff teaching not one but four modern languages, with all pupils learning at least one additional language from primary 1.
The group also recommends that young people should be introduced to a second language by primary 5. It proposes that that be done through a planned interdisciplinary approach to second language learning in primaries 5 to 7 and in the broad general education at secondary school. Initially, a second modern language need not be learned to the same depth as the first one but could be built on later, in the senior phase.
We recognise that an earlier start to language learning also raises challenges for schools’ capacity to deliver. Some teachers may not have undergone language training and others may wish to update their language skills. However, we know that there is untapped potential in the system, with many teachers who are trained in languages not having the opportunity to make use of their current language training.
The Government has proposed a budget for developing the Scottish schools curriculum. Within that, and subject to parliamentary agreement of the next budget bill in 2013-14, we intend to provide initial funding of £4 million on top of the £4 million that is already provided to local authorities for languages to pursue our ambitious aims and to enable young people in primary 1 to start learning a second language. We will discuss that and other questions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities in due course.
- Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab):
Will the minister give way?
- Dr Allan:
I am in my last minute.
In the meantime, we will provide £120,000 to fund pilot projects to be run in the 2012-13 school year by Education Scotland and Scotland’s national centre for languages, which will demonstrate ways in which we can move towards a 1+2 model. The projects will raise the profile of modern languages in schools and demonstrate ways of introducing more languages in a way that will motivate and enthuse learners. The messages from the projects will be shared to inform the future development of language learning from 2013-14 onwards.
In conclusion, our commitment to a new direction in language learning sends a strong signal that Scotland is open to business and to the world and that we are determined to ensure that our young people have every advantage that their multilingual peers have elsewhere. I hope that that ambition will excite and encourage everyone with an interest in language learning and that it will command wide support.
That the Parliament agrees that, in today’s globalised world, learning other languages is more important than ever and that it is in Scotland’s economic and cultural interests that young Scots are able to speak other languages; notes the report of the Languages Working Group and its recommendation that children should learn another language from primary 1; supports the Scottish Government’s far-sighted and ambitious aim to enable all young people to learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue during their time at school, and welcomes the Scottish Government’s plans for a pilot project programme for 2012-13 to demonstrate how the aims of the 1+2 Barcelona model of language learning can be turned into a reality in Scotland over the course of two parliamentary sessions.
- The Presiding Officer:
Before I call Neil Findlay, I ask members who speak in a second language during the debate—I do not mean just saying “Bonjour” or “Guten Tag”—to provide a translation to the official report.
I call on Neil Findlay to speak to and move amendment S4M-03004.1.
- Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab):
Merci, Presiding Officer. I can provide that to the official report if you require, but I do not think that I will worry the interpreters much more in my speech.
Even though I, like tens of thousands of Scots, am able, when the occasion demands it, to drag up from the darkest depths of my memory some limited, pidgin French that I can use when on holiday in France to find the nearest bistro, brasserie, vineyard or football match—take your choice—Ianguages largely passed me by. That is a situation that affects all too many of us. I am afraid that my only language skills are in industrial language. I am not certified, but I reckon that I could be at PhD level in it.
Scottish Labour supports the sentiments of what the Government is proposing. However, far be it from me to indulge in a sterile debate or a round of ministerial back slapping. We support the principles of extending language provision, but we see a number of areas that require further scrutiny. We will, of course, offer constructive advice where we see fit. As the minister and his team know, the Labour education team is always willing to offer help to the Government.
I thank and commend the Scottish languages working group for a laudable and potentially important contribution to what is a vital debate about languages and language teaching in Scotland’s schools. On page six of the report, the group states:
“Language learning is life enhancing. It opens the doors to possibilities and experiences which are not available to those who are restricted to the knowledge of one language ... Through learning new languages young people can become successful learners with opportunities relating to working and travelling abroad”.
I think that we would all agree with those sentiments.
How many times have many of us, while abroad on holiday, on business or for whatever reason, suffered in embarrassed silence due to our inability to communicate in the language of the country that we are visiting? That individual deficiency is bad enough, but the working group also estimates that our failure to teach languages in a comprehensive and universal fashion amounts to what one commentator said last week is a language tax that costs the Scottish economy £500 million. For economic, educational and cultural reasons, it is abundantly clear that we have to become more multilingual.
The working group has made some positive recommendations. The 1+2 suggestion of having primary school children learn a language other than English from P1 and another by P5 is one that we support. As the minister said, it fits the model that exists across Europe. If implemented effectively, it has the potential to transform our ability to communicate, with the obvious knock-on benefits that that will have.
However, we have some concerns and, to be fair, we are not the only ones. The working group itself stated that, in relation to current language teaching in primary schools,
“there are concerns that some primary children do not have access to an additional language due to staffing, training or funding issues, or other perceived curricular priorities.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at present, language provision in primary schools is often ad hoc and inconsistent due to those pressures and others. Such issues are raised repeatedly, not just in relation to language provision but in other areas of the school curriculum.
We need to look at the proposals against the background of the realities that schools today face. We have to remember that there are widespread and sustained cuts in the public sector, including in education. Since 2007, that has manifested itself in nearly 4,000 teaching posts being lost across Scotland. Many newly qualified teachers who perhaps have the necessary language skills cannot get work, and supply teaching is in crisis in some areas. The rector of a school in my area, for example, told me that their school had been down one modern language teacher for around six months, I think, and could not get supply cover.
The number of foreign language assistants is down from 300 in 2005-06 to just 59 in 2011-12. The languages working group said that foreign language assistants
“will have a key role to play in successful implementation of a 1+2 policy.”
The minister did not mention language assistants. In summing up, will he confirm how work with the British Council and others will ensure that more foreign language assistants will be introduced back into our schools?
What about the cost of and funding for the roll-out? The minister mentioned that, in 2008, £4 million was given to local authorities to support language provision. Funding has been rolled up into general local government settlements, but the working group stated:
“if delivery of the 1+2 language policy is to be successful, further dedicated resources will be required.”
How will those dedicated resources be provided? Funding of £4 million seems rather a small amount in light of our challenge. We need more information on that.
The working group acknowledged the need to upskill teachers and for a commitment to extensive continuing professional development. It stated:
“There will be significant organisational, resource and staffing issues from Primary 1 onwards ... There will need to be sufficient numbers of primary teachers, appropriately trained, confident and competent in language teaching.”
Information on how that matter will be addressed was largely absent from the minister’s opening statement.
From our discussions with the teaching profession, we know that it understands fully the need for a major training initiative to implement such a programme, but there is, of course, a big resource issue. What commitment is there to provide the funding for the teachers and training that will be needed for the national roll-out to be successful, should the pilots be so? Since the announcement was made, I have spoken to many teachers and a number of young people about their experiences of learning a language in primary and secondary school. The constant theme is exposure to languages too late and a lack of consistency from primary through to secondary school. I agree that we need to catch young people early in their education and that they need to be immersed in the language, not drip-fed.
Currently, many pupils in secondary school end their language experience in second year. That is especially true of boys, who largely opt out of taking languages. As we already know, the number of pupils who take highers in the main languages is decreasing, and for languages such as German the decline is significant. If the proposals are to work, consideration will have to be given to how schools offer subjects and how they will manage an already crowded curriculum, which will become even more crowded when Scottish studies comes on stream. In his summing up, perhaps the minister can say how those issues will be addressed.
We are concentrating on schools, but there are other missed opportunities for developing language skills in Scotland. Many people want to learn a language later in life, because of experiences in business or on holiday for example. My father-in-law is fluent in French and he began to learn it only 10 years ago. That was because of experiences that he had later in life. We should consider enabling people to learn throughout their lives through workplace learning, for example.
Finally, will the minister clarify what plans the Government has for the pilot schemes? How will they be monitored and evaluated? When does the minister plan to publish details of them? I urge that, when he establishes the pilot areas, he makes them broad and representative. By that, I mean that they should take in urban and rural schools—as there are particular issues, in respect of supply teaching for example, for rural schools—primary and secondary schools, and schools in areas with very different socioeconomic indicators, not least because, as the working group stated,
“the biggest educational challenge faced by legislators and educators alike is in raising educational attainment for children in areas of high social deprivation.”
To conclude, I reiterate our broad support for the objectives of the policy. The points that we have raised have been raised in good faith, and we all want to see the policy succeed.
I move amendment S4M-03004.1, to leave out from “supports” to end and insert:
“acknowledges the decline in language course take-up in secondary schools; recognises that developing language skills from an early age is best supported by well-trained teachers and language assistants; notes that the numbers of both have reduced significantly since 2007, and calls on the Scottish Government to identify how any future roll-out of the proposed pilot projects would be funded to allow all young people to start learning a second language from primary 1.”
- Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con):
In recent weeks politicians, including many in this Parliament, have been on the receiving end of some very blunt advice from employers in Scotland, much of it relating to the employability—or, sadly, otherwise—of some of our graduates and young apprentices. Some of that advice, which in many respects is similar to the advice that Willy Roe provided when he produced his report a year ago, has not made for comfortable reading. Too many youngsters are being castigated for a poor grasp of basic numeracy and literacy, for a lack of effective communication skills, for a failure to recognise the need for teamwork, for not having appropriate expectations in the workplace and, sadly, for not showing too much commitment. There has also been criticism when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM subjects—and foreign language skills, particularly from companies that are heavily involved in the production of major Scottish exports.
As the minister has said, the statistics for language teaching also give slight cause for concern. There has been a significant decline in the number of young people in the United Kingdom studying some of the key modern languages, and that has been accompanied in Scotland by similar declines in the numbers studying for some Scottish Qualifications Authority higher exam subjects, particularly German and French. The education and employers task force concluded that the UK has the worst language skills of the 27 European Union countries.
There has been concern in some quarters about teacher training places in foreign languages. There is obviously a very sharp concern about the decline in the number of foreign language assistants and, in particular, the number of local authorities who are now taking them on.
Although it would be easy to exaggerate the extent of the problem, far too many people—including many key employers—are speaking about it for us to ignore the need for radical improvement and for refocusing on the correct priorities.
I compliment the Scottish Government on its motion, but we must be thoroughly realistic—I am in some agreement with the Labour Party in this respect—about tackling the malaise that currently makes us bottom of the class. Apart from pursuing the laudable aims that are contained in the report, we must listen carefully to what language teachers are saying.
First, they are saying that when schools choose to start languages in primary school, it is essential that they ensure that the teachers have adequate subject knowledge and are fluent speakers themselves. Obviously, there must be a passion and enthusiasm not only for teaching the language but for its culture.
Secondly, they make the important point that there must be progression in the learning. It must not just be a varied selection of bits and pieces, or what many schools describe as taster lessons; there must be a methodical progression if we are to ensure that the subject can be properly developed in secondary school, otherwise I think that we lose some pupils and we certainly lose some teachers who might otherwise aspire to go on and develop other languages.
They also make the very strong point that we cannot expect there to be sufficient rigour in language teaching unless the pupils have a proficiency in English. Many language teachers will say that they find life increasingly difficult because too many of their pupils come to them without a good grasp of basic grammar in English and therefore, naturally, have little chance of picking up a second language, never mind a third.
- Dr Allan:
I appreciate many of the sentiments that the member has expressed. On her last point, does she also agree that, for pupils who are perhaps challenged by literacy, the experience of exposure to other languages and, indeed, to the whole concept of grammar and language learning may well improve their abilities in their own language?
- Liz Smith:
Yes. I do not deny that for a minute. However, the point that the language teachers are making is that it enhances pupils’ ability to learn the structures of another language if they have the competence in English in the first place. We must be very careful about that, because it is a point that they all make. It is an important issue.
As Neil Findlay pointed out, there has been a very substantial decline in the number of foreign language assistants. I do not think that we can sit back and simply accept that. I understand that there are huge financial pressures on local authorities and that it is very difficult for them to ensure that they can provide employment for those people, but let me suggest two things that we might consider doing.
First, there is a huge wealth of talent among our retired teachers of languages in schools. I do not believe that we cannot use their expertise and services by asking them to help in classrooms as assistants, especially when many of them are willing to do that. We should also at least pursue the opportunity presented by the fact that some people in business—particularly those who are key in the export industries—might be prepared to put a little money into helping to provide language assistants in our classrooms. The Government would do well to look at that.
The curriculum must have a firm and renewed focus, so that sufficient time is made available for teaching languages. We should be under no illusion about the logistics involved in that. How often have we heard teachers complain that their subject has been diluted in recent years because they have had to share a timetable space or to miss out on pupil contact time in specific year groups—for example, by providing one social science in secondary 1 and another social science in S2? As has been mentioned, we must not forget that coming into the equation is the Scottish Government’s policy on Scottish studies, for example, for which additional space must be found. There are plenty of practical things to think about. We must ensure that enough curriculum space is available and that course content has sufficient rigour.
A not unrelated issue is the role that languages can play in university entrance and ensuring that appropriate credit is given to languages in the group of qualifications with which a student seeks a place at university. Some of the decline in the number of pupils who sit SQA exams in languages began at the same time as fewer universities required pupils to have an additional language in their S4 and S5 exam diet. When we are debating the merits of a baccalaureate system, there is an opportunity to look at how that might play out in relation to university entrance.
I have no difficulty with the broad aims of the Scottish Government’s proposals. Addressing the languages problem is long overdue, but the policy needs to be carefully thought through so that we do not just pay lip service to a worthy ambition. There must be consistency, a methodical and rigorous approach and the necessary practical adjustments to the timetable to make the aim happen.
I have pleasure in moving amendment S4M-03004.2, to insert at end:
“, but recognises that this ambitious programme cannot be achieved without renewed focus on the training of qualified foreign language teachers and without substantially increasing the number of foreign language assistants in Scotland’s schools.”
- The Presiding Officer:
We have a bit of time in hand for the open debate, so members will have a generous six minutes for speeches. If members take interventions, I am sure that we can compensate for that.
- Marco Biagi (Edinburgh Central) (SNP):
Members will be delighted to hear that I will attempt no linguistic feats—it took me long enough to rehearse my affirmation last year. I have enough difficulty with the English language some of the time.
My starting point is what the languages working group took as its starting point:
“the confident belief that learning another language has positive educational benefits”.
It is perhaps worth taking a moment to examine that belief, which is based on the “Study on the Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity”, which was written for the European Commission in 1999. That study has been quoted by, among others, the languages working group and the modern languages excellence group, and the minister alluded to it.
The study set out a wide range of benefits of language learning, which apply not just to the ability to master languages but across the curriculum. It was led by a Finland-based—although Anglophone—academic and it summarised 30 years of research in about as many pages. It also included primary attitudinal research about attitudes to language learning. It will come as no surprise to anyone here that people in English-speaking Europe—which I presume means the UK and Ireland—were the least convinced of the benefits of multilingualism. That is a cultural problem that is recognised widely—by the languages working group’s report, by the modern languages excellence group and by everybody in civic society who has commented since the working group’s report was published. Unless we are united in challenging such beliefs head on, we might as well not even bother being here.
However, there is one thing that we must accept. Skirting round it or pretending that it is not the case will not help. Much of Europe has one automatic first foreign language to learn—English. All the research on success in language learning schools that I have come across—whether it is from the Carleton board of education in Canada in 1996, from SCILT, Scotland’s national centre for languages, in 2001 or the 2008 study on Walker Road primary in Aberdeen, which undertook an early immersion project—links effectiveness in language learning to exposure.
The playground and classroom-immersion school has better results than the language-medium school, which in turn has better results than the traditional subject-teaching approach. When we consider that, it becomes clear that, although being endlessly bombarded with Hollywood films or Anglophone pop music might be one person’s cultural imperialism, it is another person’s head start in multilingualism.
The reverse is simply not the case. We do not turn on the television and trip over Deutsche Welle, and the average exposure in pop music is an occasional line in French or German in a Lady Gaga song. That is not the stuff on which fluency is built or maintained.
- Neil Findlay:
As the member will know, we are about to have the Eurovision song contest, so maybe his horizons will be expanded.
- Marco Biagi:
As a passionate Eurovision fan—that might not come as a surprise—I can say that it is noticeable that since the language restrictions of the 1990s, whereby all songs were required to be submitted in the native language, were lifted, Ireland and the UK, which had the advantage of the English language, have stopped doing as well as they used to do. There is perhaps an interesting point in there somewhere.
In this country, the choice of second language is not automatic, so we have to make an active case for the language that we teach. French has been the default language for a long time, but German, demand for which has declined, and Spanish and other languages of Latin America and the far east, demand for which has grown, all compete for a limited slot, and a considerable case has to be made to win over the minds of adults. The Barcelona agreement contains an ambitious target, which will be especially ambitious for Scotland.
In preparation for the debate, I looked up last year’s standard grade exam in German reading, to see how much I could remember from my schooldays. I think that, with a dictionary and a bit of luck, I might have made a decent stab at it, but I took German far beyond standard grade, and I do not think that the ability to muddle my way through the exam constitutes a basis for a claim to multilingualism. Our stats on people who take languages at standard grade show a consistent downward trend.
Turning the trend around will never be easy, but there is an obligation in that regard. If, as I said, multilingualism brings benefits and the rest of Europe has a head start, we must ensure that we do not allow permanent disadvantage to emerge relative to the rest of Europe. We have a duty to the Scottish society of tomorrow.
Professor Richard Johnstone, writing for SCILT in 2002, said that immersion is:
“In most cases ... not simply an educational initiative but has a powerful underlying socio-cultural rationale, which gives it its driving force and creates the commitment to it, without which it is unlikely to succeed.”
He gave examples such as the approach in Canada, which has distinctive cultural relations, and the 50-50 Spanish-English schools in immigrant-heavy parts of the United States. We need something similar if we are to succeed. Pilots would be a great start, but in a decade’s time we must have such nationwide recognition of the importance of languages.
It is important that those of us who can only stumble over a sentence of a foreign language that is half-remembered from school hold up our hands and admit that we have not set the best example. It is easy to load responsibility on to the next generation and say that education is the solution, but we must acknowledge that adult expectations and behaviour will matter a great deal if we want to reach the 1+2 Barcelona target.
- The Presiding Officer:
I remind members that I will give them a generous six minutes. I call Claudia Beamish.
- Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab):
Thank you, Presiding Officer. If I translated my speech into French, I would need a lot longer than your generous six minutes.
- The Presiding Officer:
- Claudia Beamish:
I will stick to my own language. I rise today to speak in support of the Government’s motion and our amendment, which concern the ambition to improve the opportunities that are available for young people to engage with modern languages, and I want to raise a number of issues to do with how we make that a reality.
At the launch of the report, the minister spoke of moving beyond a monolingual society. That is, of course, necessary in part for the economy and for tourism. Although it might be argued that English is the language of business, if someone is conducting foreign business, it is essential that they are able to speak reasonably in the language of the other country. As a member of the cross-party group on China, I highlight our commitment to developing Scotland’s relations with China. That is in part for mutual trade benefits. It must surely seem arrogant and even postcolonial to think it appropriate to conduct a meeting about renewable energy systems in Tianjin in English rather than Mandarin. In that context, the Confucius Institute’s pilot primary school Mandarin programme is most welcome.
The minister has stressed the issue of competitive advantage in the global job market. My daughter, Freya, lives in Hong Kong. When I spoke to her on Viber this morning, she acknowledged, without being prompted, that her getting a job as an economist in China had as much to do with her learning of Mandarin over five summers as it had to do with her—hopefully good—economic skills.
Working in a rural primary school as a French teacher with a multi-composite class, I was delighted to see the enthusiasm among pupils every year when they were able to choose something French to research, such as how la tour Eiffel was built, where the beret came from, and the essence of haute couture.
As other members have said, foreign language assistants are a crucial part of teaching languages. They bring not only a knowledge of the language but an authenticity to the teaching of it and they can encourage pupils to develop an understanding of the culture. I welcomed the news last month from the British Council that more language assistants are to be employed in Scotland, but there has been a huge decline, as highlighted by Neil Findlay. I will not go into the figures again, as they have already been quoted. However, the expected rise in the numbers of assistants will take them only to 70, of whom 24 will work outside the state system. I understand that the Scottish Government’s funding of such programmes through the British Council has also fallen. There must be investment in order to achieve good results.
Foreign exchanges also bring different cultures alive. A group of primary 7 pupils from my daughter’s school brought back a pack of frozen frogs’ legs from Dieppe and started sawing it up to take home to parents. Délicieux!
In an article in The Independent entitled “Why learning languages matters”, Dr Shirley Lawes made a plea for language to be learned for its own sake and stated:
“The study of a foreign language has a unique transformational capacity that differentiates it from other subject disciplines in the potential that knowledge of foreign languages has of opening individuals up to human culture.”
That enables understanding of different ways of life and encourages tolerance. In the words of the veteran language teacher Eric Hawkins, foreign languages serve to
“emancipate the learner from parochialism.”
New languages enrich our experience. Another culture can be brought alive by different words, such as “clapotis”, which means the sound of little waves lapping on a quayside and has no equivalent in our language.
Gaining an understanding of the grammatical structure of a foreign language can also feed back into a deepening understanding of how to use our own to best effect. I would also advocate ensuring that children and young people understand the syntax of our own language. Indeed, although it is not very modern, the study of Latin can be invaluable in the understanding of language, and I personally believe that it is a great pity that Lanark grammar school, where my children happened to go, is now one of the few high schools in Scotland that still teach it.
I agree with the Scottish Government’s languages working group that the earlier someone starts to learn a new language, the better. The pilot project in East Renfrewshire involving children learning French from their pre-school year is a good example. The pilot started in 2002 and uses songs, rhymes and games to encourage children to learn a foreign language in the same way as they learned their mother tongue.
It is only in the past year that those children will move on to a secondary school setting, so the analysis of what impact that method of teaching has had will only now begin. However, it is clear that, as other members have stressed, by starting at an early age, the children do not have the inhibitions of later life and they grow up understanding language and having increased confidence in their ability to learn new things.
When I was learning, many people in my generation lacked the confidence to take the risk of speaking a foreign language, even if they were in a campsite with kids in France, Germany or wherever. Often, that was due to how they were taught. These days in our primary schools, in the context of curriculum for excellence, the range of methods that are used—including games, role plays, visual materials and talking in groups and with partners—mean that saying, “Salut!” and opening a conversation is fun rather than traumatic.
I disagree with Liz Smith: there is a clear methodology underpinning language teaching at primary level. The working group emphasises that
“local authorities should provide regular opportunities for primary and secondary languages staff to work together ... to undertake shared CPD”.
As a primary French teacher, I would argue that such work will aid the transition to secondary school and ensure that children are no longer turned off from the more rigid and perhaps less participatory ways of learning at secondary level.
Equity must be at the centre of the development of the new strategy for modern languages. As Neil Findlay stressed, rural schools and those in more deprived areas must not be disadvantaged by the challenge of finding and retaining modern language teachers. If the working group’s report and recommendations are actioned consistently, we will, in a generation, have teachers who are leaving teacher training ready and able to teach modern languages, and children who know that part of growing up as a global citizen involves speaking one or two other languages.
Enfin, if the first way to connect with another country is through its language, the second way is perhaps through its cuisine. I wish everyone today, “Buon appetito!” for the Italian lunch in the Scottish Parliament canteen.
- Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP):
I am delighted to take part in the debate. Many members in the chamber already know of my passion for language learning and how knowledge of languages certainly helped my career development. Strange as it may seem, I would not have been able to enter the oil and gas industry if I had not been able to speak German.
Members may expect me to concentrate on Scottish languages, as I have taken my oath three times in Doric and am a strong supporter of Gaelic-medium education. However, I do not intend to focus on those languages this morning, although they form a strong basis for learning other languages. The reading bus in Aberdeen does wonderful work in promoting the Doric language, and Gaelic-medium schools such as Gilcomstoun school in Aberdeen do sterling work in promoting multilingualism.
I do not know how we have come to be so dismissive in recent decades of the need to speak and understand other languages, but that is totally unacceptable in a globalised society, and I welcome the initiative from the minister. As an article that appeared in The Observer some time ago said,
“Entre nous, the idea we need only English is totally passé. Without a commitment to language teaching we condemn our children to a tongue-tied future.”
The charity Children in Scotland reminds us that around 137 languages in addition to English are spoken in this country, and that we have around 10,000 bilingual or multilingual children. We must build on that. Research shows that learning a second language builds on the first language and consolidates it, and children do not become confused when they are exposed in their early years to two or more languages.
Marco Biagi mentioned the recent pilot project in my constituency at Walker Road primary school, which showed the benefits of total immersion learning in maths, geography, environmental studies and other subjects in French. That resulted in those children presenting early for standard grade when they went to secondary school, and it increased their ability to learn a second language at secondary level.
My plea is that it is not only French that should be children’s first encounter with another language. My own local authority, Aberdeenshire, went from offering a choice of French or German to offering just French. I am sure that that put a lot of children off learning a language, especially when there are so many affinities between Doric and German that could be built on.
We must use the skills of teachers and parents, and others in our communities, to introduce children to the diversity of languages, and we must use this opportunity to review the way in which we teach languages. Curriculum for excellence offers exciting opportunities in that field. It is not—as Liz Smith believes—about finding more time but about combining language learning with other subjects.
When I, as we all do, visit schools and speak to children, I always promote language learning as much as I can. The minister posed the question of its use to working-class kids; I always ask the boys who want to be footballers what they would do about languages if they were good enough to play in Spain or Italy—and I always see a light going on in their heads.
Teachers seem to face unnecessary barriers when they organise school exchange trips. A friend of mine who teaches languages at Alford academy told me that there had been a suggestion that German families be disclosure checked, which I think is going over the score somewhat. Although the Confucius hubs have been introduced, I am not sure whether they have been kept up across the whole of Scotland, and I ask the minister to ensure that they are all operating as intended.
Many companies are also interested in helping with language promotion. Every year, my old company, KCA Deutag, sponsors two secondary school children on a work experience trip to its headquarters in the German town of Bad Bentheim, and I know that rotary clubs used to help with student exchanges to various countries.
We must make it easier for language assistants to be used in our schools. Those assistants might already be living in our communities, but they might also be students in, for example, the Erasmus programme. Traditionally, there have tended to be more students coming to Scotland than Scottish students going in the other direction, but there has been much progress in that area in recent years. For example, the number of Robert Gordon University students going to other countries is now the same as the number who come here to go to that university.
Actually, the Scottish figures for the Erasmus programme make exciting reading. Scotland now accounts for 12.6 per cent of the total number of UK students in the programme, with 1,507 taking part in 2009-10 and 1,273 the year before. However, although that represents a total increase of 26.8 per cent in two years, the percentage of the Scottish student population in the Erasmus programme is still very low, at 0.7 per cent. That is still slightly higher than the English figure of 0.5 per cent but nowhere near the figure for France, which is 1.4 per cent, or for Spain, which is 2 per cent.
All, though, is not doom and gloom. I know one young lady who, as a young child, was exposed to “Salut Serge” CDs on car journeys; who took French in primary and secondary school and in one year—her sixth year—got her higher Spanish; and who at the University of Glasgow furthered her French and Spanish with business studies. She took French and German in her second year and next year is going to Toulouse University, where she will take all her classes in French and where she hopes to deepen her knowledge of Spanish and start Mandarin. She was one of more than 200 at the Erasmus induction meeting at the University of Glasgow the other week—and I have to say that I am disappointed that, as my friend Sandra White will point out, Glasgow is reducing the breadth of the languages available at the university while Toulouse offers 13 choices.
Cue one proud mum of this young lady—I practise what I preach.
- Stuart McMillan (West Scotland) (SNP):
When I was listening to Claudia Beamish’s closing comments about Italian, I was taken back to the time when I studied in France and Germany. As a vegetarian at the time, I have to admit that I found living in those two countries—I also studied in Sweden—a bit of a challenge.
I am delighted to be taking part in the debate not as a member of the Education and Culture Committee but as someone who has studied and, indeed, struggled with languages. Although I have come close to tears of despair with them, I felt elated when a lecturer told me that I could now speak French.
I whole-heartedly support the motion in the name of the minister. My only sadness is that such a motion was not one of the first debated by the Parliament back in 1999, long before either the minister or I were elected. I warmly welcome the debate and the report published by the languages working group.
As we have heard, languages are vital to the economic wellbeing of the country and to the wellbeing of individuals. Languages help to broaden horizons and we need more of that. Some people may think that learning languages is a middle or upper-class activity that is far removed from the skills that matter to people. I suggest that those who think that are far removed from reality and need a reality check. In fact, they are the proof of why we need more languages to be learned across the country.
It is no longer an option to continue in the same way. We, as parliamentarians, are failing Scotland’s people if we do not consider our children’s future and economic prospects. I know that the situation will not change overnight or over the course of a parliamentary session. Introducing the 1+2 model over two years is welcome, and I warmly support that measure. However, changing many of the cultural thoughts of people who are against languages will probably take a bit longer than two parliamentary sessions.
I could talk about this subject for hours, but in the generous six minutes that I have—
- The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott):
You have seven minutes.
- Stuart McMillan:
Thank you, Presiding Officer. In the time that I have, I have struggled to cut down some of my real-life experiences that show why languages matter but, towards the end of my speech, I will provide a couple of examples that show why they are relevant for people today.
I grew up in a working-class family in Port Glasgow. My mother worked in school health for over 30 years before she retired. My father worked in the shipyards and then, after they closed, was unemployed for three years. He got back into work and worked in marine engineering until he passed away. My parents were traditional, working-class parents who never spoke languages, although they always encouraged me to. In third year, I picked German for my O-grade because my father was working in Germany at the time and I thought that I could help him with the language when he came home, every few weeks.
As a result of learning German, I took part in a German exchange trip—Claudia Beamish also talked about exchange trips. I was 15 and 16 when I took part in that. One year the kids from West Germany came to Scotland, and the second year we went to West Germany. The whole experience had a profound effect on me, particularly when we went on a day trip to East Berlin. The effect that had on me was to prove that communism did not work—although that is a debate for another day.
To have the opportunity to spend two weeks in a new country and pick up even more of the language was wonderful. The experience of waking up one morning after having a dream in German was one of those moments that helped to shape me as a person. I realised that I was good at the language, I understood a lot of it, and I appreciated, over that period, that the German people were just like me. There was no reason why we should not be able to work together to form a better future.
- Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP):
Folk have talked about exchange trips, but it strikes me, as I listen to the debate, that people do not take advantage of what we have here at this moment. We have folk who have come to Scotland from all over the world—a lot of Polish people, for example. Why are we not immersing our kids to learn Polish, alongside those kids? That would work extraordinarily well. Polish is one example, but there are many others.
- Stuart McMillan:
Absolutely—I could not agree more. I will make a point later in my speech that highlights why it is important for people in Scotland to learn more languages.
My journey through learning languages was never easy. When I got a 1 for my O-grade German, I thought that I had an aptitude for the language—indeed, I did. However, my two hours of higher German on Friday afternoons was tough going and I struggled with it. I did not apply myself as much as I should have, and I failed it. Undeterred, I went on to college and university and completed my honours degree in European business management with languages—I studied French and German. I went on to obtain an MBA European. On both courses I had the opportunity to study abroad: in Toulouse—I will speak to Maureen Watt about Toulouse later—and Dortmund during the undergraduate degree, and in Angoulême and Ronneby, in Sweden, during the MBA.
The MBA course was all in English, so members may ask why it is relevant to this debate. It demonstrates precisely the reason why we need to improve our language skills and capabilities. How many lecturers in Scotland would teach a class—other than a language class—in another language? Probably very few would, yet that is exactly what happened in Sweden and in France, which, as you all know, is fiercely proud of its language and promotes and protects it in equal measures. The thing about Sweden that really impressed me was the ease with which the lecturers would switch from Swedish into English and back again. The students would read business textbooks in English so that nothing would be lost in translation, and the discussions and debates would also take place in English.
Marco Biagi spoke about speakers of other languages having a head start. That is exactly what we are talking about. When it comes to languages, other countries such as Sweden are a long way ahead of us. If we want to fully compete with other countries, we should look at models such as those in the Scandinavian countries.
I am conscious of time, but I want to give two real-life examples of why languages matter and are important to people. IBM in Greenock has an international customer call centre. Some years ago, I worked for IBM. Part of my job involved dealing with colleagues in that centre. People from all over the world worked there, including Scots, but when it came to languages, they were very much in a minority. There are language-related job opportunities in Scotland, not only with IBM but with many other companies.
My second example relates to football and it goes back to Kevin Stewart’s point. The Hearts team that won the Scottish cup on Saturday has a Portuguese manager. Rudi Skácel, who scored two goals, is from the Czech Republic. In the old Czechoslovakia, Russian and German were taught rather than English. People come to this country to play football. For them, it is an opportunity to improve their language skills and to enhance their economic opportunities.
- Hanzala Malik (Glasgow) (Lab):
I refer to the issue that I raised in the debate on educational attainment on 11 January 2012. Recommendation 6 of a session 3 report by the European and External Relations Committee stated that the committee was concerned about the “poor linguistic performance” of the Scottish people. In that debate, I spoke of there being no provision for Punjabi speakers in our schools. I also noted SQA claims that there are not sufficient Punjabi speakers and that there is insufficient demand for the language—despite the fact that Punjabi is, after English, the most widely spoken language in Scotland. I asked the Minister for Children and Young People to explain how the SQA could reach such a conclusion. She said that Alasdair Allan would speak to me about what could be done, but no information has yet been forthcoming.
I again ask the minister and the Scottish Government to take serious note of the issue and to acknowledge that there needs to be a broad base of language skills in Scotland for international trade, and to support families and service users who speak languages such as Punjabi, Polish, Arabic, Urdu and Cantonese. Although it is possible to gain standard grade and higher qualifications in Urdu and Cantonese, no such qualifications or teaching are available for the Punjabi language, even though it is the second most commonly spoken language in Scotland and despite the fact that there are more than 2 million Punjabi speakers in the UK.
In Glasgow, very little Punjabi is taught in mainstream secondary schools. No SQA exams in Punjabi are available at school or national qualifications level. When students wish to sit exams in Punjabi, they must do so through an accredited centre for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, which is an English examining body. Although there is some provision for language learning outside school—for example, there is some community provision in mosques and gurdwaras in Glasgow—no non-native speakers undertake Urdu at secondary level, although there are some non-native speakers at primary level. Why is that not being continued into secondary education?
Our challenge is clear. We face staffing, recruitment and maintenance issues, and require the SQA to examine the issue in depth. We also need to look at and be more vocal on how speakers of any non-standard language in Scotland are treated.
- Dr Allan:
Hanzala Malik and I have spoken about the issue briefly in correspondence. I will be happy to arrange a more formal meeting, if that would be helpful. When we talk about 1+2 languages, we are not restricting ourselves to European languages because we also recognise the value of Asian languages. I will be very happy to have that conversation with Hanzala Malik.
- Hanzala Malik:
I thank the minister for that. It is very welcome and I will take him up on the offer.
We must acknowledge the increasing number of languages that are spoken in Scotland today. The use of Chinese has grown over the past five years, which seems to be a response to the interest in the booming Chinese economy and the relationship between our countries. At least some people feel that some knowledge of the language is a good opportunity for trade in any country. That, and the need to support students, families and communities in order to raise the level of language learning should be aided by the SQA and the Scottish Government.
I am also keen to find out what is being done by the British Council. What is its role in supporting the learning of languages in Scotland? I would appreciate the minister’s investigating what other support we can get from the British Council for our endeavour to support language learning.
A Punjabi speaker would say that his Punjabi is just as loved and valuable as any other language. I will say that in Punjabi, if I may.
The member spoke in Punjabi.
That is from a Scotland-born lad, and it shows that I learned that language outwith the school curriculum. I was lucky; I had the opportunity. Opportunities are still available and, as has already been pointed out, we have communities who have come from all around the world whom we could take full advantage of in order to help our pupils through twinning arrangements, or however we want to do it. That would be very helpful.
It is important for us to demonstrate our willingness to engage in learning other languages because it plays a vital role. During my travels overseas, I have learned that when a person speaks the language of the country that they are visiting, they receive a far more welcoming reception than they would if they did not know the language.
- Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP):
I am pleased to be able to speak today on what I believe is an extremely important subject, and one that has not been given the level of attention that it warrants. Many initiatives have been announced during past decades, and successive generations have been party to numerous pilot projects in schools. Indeed, as a child, I was among a group of primary school children who were the first in the country to receive French lessons by television. It was a long time ago; if I say that the programmes were in black and white, I am sure that members will be amazed. Although that project did not last long, it instilled in me a curiosity about other languages and cultures that led to senior school studies.
As I have said, I do not believe that we, as a nation in modern times, have persevered seriously enough with learning of languages. We can call it complacency, arrogance or whatever, but it is a fact.
I looked back to 2006 when I last spoke on this issue. My research at that time showed that the number of school pupils who were taking a foreign language at standard grade had dropped by almost 9,000 since 1999. We have not properly addressed that decline during the intervening years. I am glad that we are now going to take a serious look at the issue because it is time we turned things around.
We should start by taking seriously the report of the languages working group. More important than that, we need to stick with it as a long-term strategy rather than use it in the short or medium terms. We are way behind and, for the future of Scotland, we will have to compete. It is a fact that English is no longer the international language of businesses and that the old imperiousness does us few favours. The 1.5 billion residents of China, 1 billion people in India and most of the 500 million people in the European Union would not disagree. In much of South America, Spanish is spoken and in Brazil, one of the BRIC countries, Portuguese is spoken.
I understand that long ago, it was not possible to get a degree from a Scottish university unless one had spent a year working abroad. Moving to modern times, Maureen Watt talked about low take-up of the Erasmus programme. The number of students coming to Scotland to study for a year far outweighs the number of Scots going abroad. A monoglot is less likely to be enamoured by the prospect of a year abroad than is a student who is confident in his or her command of the native language of the host country. Stuart McMillan spoke very well about that. We should encourage Scotland’s youth to get out and see the world while they are young.
An increasing number of employment opportunities—not just the traditional ones such as export sales—require fluency in another language. The increasing mobility of the European population marks the need for further improvement of language skills. Not only will there be business opportunities throughout Europe, but many employment opportunities will require people to up sticks and shift themselves across Europe’s borders.
The internet is an area in which Anglophones have had the security of knowing that their language reigns supreme, but that cannot be guaranteed any more, either. English dominance of the worldwide web is declining, as websites in other languages such as Spanish and Mandarin take off.
- Kezia Dugdale:
If Ms Fabiani were to walk by my office, she might hear French radio, because a number of my staff are learning French for their exams. Does she recognise that the internet provides opportunities to develop language skills?
- Linda Fabiani:
Absolutely, I do. For three years, I have had the German equivalent of that sitting unused on a computer, so perhaps Kezia Dugdale has spurred me into action. There are masses of information that could be denied people. It is a reversal of the current position, where English is only one of the main languages on the web. That said, Kezia Dugdale made a positive point.
There are many issues on which we can be positive. Let us, for example, be positive about our children, who are more than capable of meeting the standard. The on-going success of Gaelic education has shown that learning and ability in other studies can be improved by learning another language and culture. At Mossneuk primary school in East Kilbride, the children learn German. The teachers have told me that that has led to success in other subjects.
Willie Neill reminded us in his poem
“Scotia est Divisa in Voces Tres”
that Scotland has three old languages—Gaelic, Scots and English.
Maureen Watt and Hanzala Malik told us about all the international languages that are now here in our country. That is a good basis for learning modern languages. We must follow that path if we want future generations to make an impact on the world.
Historically, Scots had, among other things, the reputation of being among the world’s best diplomats, at a time when the international language of diplomacy was court French. The influence of Scots has been felt around the world for centuries. We should remember that, we should be pleased about it and proud of it, and we should take advantage of it. However, in order to do that, we have to be able to communicate with our colleagues and friends around the world. We must get our language skills up there with the best in the world. If Poles can leave school with four or five languages, and increase their business skills and employment mobility in the process, there is no reason why Scots cannot do the same. If the French, with what some would say is a chauvinistic attitude to their language, can achieve a 65 per cent engagement with other languages, surely Scots can do the same. It is not a matter of achieving the impossible; it is a matter of having ambition for our nation. We must ask ourselves how much we can do rather than tell ourselves that we cannot do very much.
If Scots see themselves as part of world society as well as being part of Scotland, they will offer the nation a greater chance of stability and prosperity. That is crucial and it is more important for the young now and for future generations than it is for most of us sitting in the chamber. I hope that everyone in Parliament can get behind a serious long-term strategy of engaging with other parts of the world, in other languages.
- Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab):
My mum, who was a modern languages teacher for many years, is the first to say that I have no natural gift for languages. At school, I was quite academic, but I had to work a lot harder to be good at French. I got a good grade, but that was in part because there was a fluent French speaker in my house. I ditched French at the first opportunity. I wanted to go to university and get good grades, so I picked subjects that I liked and enjoyed and, to be frank, French did not fit into that. I now regret that, because of the obvious employability benefits that foreign languages bring.
As I got older, I developed a real love for Spain and all things Spanish, so I forced myself to try to learn Spanish—I have done night classes at the University of Edinburgh and paid a private tutor. That has been torture, because I just do not have the natural ability. Even though I now want to learn Spanish, I find it difficult.
I read with great interest the report to which the Government’s motion refers. I want to make a positive speech overall, so I will get the negativity out of the way first. From my perspective, the report has two flaws: first, it recognises the need for an audit of the skills base in the education system; I am disappointed that that has not yet taken place.
Secondly, the report says that it cannot estimate the amount of resources that are needed to deliver the pilot projects, but without that we cannot estimate the size of the challenge that is ahead. Like cute puppies and the aroma of fresh coffee, the aim of teaching modern languages to primary 1 kids is a great idea that makes us feel good and feel that we are doing good, but it is hard to keep the faith if we do not know who will deliver it and how much it will cost.
- Dr Allan:
I will be positive, but some of the things that Kezia Dugdale mentions were not part of the working group’s remit. Does she accept that conversations between the Government and stakeholders are the way to answer some of the questions that she raises?
- Kezia Dugdale:
I absolutely accept that, but the issue should have been at the heart of the remit. How can the Government seek to tackle a problem if it does not start with what resources or tools it has at its disposal? Therefore, the audit of skills is urgent and I look forward to hearing the Government explain how it will make progress on it.
Teachers whom I have spoken to are positive about the initiative, but they are quick to highlight the training needs of teachers. If we want kids to soak up a new language, we need to immerse them in it from the beginning. Those points were well evidenced by Maureen Watt and Marco Biagi. It is ridiculous to ask a primary teacher with a higher in Spanish to take on that task, and it could be counterproductive. We need to empower kids to learn a language. It is not simply about teaching them the French or Spanish for “cat” or “dog”; we need to empower them to ask questions, such as “¿Cómo se dice ... ?”, or “How do you say ... ?” Those are the sort of skills that we need to give young people.
I am pleased that the report recognises the role of mother languages that are not English in the 1+2 strategy. To give some statistics, 24,555 kids in Scotland have English as an additional language, which is 3.7 per cent of all Scottish pupils. Of them, 3,588 are in Edinburgh, which represents 8 per cent of the school population in our capital city. That is a hugely significant amount, but when we get down to school level, it becomes even more significant. No fewer than 100 of the children at Leith primary school, just down the road, have English as an additional language. That is 36 per cent of the school roll. That is a huge amount that—of course—brings challenges, but the school relishes that and, in fact, celebrates it. Every time a new country is represented in the school, a new flag is hung. The headteacher told me that, just last week, they hung the Nepalese and Guatemalan flags for the first time. That is fantastic and wonderful and it shows the diversity in Scotland that we love, but additional resources are needed to support the school.
The City of Edinburgh Council has an English as an additional language service. That is great, too, but it is hugely underresourced. As I said, 100 kids at Leith primary school have English as an additional language, but they have access to one teacher for one and half days a week, and that is all. That is only enough time to train teachers. The English as an additional language specialists never get anywhere near the kids whom they seek to support in the classroom. With more resources, their time could be better spent. However, we are kidding ourselves if we think that the infrastructure is there even to support the kids with additional languages who are already in our schools. There are just 6.2 full-time equivalent bilingual support assistants for the whole of Edinburgh—that is six people to support 3,000 kids.
- Neil Findlay:
I acknowledge what Kezia Dugdale says. In my previous post, I had the great fortune to teach a Polish pupil who had just come into the country and who was a delight to teach. However, that boy was put into my class—an additional needs support class—along with a number of kids who had complex learning difficulties. He had no problem other than the language issue. That situation was due to a resourcing matter, which indicates the difficulties that teachers face day to day. The support for the Polish boy in the school and the support for me as a teacher was limited. Indeed, I was more terrified than he was at the prospect of having to teach him.
- Kezia Dugdale:
I welcome that intervention. Neil Findlay has highlighted that getting to grips with English as an additional language will help the Government’s strategy because it will get it one step further along the way, if we do it properly. It is already referred to in the modern languages report, but if the minister could progress some of the issues, he would make his long-term goals more achievable, at the same time.
Leith primary school staff also told me that they relish the opportunity to teach modern languages in the primary school setting and that they had found that the best way to get teachers to do that is to send them abroad for training. We might think that that would be difficult and resource intensive, but they found a source of European Union funding called the Comenius fund, which provides for all the costs for travel and subsistence so that teachers can go abroad for between one day and six weeks to learn to be a modern languages teacher.
I found no reference to Comenius funding in the language report strategy document. In fact, I found no reference to European Union funding anywhere in the document. I strongly urge the minister to look at alternative sources of funding that he could draw on to progress his agenda. The funding need not all be drawn from Scottish Government pots.
Of course we are broadly supportive of the Government’s ambition, but we need to see the audit so that we can understand what resources are needed to fulfil that ambition. When we know how much it will cost, we will be in a position to match that boldness with the necessary budget. Will the Government take the lead when the true cost is known? On verra; veremos; wir werden sehen. We shall see.
- Dave Thompson (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP):
Thòisich mi a’sgrìobhadh m’òraid ’s a Ghàidhlig ach cha robh mi cinnteach gun tuigidh sibh gu soilleir na thuirt mi ’san eadar theangachadh.
Following is the translation:
I started writing my speech in Gaelic but I was not sure that you would clearly understand what I said in translation.
The member continued in English.
I also thought that I would put in a few words of Chinese, or French—not that I speak these languages—an a thocht aboot screivin in ma mither tongue o Doric an aa, till a makit up ma mind that I could best explain my position on this important subject in English. I share this dilemma with members to emphasise that we already live in a multilingual nation and that effective communication requires linguistic fluency from both the speaker and the listener.
Ensuring that our education system gives young Scots the linguistic toolbox to allow them to pick up second and third languages to fluency must be a priority—as has already been said—and I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to adopt the 1+2 Barcelona model of language learning for Scotland. The European Union is pushing for every person in the EU to speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue because language learning helps to build communities and enables effective trading.
I do not need to stress that language acquisition must begin in childhood. On the back of the languages working group report, the Scottish Government’s announcement that it will explore opportunities for all young people to start learning a second language in primary 1 is welcome.
Those of us who have tried to learn a language in adulthood—and who are still learning many years later—are downright jealous of schoolchildren who pick up languages as casually as they pick daisies in the summer. I believe that we will transform language learning in Scotland by giving five-year-olds first-class language tuition. With the tools to pick up languages, they will be ready to face the international world in adulthood and to represent Scotland on a global stage. If we are all agreed that bilingualism and even trilingualism—or more—are to be coveted, the question arises as to how we will get there.
In Scotland, we start with a distinct advantage in that we are already rich in languages, although in the past we, too, have been on the receiving end of obtrusive linguistic policies that have been far from beneficial to our cultural heritage. I am talking about the slow but enforced decline of our two native tongues, Gaelic and Scots. Our linguistic heritage should mean that we are even more sympathetic towards, and appreciative of, the benefits of multilingualism, but it should also mean that we are quick to protect and enjoy the indigenous languages of our nation.
Across the country, in 14 different councils, there are 2,316 primary school children in Gaelic-medium education. Every child who is educated in a Gaelic-medium school is fully bilingual by the age of 10, with the ability to read, write and speak fluently in at least two languages. Because many of the children are immersed in Gaelic from the age of three, they are confident in using the language both within the school gates and outside them. It is not just a school language; it is their language in much the way that English is. The growth of the Gaelic economy means that Gaelic can now be heard on the radio, seen in supermarkets and on road signs and read in the newspapers. It also has its own television channel. All of that reinforces the relevance of the language.
In February 2011, the curriculum for excellence Gaelic excellence group reported that modern language teachers in secondary schools were consistently impressed with the ability of Gaelic-medium educated pupils to acquire other languages. Those pupils appreciate the importance of languages, display confidence in picking up another language and find it easy to switch between languages. Surely, those are exactly the skills that we want to see in young Scots.
Gaelic speakers can pick up French, German, Spanish or any other language with confidence, appreciation and determination. There are many benefits of Gaelic-medium education. Yes—learning Gaelic means that one has a unique window on Scottish heritage, and it is a precious cultural gift, but I remind Parliament that learning a second language to fluency when one is still a child means acquiring the toolbox to pick up a third and a fourth language much more easily. I am not downplaying the importance of teaching and learning European languages or other languages in our schools and I do not believe that learning Gaelic is a substitute for that. However, Gaelic-medium education can be an essential building block in that learning. That could also be true of the Scots tongue. We have some way to go to bring it up to the level of Gaelic in literacy terms, but that is also a target to which we should aspire, because that would give us three immersion languages in our language toolbox.
In Scotland, we have a great gift that we do not appreciate enough in that we have an indigenous language that is distinct from English. That is an important point, because someone who is fluent in English and Gaelic—two languages whose structures are almost diametrically opposed—can master anything in between. We have an education system that provides our children with an excellent linguistic toolbox, and we have extensive exposure to the language in everyday life. In short, we have all the ingredients for effective language acquisition and we should all grasp the opportunity that that brings.
- Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD):
I very much welcome the debate and I am pleased with the way in which it has been framed. Too often, the ability to speak another language is seen as something that is nice to have rather than a key skill—one that matters and which has the potential to open up the widest range of opportunities. Linda Fabiani, who I do not think has ever been in black and white, was right: for too long, we have derived false comfort from the misguided assumption that the world speaks English. As the minister said, 75 per cent of the world’s population speak no English and only 6 per cent are fluent in it.
With figures for language provision in state schools showing the most dramatic drop-off in recent years, there is a real risk that an ability to speak languages will somehow become associated with privilege instead of being an entitlement. That point was made forcibly by Doreen Grove in her report “Talking the talk, so that Scotland can walk the walk: A rapid review of the evidence of impact on Scottish business of a monolingual workforce”. I am pleased that the Government’s languages working group recommends not only that children have access to an additional language from primary 1, but that language learning should be an entitlement for all young people at least to the end of S3.
Before going any further, I should probably declare a couple of interests. As the son of a former French teacher and as someone whose sister teaches modern languages at a Glasgow secondary while sending her children to the local Gaelic school, my support for the recommendations that the excellent languages working group has made should come as no surprise. Indeed, it is probably a filial duty.
As someone who has had opportunities not only to study multiple languages at school and university but to live, work and study in Spanish and French-speaking countries over recent years, I know how much I have benefited from the richness of those experiences. There are economic advantages to language learning, and I will touch on them shortly, but I absolutely agree with the British Council’s emphasis on the important role that proficiency in languages plays in creating an outward-looking mindset among our population.
Speaking a foreign language shows our willingness to engage with the wider world, and on an individual level it can do wonders in developing self-confidence and encouraging inquiry. During a recent family visit to Barcelona, I noticed that my youngest son seemed to be as thrilled at having been able to ask the porter in our hotel which bus would take us to the Nou Camp as he was at seeing Lionel Messi in the flesh.
However, there is a critical economic dimension to this debate, as Liz Smith indicated. In a week when the views of business leaders on the readiness of young Scots for the world of work have been the subject of much heated debate, it is fair to acknowledge the long-standing concerns about how prepared our young people are to operate in a globalised and multicultural economy. The economist James Foreman-Peck has suggested that language is a barrier to trade that is equivalent to that of a tax. Neil Findlay made that point. James Foreman-Peck explains that a common language causes trade, and trade causes economic growth, so a lack of language is effectively a barrier.
I know from my experience of working overseas in a multinational company that having people with the right mix of not just language skills but cultural understanding to do business in each country is critical. After all, it is generally accepted that people buy in their own language. As former German Chancellor Willy Brandt once observed, and I am sure that Stuart McMillan will back me up on this,
“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”
I suspect that, somewhere in Orkney, Mr Turner will be doing metaphoric cartwheels at receiving the news that the first foreign language that I have spoken in the Scottish Parliament is German.
The cost to the Scottish economy of that barrier to trade is significant. Neil Findlay put it at about £500 million, but a figure nearer £600 million has also been quoted. Doreen Grove cites an example in which a major petrochemical company decided against even inviting a bid from its Scottish headquarters for a new European sales office due to problems in recruiting language speakers. That meant not only a loss of jobs, but a loss of £4 million a year in investment.
I well remember a visit to Wolfson Microelectronics, where management stressed how important it is for the company to recruit individuals who have not only the requisite design and technical skills but an ability to operate in a foreign language environment. At that stage, the company was experiencing serious difficulties in recruiting, not just in Scotland but in the wider UK market.
Language does matter. It improves young people’s opportunities and indeed opportunities for those of all ages. Neil Findlay made a good point about the point at which people look to expand their language horizons, a little like Kezia Dugdale. Even when someone has proficiency, if they do not have an opportunity to continue using the language, they quickly lose their fluency and confidence. Far more emphasis needs to be placed on that area in future.
I restate my support for what the Scottish Government is seeking to achieve. My concern is, as it was when we debated these issues last year, that I am not entirely clear how the minister expects to achieve the objectives that he has set. There is nothing in the motion that demonstrates that the laudable ambition is matched by a credible, costed plan. In that sense, both the Labour and Tory amendments make entirely legitimate points by highlighting the importance, but the inadequate provision, of suitably qualified teachers and language assistants. In the case of the latter, the British Council has quite rightly been shouting its concern from the rooftops for some time. Scotland has seen the number of language assistants plummet from 284 in 2005-06 to 70 this year. We have 3 per cent of the UK total, while Northern Ireland, with a third of our population, has 60 per cent more such assistants.
Orkney Islands Council is in the fortunate position of being one of the local authorities to have such provision. I know that the support to teachers has been invaluable. Assistants not only enhance linguistic fluency; they bring a cultural dimension that is otherwise almost impossible to create. The minister’s advisory group recognised that, and I hope that that will result in significant improvements over the parliamentary session.
The group has made sensible proposals on initial and on-going teacher training and development in languages. Graham Donaldson made the point in his report that that is vital in providing teachers with the confidence that they need. However, the curriculum for excellence and, indeed, developments in information technology already offer real opportunities to be imaginative about the way in which languages—whatever languages they are—are taught in our schools.
Finally, I acknowledge the working group’s focus on the role that the higher education and further education sectors play. As well as improving transitions from primary to secondary school, there is much more that our colleges and universities can and should do to support learning and underscore the value of languages through the demands that they place on their students and would-be students.
I again congratulate the Government on bringing forward the debate and I very much share the ambition that has been set out, but we must see a far clearer commitment from ministers on exactly how that ambition will be realised. The work of the language advisory group is comprehensive and can chart a path towards the outcomes that we all wish to see. As Linda Fabiani said, we can see those outcomes if we have the patience to stay the course, but we should be under no illusions. The distance that we need to travel is significant in many areas. Marco Biagi offered thoughtful observations on that and the reasons behind it—and lifted the veil on the UK’s plummeting fortunes at the Eurovision song contest. In some cases, we are actually moving in the wrong direction.
Back in 2010, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education observed:
“Globalisation has transformed the way we live, learn and work. The pace of technological change, particularly the ease and speed of communication, has continued to accelerate. Scotland is increasingly enhanced by people from different countries, cultures and religions, and who speak languages other than English. Education must prepare young people to flourish in this new and changing world.”
I could not agree more.
- Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP):
I was going to begin my contribution in parliamo Glasgow, but I thought that I had better not, as even I have trouble understanding it. Perhaps the minister could try to use it in summing up.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate. Like other members, I believe that expanding and delivering the opportunities to learn extra languages at a very early age will benefit our children and the whole of Scotland, and I welcome the working group’s recommendations on that in particular.
As the MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, I am very aware of the large Gaelic community in the constituency; indeed, I think that the Gaelic community in it is the largest outwith the islands. The Glasgow Gaelic school is based in Berkeley Street in Kelvin, and it is a huge success. An overwhelming number of people want to go to the school. People do not necessarily only learn the language; they can learn about the way of life as well. Dave Thompson mentioned that. Whenever I visit that school, which I do often, it is a great pleasure to see the fantastic work that is done there.
As I said, languages are important. When people go to the Glasgow Gaelic school and schools that teach other languages, there seems to be an ethos about the culture that shines through. I congratulate Donalda McComb and all the staff at the Glasgow Gaelic school, whose dedication knows no bounds.
The minister mentioned Confucius hubs, which are excellent facilities not only for languages, but for understanding, trips and twinning with the Chinese community. I thank the staff in Hillhead high school, which is in my constituency, for the fantastic work that they do in the Confucius hub there.
I visit schools and nurseries in my area. In fact, I visited Strathclyde nursery school just on Friday and saw a graduation ceremony for tots. They can speak French, which is fantastic. I was amazed to see children as young as three learning another language. The children learn through song and play. That is entirely different from my experience at school.
I do not know whether other members had the same experience as me, but the only language that was available to me and others at that time was French. Basically we learned by rote and sometimes through song, but mostly through verbs, grammar and many hours of writing down conversations. It was not an enjoyable experience, which is why I am so pleased when I see the difference now in schools, where kids learn languages conversationally. They are interested in the language. They learn names, colours, flowers, books, magazines and films—Linda Fabiani mentioned watching a television programme in black and white, which I can also remember. All those things encourage kids to learn and keep their interest.
Kezia Dugdale said that she did not have an ear for learning languages, but that she wishes that she had done, because it would have been useful in later life. Similarly, when I was 16 I decided that I would go and learn German. I went to Jordanhill College. I had never learned German in my life before, but I wanted to do something even though school had not encouraged me, or others. Perhaps if we had had the type of learning that we have now and which we will have in the future, we might not have been quite so frightened to learn other languages.
There is a fantastic opportunity now and we are giving kids the chance to learn languages. Liam McArthur and others mentioned the economic benefit of learning languages and that is fantastic for Scotland as a whole. However, it is not only about the economic benefit; it is about the confidence that kids get from learning languages and the fact that it opens up a whole new world to them. In fact, my granddaughter was born in Barcelona and by the time that she was two she could speak Catalan. The extent to which kids can absorb information like sponges and pick up a language is unbelievable.
That is why we should all welcome the Government’s forward programme. I am sure that the minister agrees that there may be issues that we have to look at; Elizabeth Smith and others picked up on some of those issues. However, it is worth looking forward to ensure that our kids have a great opportunity.
The working group’s recommendation 18 states
“that SQA keep under review the suite of languages offered”.
Recommendation 19 states
“that there be further engagement with the FE and HE sectors”.
Recommendation 23 states
“that universities work together as a consortium of university providers to support delivery”.
Finally, recommendation 27 states
“that Scottish Government and Universities work with Local Authorities”.
I highlight those recommendations because they mention universities, the SQA and others but, as far as I can see, there is no mention of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. Will the minister pick up on that when she sums up the debate? Without the Scottish funding council, the moneys to deliver languages in universities are not there. What role does the funding council have in the process?
Maureen Watt and Kevin Stewart both mentioned the teaching of the Polish language. There is a fantastic course at the University of Glasgow in Czech, Polish and Slavonic studies, but its funding is being ended. The Scottish funding council is obviously involved in that situation, too. The centre for Russian, central and east European studies is the only one of its kind in Scotland. If the centre closes, people who want to continue their studies in that subject will have to go to London; that will be the only option left in the UK. It is imperative that the Scottish funding council considers the situation and ensures that the centre continues, given the good work that it does. Polish has been mentioned and there is also Russian. All countries should be involved. Kids should be encouraged to learn all languages.
- Hanzala Malik:
I agree with what the member says about language provision at the University of Glasgow. The cuts have obviously had an effect but, rather than make a negative comment, I will make a positive one. We need to look at ways of funding universities so that Scots continue to have the opportunity to learn such skills. One possible way forward would be to encourage private industry to step in and support universities locally. Perhaps the minister could shine some light on that.
- Sandra White:
I agree entirely with Hanzala Malik—we have raised that issue.
A petition has been lodged about the course that I referred to, which the Public Petitions Committee is considering. When the committee asked questions of the Scottish funding council, the council’s reply was that it had conducted a review and that
“Our review concluded that demand for Czech and Polish in Scotland is very low”.
The committee continues to consider the petition. I ask ministers to look at the issues and the idea that Hanzala Malik suggested, which is for the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee.
- Margaret McCulloch (Central Scotland) (Lab):
I join the consensus about the importance of languages in the education of our young people and in helping Scotland to realise our potential as a nation. The report by the languages working group opens with a single powerful statement. It says simply that
“Language learning is life enhancing.”
I associate myself with that accurate sentiment.
From French to Spanish and from Cantonese to Urdu, Gaelic or even British Sign Language, learning another language allows our children and young people to develop their cognitive and interpersonal skills. It also enhances their understanding of the world that is around them.
Being able to communicate across borders and cultures is a special ability and is a skill that opens up a range of new possibilities and economic opportunities. Young people who become increasingly multilingual through their school education will be far better able to work, learn and trade internationally in later life, so their language skills will be of value not just to them but to Scotland as a whole.
Across the chamber, we all share an aspiration to ensure that Scotland is always open and inclusive and that, in every community, people from all backgrounds and all walks of life are made welcome. We are a diverse society. If we want to bring together that diverse society so that different communities can relate to one another and so that we can promote social participation, we must address language barriers.
The appropriate language skills must exist in our public services to ensure that those in society for whom English is not a first language can confidently access the national health service, the education system and local services. For example, I know from speaking to Lanarkshire carers centre that, in sections of the black and minority ethnic community, blood-borne viruses are a particular concern.
Raising awareness requires a big investment of time and effort in education and outreach work. I cannot help but feel that the job of the people involved would be easier if more people in the communities that they target felt comfortable about approaching the NHS or advice services.
The working group’s report recognises that today’s Scotland is a multicultural and multilingual society, so let us reflect on the full range of the diversity in Scotland. In Scottish schools, 138 languages are spoken. English is of course by far the most common home language; it is followed by Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic, Cantonese, French and then Gaelic, Bengali, German and Spanish.
Changing the way in which we introduce children to languages and teaching a second additional language from the later stages of a child’s primary education gives schools the scope to do more than just teach young people about engaging with the world beyond Scotland. It also creates opportunities to teach young people more about the country in which they live. I ask the Scottish Government to reflect on those points as it decides how to prioritise the languages that our children are taught. There should be more awareness of languages that are already spoken in today’s Scotland and better teaching of English as a second language for those who have a different home language.
Of course, the comprehensive teaching of languages is of great value not only to the individual but to the economy. Our failure to keep up with the rest of Europe means that Scotland is losing out as some international investors are taking their jobs and contracts elsewhere. Members are aware of reports that the decline in language learning is costing the Scottish economy an average of £500 million per year—evidence from the Confederation of British Industry Scotland and Scottish Enterprise backs up that claim.
Schools will have to make a choice about the languages that they teach. It is sensible to build on the good work that is done in teaching the main European languages, but we must also look further afield, so that future graduates can communicate and perform in the changing world economy.
There is broad agreement that a strong and sustainable recovery in Scotland will have to be export led and that we will have to gear our economy towards the BRIC nations. The working group is aware of the case for teaching Portuguese, Arabic, Russian and other eastern European languages, but the point is not developed, so it is unclear to me how schools will decide which languages to teach as a priority.
I will talk about implementation, in the context of the Labour amendment in Neil Findlay’s name. The introduction of languages, particularly at an earlier age, requires planning and resources, which are currently scarce. I draw members’ attention to the words of Dr Dan Tierney, from the University of Strathclyde, in The Herald. He said:
“The targets are welcome, but extremely ambitious and will be very difficult to achieve. To achieve coherence from P1 through to secondary will require better planning in terms of teaching and learning and teacher supply.”
The working group has proposed a major shift in how our schools teach languages. If its recommendations are to be implemented successfully, the minister will have to address as an urgent priority the lack of trained teachers and foreign language assistants. I agree that there is a strong and compelling case for change, but if we are to have confidence in the Scottish Government’s commitment to languages, we need clarity about how language teaching will be prioritised and resourced.
- Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP):
During my schooldays in Aberdeen there was little choice available when it came to learning languages—there was little associated fun, too. There was no access to a foreign language at primary level and no choice when we entered secondary school. Like everyone else, I was sentenced to French—at least, that is what it felt like.
I recognise entirely the picture that Sandra White painted. The teaching approach in those days, certainly at my school, was simply to drum the vocabulary into us. No attempt was made to get us to embrace French, and the net result was that we—or mostly the boys, it should be said—were utterly disengaged long before the advent of S3 and the escape route that it offered. To this day I can reel off the days of the week, name certain colours and count to about 20 in French, but if I am asked to converse in the language I am completely lost.
That is something that I deeply regret. The lack of a decent grasp of French or indeed any other foreign language returned to haunt me in post-school life. My career in journalism took me to many corners of Europe, and I was thankful that our cousins in mainland Europe are widely capable of conversing in English, which allowed me to get by. However, my trips were not without moments of linguistic embarrassment for me and for colleagues who were similarly linguistically challenged. Perhaps the worst moment for me came on a trip to Italy, when I thought that I was asking for butter to apply to my bread but had actually requested a donkey. I was not alone. A colleague who tried to tell a Spanish waiter that he was embarrassed about something or other declared that he was pregnant.
Sadly, unlike Kezia Dugdale, I am too long in the tooth to put right my lack of grasp of foreign languages.
- Graeme Dey:
Well, I am aware that my predecessor constituency member, Andrew Welsh, became well versed in Mandarin while serving in the Parliament.
- Neil Findlay:
I am astonished by the revelation that members of the Scottish press corps were ignorant of foreign languages.
- Graeme Dey:
I don’t think you really mean that.
We can and must ensure that coming generations of Scots are encouraged and supported to do better than I did. That will require starting them younger, and where better to start than in primary 1, when kids are most receptive to learning, as Liam McArthur said?
A Dutch acquaintance who moved to Scotland in the late 1980s brought his young daughter with him. She had no difficulty settling into school life in Dundee, because even as a youngster she had a decent command of English. Indeed, she had a developing command of four languages, all told, because at her school in Holland several languages were on the curriculum. If my memory serves me rightly, I think that at the time Scotland had not even started to introduce French or German into the latter stages of primary education—at least, not to a significant extent. Here we are, years later, still playing catch-up.
I watched a late night TV programme on the subject last week and was taken by the manner in which primary school children were learning French. They were role playing and acting out a scene in a cafe, with customers giving orders to waiters. It struck me that if I had been taught French—or any language—through such methods, I might well have taken to the subject. However, in his foreword to the languages working group’s report, the chair, Simon Macaulay, said:
“there has been a significant and worrying decline over the past decade in the number of languages taken forward to SQA certification. There is, moreover, evidence that young people are not always sufficiently challenged and motivated by current language learning approaches.”
The suggested solution to that—earlier access for primary school children to language learning and so on—strikes me as entirely sensible. The need to head down that road is just as obvious. Of course there are challenges to be overcome, not the least of which is how to ensure equality of access. How do we ensure that a child attending Isla primary school or Mattocks primary school in my constituency is as able to learn French, German or Spanish as the kids who are schooled in Arbroath and Kirriemuir? We must also ensure that a full range of languages is available, stretching from Gaelic all the way through—in light of the growing influence of China’s economy—to Chinese.
As we look to build a more prosperous Scotland, there can be no doubt about the need to equip our children to engage more fully with the world, and to do so in the other languages of the world. It would be arrogant in the extreme not to challenge the perception that learning languages does not matter, because everyone speaks English. As the minister and Liam McArthur reminded us, 75 per cent of the world’s population do not speak English. In addition, it is worth noting that less than 27 per cent of internet usage last year was conducted in English.
It would be wrong not to go beyond merely learning the language and seek to develop an understanding of the culture and protocols of the country where that language is spoken. Hopefully, the 1+2 approach will allow many more Scots to do just that.
Some months ago, I was approached by a German television station that wanted to interview an SNP MSP on the subject of the referendum. The production team chose Arbroath abbey as the location of the interview because they understood its historic connection with Scottish independence. It was also clear from the questioning that they understood entirely the arguments that can be advanced for and against a yes vote, and the context that they are set against. It was not just that they put a wee bit of preparatory work into putting together the piece; they actually understood the subject. It should go without saying, too, that the interview was conducted in perfect English, much to the discomfiture of this interviewee, who could not help but think of his complete lack of German, not to mention his limited knowledge of that country’s political scene.
Scotland’s people have a rich tradition of going out into the wider world and making their mark. There are many high-profile examples of that, and many other less well-known examples, too—how many members here today are aware that the Buick motor company was founded by an Arbroath man? However, it is a different world now, and we must furnish our children with the language skills that they will need if they are to follow in those footsteps. The 1+2 approach offers hope that we might just be able to do that. That is why I am delighted to support the motion.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith):
We come to closing speeches. I remind members that, if they have participated in the debate, they should be in the chamber for the closing speeches.
- Liz Smith:
This is a timely debate and it has included thought-provoking and informed contributions from many members. As various speakers have noted, learning a language is not only a useful discipline in itself but can open many other doors to the history, geography and literature of the country whose language is being studied. It can also help with an understanding of the true meaning of internationalism and of how we can widen our horizons in what is an increasingly global community.
That global community is changing fast, all the time. It is becoming increasingly competitive, especially with the emergence of new economic powers, and it is vital that we respond to those changes and do not automatically assume that English is the main language of international trade.
Those employers who tell us that there must be more focus on foreign language skills when it comes to marketing Scottish products also tell us that we must not underestimate in any way the powerful effect of fluency in a language, especially with regard to business lobbying, networking, getting a job—as in the case of Claudia Beamish’s daughter—and earning a higher salary. We ignore any of those observations at our peril.
Liam McArthur and Margaret McCulloch said that many economists have calculated that the problem of insufficient language skills is a barrier to trade. In fact, they have defined it as a tax that costs the Scottish economy up to as much as £591 million. The evidence for that was made clear in the CBI’s April 2011 report and can be seen in the fact that, sadly, some major European companies are bypassing Scotland when it comes to major contracts.
There must be a happy blend between meeting Scotland’s needs in a global economy and learning a language because of its intrinsic value. That is perhaps the biggest challenge that we face, because there are tensions in that regard—certainly for the SQA, which rightly says that its qualifications provision will depend on demand. Although there may be perfectly legitimate and scholarly reasons for learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew or any of the other languages that do not necessarily feature on the school curriculum these days, there are powerful economic reasons for learning Mandarin, Spanish or Russian—the growing languages.
Hanzala Malik and Sandra White raised extremely important issues in that regard. They highlighted concerns—in relation to the SQA and the Scottish funding council respectively—about the exact criteria that are to be used in offering the relevant qualifications; what happens when schools, colleges and universities decide which courses they will offer their students; and which examinations students may be able to take. As I pointed out at the start of the debate, decisions on those may determine how we ensure progression from learning in the early years of primary school right through to the learning that we expect students to undertake in the tertiary sector.
I stress again the importance of ensuring that the development of the 1+2 policy and the Barcelona agreement principles, which are mentioned in the Scottish Government’s motion, is underpinned by giving pupils as firm a grasp as possible of their own language in the first instance. I know that debate very well, and I have spoken to many language teachers about it. We must have a proper balance between rigour and the old-fashioned basis of ensuring that children have a grasp of grammar, which is important, and making learning much more relevant than it perhaps was during the schooldays of many members. When I discuss with modern language teachers what we need to take language teaching forward, they raise that issue almost without fail.
I will dwell for a moment on foreign language assistants, because they are worth their weight in gold, especially if they are able to work across the transition years. As several members have said, the current scarcity of foreign language assistants, particularly in the state sector, is nothing short of a disgrace and the drop is far in excess of that south of the border.
Kezia Dugdale made an important point about how we address the resource situation. I return to the argument that I made in my opening remarks, which is that rather than focusing simply on resources being provided by local authorities, which, as we all know, have great difficulties in providing such resources just now, we must be imaginative about drawing on other resources. That could involve seeking European funding or encouraging the private sector to make at least some provision to help with classroom assistants. We must address the issue.
One of the most interesting recommendations in the working group’s report highlights the need to do much more about the transition between primary and secondary school. That is very important, not just in language teaching but in other areas of education. I am interested in drilling down further in that regard, because we need some detail—particularly in the context of curriculum for excellence—on exactly what can be done in those crucial years.
Careful planning is required, and there is an issue with finding space in the curriculum—we cannot get away from that. We have heard far too often about the difficulty of allocating time for many subjects such as physical education, history and music. There has been a great deal of publicity about that in recent months and the Government must face up to the challenge of dealing with it—it is a challenge, and I do not think that any of us are in a position to solve it. There is a dilemma in the fact that the curriculum for excellence is based on much greater flexibility, and we must ensure that no Government, of whatever political colour, decides in too much detail exactly what students are learning.
I will finish by stressing two important points that Linda Fabiani and Malcolm Chisholm raised: the need for a long-term strategy to get away from the piecemeal approach that has been taken in the past, and the importance of ensuring that any policy that we develop is based firmly on evidence.
The debate has been important and enjoyable, and I am happy to support many of the themes that have been developed.
- Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab):
The speeches in this morning’s constructive debate leave little doubt that we can and should do more to promote language learning. As my colleague Neil Findlay said, Labour welcomes the languages working group’s report, which makes a number of positive recommendations.
We know from a recent survey that has already been mentioned that in many European countries nearly all secondary school pupils learn two or more foreign languages, while more than half of the senior secondary pupils in the UK do not study a foreign language at all. As Neil Findlay, Stuart McMillan and a number of other members have made clear, language learning is life enhancing and opens up possibilities that are not available to those restricted to only one language.
Claudia Beamish, Liam McArthur and others set out the economic case for language learning; indeed, as we know, the report estimates that the decline in language learning has cost the Scottish economy around £0.5 billion. As a result, the cultural and economic motivation for improvement is clear.
Many members recognised the dedication and commitment of modern language teachers and assistants up and down the country, and I am pleased that the working group report has acknowledged the
“considerable innovative practice in relation to the teaching of languages”.
Although the 1+2 policy that the working group has outlined is to be welcomed, and although increased language learning is a good and ambitious idea—as Neil Findlay, Kezia Dugdale, Liz Smith and Liam McArthur have stated—there are clear and obvious concerns about its proposed implementation. There is universal recognition that developing language skills from an early age is best supported by well trained teachers and language assistants but, as many of my Labour colleagues and other members have pointed out, the numbers of both have fallen significantly since 2007.
The report states that foreign language assistants in primary schools and secondary schools will have a key role to play in the successful implementation of a 1+2 policy but, as we have heard in this debate, there are only 59 such assistants this year, down from almost 300 in 2005-06. The report clearly states that this ambitious goal will be achievable only with the right resources, and it is obvious that the Scottish Government must take action to address that decline if we are to avoid another strategy that sounds great on paper but fails to deliver on the ground. Given estimates that council funding for foreign languages will have to double—or possibly even treble—to make this policy a reality in our schools, I would welcome more detail from the minister on how the Government intends to fund this initiative. He mentioned a figure of £4 million and we look forward to seeing more detail on what that £4 million is for and what it will provide.
Although the 1+2 model of language learning in primary schools is to be welcomed, it is not enough in itself and the languages working group report makes a number of other key points and recommendations. As Neil Findlay mentioned in his opening remarks, there is also an issue about the emphasis placed on learning additional languages from P1 and the lack of a requirement for secondary pupils to study an additional language beyond a certain age. Such subjects are no longer part of the core curriculum. As Margaret McCulloch, Hanzala Malik and many others pointed out, we must tap into the many international languages that the children and young people in our schools already speak.
We must also look at enhancing partnership working between primary and secondary schools to ensure continuity of learning. The working group’s report highlights that very issue and research carried out by Scotland’s national centre for languages indicates that up to a third of the primary schools that responded have no regular language links with secondary schools in their areas.
Perhaps the most worrying part of the working group’s report is the recognition of a significant decline in the number of languages taken forward to SQA-certificate level. I do not believe that that is just an issue of take-up—to believe that would be to blame pupils’ motivations; possibly, it is part of a worrying trend of high school pupils being unable to choose the highers and advanced highers that they want to choose at their local school.
I am aware that in at least one local authority the overall number of highers and advanced highers in languages and other subjects taught in school has fallen. It is vital that that is part of any audit. I suggest that the Government carries out a similar audit to see if the general number of highers and advanced highers is reducing in schools in the other 31 local authorities to ascertain whether our young people are getting the choices locally that they deserve.
As many members have mentioned, the reality is that 75 per cent of the world’s population does not speak English, and we should give consideration to learning the languages of countries whose economies will undoubtedly play a stronger role on the world stage in the future. Claudia Beamish mentioned China. Brazil, Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe are other obvious examples. Although the working group did not set a specific hierarchy of languages to be learned by pupils, it did note the strong case to be made for learning languages such as Portuguese, Arabic and Russian, as well as other Slavonic and Eastern European languages.
I note that part 5 of the report details the working group’s recommendation that the Government should engage with higher education to look at the implications of the report for that sector and for students. I was pleased to see the suggestion that universities should look to expand the number of languages offered to take account of a future increase in the number of languages taught in schools and the anticipated increase, over time, of pupils studying to higher level and beyond. The Government therefore needs to be serious about supporting the teaching of languages at Scottish universities.
Sandra White referred to the Public Petitions Committee, which is considering a petition in the name of Dr Jan Culik, a senior lecturer in Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, calling for the Scottish Parliament to protect lesser-taught languages at our universities. The petitioners are rightly concerned that a lack of targeted funding for lesser-taught languages will mean that Scotland is at risk of losing much of the teaching provision for lesser-taught languages. The petition seeks the Scottish Government’s support for the University of Glasgow’s unique languages-based programmes in Czech, Polish and Slavonic studies, and in Latvian, Estonian and Hungarian. Once lost, the existing expertise will not be easy to regain and I hope that the Scottish Government will give the petition serious consideration.
The Labour Party is committed to providing opportunities for young people across Scotland. Members have given numerous examples of how language learning can help to do that and provide significant cultural and economic benefits. Therefore, it is vital that any policy is realistic and takes into account the challenges faced by schools and education authorities.
The 1+2 policy must be fully resourced, to allow well-trained teachers and language assistants to help children develop language skills from an early age. We need enhanced partnership working between primary and secondary schools. Action must be taken to address the decline in language courses being offered in secondary schools. Support must be given to higher education institutions that provide strategically and economically important, but vulnerable, language courses.
Increased language learning is a good idea but the challenge is as the report states, that we need
“the right approach and the right resources”
to make it achievable.
- The Minister for Youth Employment (Angela Constance):
In contrast to Dr Allan, who has a self-expressed passion for languages, I was encouraged to do art instead of languages at school. I was also encouraged to do cooking instead of science, but perhaps that is a story for another debate.
Like many other members who participated in the debate, when I look back on my education I very much regret my lack of application and, indeed, the lack of encouragement to pursue—or the discouragement from—learning a language. However, looking forward as a mother of a wee boy who will start primary 1 later this year, I am very much enthused by the prospect that, in time, the education that my son and thousands of children like him will receive will include active encouragement to apply themselves to learning not just one language, but two. It is quite clear from the debate that that ambition for Scotland’s children is shared across the chamber and across the political divide.
I regret to say that the Government will not be supporting the amendments of Liz Smith and Neil Findlay; I do so with a heavy heart. That is because neither amendment reflects the comprehensive and considered comments that those members made during the debate. As the Labour amendment seeks to delete the part of the motion from “supports”, it supports nothing. The Conservative amendment focuses primarily on foreign language assistants. I make it clear that foreign language assistants are important. They add to teaching, they help children to become fluent, they can bring a language alive and they can contribute to learning across the curriculum. However, foreign language assistants are just one element of our policy; the introduction of the 1+2 model is not dependent on them.
- Liz Smith:
I entirely acknowledge that they form only one part of the Government’s policy. However, I devised my amendment after speaking to many modern language teachers who believe that more foreign language assistants and teachers gaining a higher level of qualification is essential if we are to ensure that the Government’s ambitious policy works.
- Angela Constance:
What I dispute is the idea that the policy will stand or fall on foreign language assistants. We can agree that they are a valuable addition to the skills and expertise of teaching staff and that they complement the work that should be being done under curriculum for excellence. I would have hoped that members across the chamber would welcome Dr Allan’s announcement that an additional £4 million will be provided in 2013-14, on top of the £4 million that is already in the system.
- Neil Findlay:
The minister referred to the Labour and Tory amendments, but does she not find it surprising that Alasdair Allan’s motion makes no reference to funding the roll-out of the programme?
- Angela Constance:
Like me, Mr Findlay has been in the chamber all morning, so he will have heard Dr Allan’s extensive remarks about how we will take forward the funding and the planning of the programme. I would have hoped that Mr Findlay and others would recognise that this Government has had the courage and the honesty to provide an honest critique of the position that we start from as we seek to achieve our ambition for children to speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue.
Before I respond to the substantial points that other members have made during the debate, in my capacity as the Minister for Youth Employment, I want to reinforce Dr Allan’s central message. In essence, that message is that, in today’s globalised world, learning other languages is more important than ever and that our commitment to our long-term ambition will maximise the opportunities for young people to learn languages.
As Stuart McMillan pointed out, multilingual youngsters have a competitive advantage. For example, I am acutely aware that many major international hotel groups are reluctant to recruit on to their trainee management programmes young people who are not multilingual, because they want to have the opportunity to deploy their young recruits in other parts of the world. I am aware that successive CBI surveys have pointed to the concerns that some employers have about the lack of language skills in the workforce.
The link between language skills, employability and the corresponding economic benefits is obvious. If we want to compete, we need to show the rest of the world that Scotland is, indeed, open for business. We need a workforce with the right linguistic skills of confidence and the ability to communicate, and outward-looking individuals who understand and are tolerant of difference.
- Dennis Robertson (Aberdeenshire West) (SNP):
In respect of the points about employability and language, will the minister acknowledge that those who do not have English as a first language, such as those who are deaf and use BSL, are currently disadvantaged, and that we should be encouraging the teaching of BSL as a language at primary level to raise awareness?
- Angela Constance:
Absolutely, and I hope that Mr Robertson welcomes the Government’s commitment to treat BSL as a language and not just as a mode of communication.
While I am talking about skills and employability, I want to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the recent media commentary on our young people’s employability and skills. To be absolutely clear, young people are the future of this country. They are part of the solution and not part of a problem. Our young people will help us to grow our economy and to grow as a nation. They have every right to expect an education system that will enable them to compete effectively at home and abroad. Liam McArthur is absolutely right on that point. Our young people should look at the learning of all languages as an entitlement and not just as an added extra. Many members have spoken about the economic cost to this county, of in excess of £500 million, because we do not have suitable linguistic skills.
Many members have also rightly spoken about how learning a foreign language is complementary to understanding our own language better, and vice versa. Dave Thompson spoke eloquently about Gaelic-medium education and how that enables young people to be fleet of foot in learning many different languages. Marco Biagi and Claudia Beamish talked about how learning cannot be compartmentalised and how adults must lead by example. On that note, I encourage Graeme Dey and others and say that, despite their age, they too can lead by example. It is never too late to learn.
It is also important to recognise that all children have the opportunity to learn a language. Maureen Watt spoke well about that when she made the connection between language and football, particularly for boys. Recently I had the privilege of visiting Glencryan school in Cumbernauld, which is a school for children who have learning disabilities. Despite their difficulties, those children are also learning languages in the context of the world of work. As well as learning employability skills in the school’s restaurant, they are also learning some modern languages, which will enhance their employability in the local hospitality sector.
Linda Fabiani made a useful contribution during which she spoke about Scots being the world’s best diplomats. I might have been sitting in this chamber for too long but that is not something that I have previously been informed about.
I thank Kezia Dugdale for the information on European funding. She will know that the Government always takes an interest in European funding and that, recently, we have had some success in unearthing an additional £25 million from the European social fund for young people.
Liam McArthur, Maureen Watt and Sandra White also spoke about further and higher education. They are absolutely correct that those sectors need to complement what is currently happening or will be happening in schools. We need that continuity to build on the curriculum for excellence. I assure Sandra White and Hanzala Malik that the Scottish funding council is monitoring language provision in the college and university sector. I am keen on our improving and getting more connectivity between the worlds of education and work if we are going to take advantage of the economic opportunities that lie ahead of us.
Dr Allan began the debate by saying that we need to create a cultural and educational environment in which multilingualism is the norm. We are right to be ambitious for our children and young people. We need to be bold and embrace the opportunity for change, and redress the situation in which our young people are losing out. We need to boost our children’s language skills over the next decade if we are to have any prospect of improving their life chances, as well as the economic performance of this country.