THROUGHOUT the ages, Scotland has been a multilingual nation and a multicultural country.

At different times, various peoples and their languages have been dominant in different parts of the country. During the last millennium this has largely been Gaelic, Scots and English, however Norse, Norn, Pictish, French and Latin have also been spoken, as have the languages of immigrant communities including Italian, Urdu, Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and more recently, Polish. On Burns Night we will celebrate Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, who was himself multilingual, writing in both Scots and English, and also having learned French and Latin.

As in other anglophone countries, the power of the English language and its ubiquity as the global lingua franca has contributed to a decline in multilingualism. While most kids in Scotland grow up with a knowledge of some Scots, the same can’t be said of Gaelic which is still geographically concentrated in certain areas and largely the preserve of Gaelic medium schools.

The National: Western Isles Council offices in Stornoway

In positive news, the Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) announced that Gaelic will be the main language of tuition for all pupils starting next year. Given that the region is the last majority Gaelic speaking county in the country, it seems a positive move, and frankly a disgrace that it has taken this long.

Unbelievably however, the Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Liz Smith MSP described the move as “deeply troubling”. She believes that it “could put children in the Western Isles at a distinct disadvantage to their peers”. Shock horror: “This worrying move will inevitably put pressure on primary children in the Western Isles to speak Gaelic for those first crucial years of school. That could have all sorts of consequences that have clearly not been considered fully.”

Imagine that; children might actually speak their mother tongue or learn the language spoken by most people in their wider community.

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It really is hard to get your head round the sheer ignorance about language learning and the particular hang-ups that some anglophone Scots have about Gaelic.

Like most Scots, I have extremely limited understanding of Gaelic: the more regular words used in geography, personal names (including my own), and rudimentary phrases for greetings and farewells. How sad.

I literally know more words in Hungarian than in Scotland’s indigenous Celtic language.

On a more positive note, I am fortunate to have grown up bilingual, having a second language from early childhood onwards. Ironically that language is English. My first language is German, the language my mother raised me with. As a youngster, I was taken to the German church in central Edinburgh, largely to have some linguistic immersion and a fighting chance to develop language proficiency.

The power of English-speaking culture exercises a huge societal pressure on minority languages – why speak a language that so few others use it around you, when you can just speak the language that everyone else does. It’s not easy for youngsters growing up with a minority language. Having stuck with it however, I am so pleased to be fully bilingual with all the advantages it brings, and am trying to hand that on to my young daughter, with whom I speak German.

In recent years, language teaching has not been a partisan party political issue in Scotland. All parties support foreign language teaching and are committed to Gaelic medium education too. The Conservatives can point to their record in the 1980s, while at the start of devolution Labour and the Liberal Democrats developed the official use of Gaelic, which we now see from train stations signage to emergency service vehicles.

The SNP in government has supported the expansion of Gaelic schooling and earlier foreign language teaching. We still have some way to go, as Liz Smith’s comments make clear. Thank goodness there are more enlightened views in her party like those of Donald Cameron MSP.

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In truth we need more non-English language medium education provision. It is the only way for kids to reach an advanced level of proficiency. That is the lesson that has been learned in other countries. In Austria for example bilingual education is offered throughout much of the Vienna public school system. The innovation pioneered by Stuart Simpson, a Scot working for the Vienna School Board, has led to parents queuing up for their children to be schooled bilingually. The educational, cultural and cognitive benefits of bilingualism are undisputed. We need more of it in Scotland, including our indigenous languages, European and other world languages too.