March 26, 2015

This question, asked by the STV journalist Stephen Daisley, caused a bit of a stooshie on Twitter a couple of days back:

This is an important debate, and no points for guessing where I stand on this. I’m not going to rehearse why I think minority languages are important – check some of the replies for good ideas.

Instead, I’d like to use more than 140 characters to address an aspect of this question that tends to go unmentioned by those who assume teaching Gaelic (or Welsh, or Mordvin, or Sámi…) is a waste of resources given that we should be teaching the kids ‘useful’ languages like Chinese or Spanish or Brasilian Portuguese, giving them an advantage in this globalized, competitive world.

Here’s the deal: we can’t. And you know what? I say this as someone who actually did Chinese at school. I was very lucky. I went to a very good (state) school (in Russia) that, for historical reasons, offered Japanese and Chinese as second foreign languages to go with English. It was three years of good, intensive teaching. There’s an A for Chinese in my school leaving certificate. I could write a moderately long text, use a dictionary to read more complex texts, and say many things.

And I’m grateful for that. Without this experience, I would probably have missed out on reading some wonderful literature, learning about many interesting things, and probably not have the mind-bending realization that I am very curious about how different languages can be that led me to my career. It’s a great thing I did it. But you know what? I have forgotten basically all of the actual Chinese. I have not acquired any direct advantage in the job market by virtue of having taken Chinese at school. I don’t put it on my CV, because I don’t speak any Chinese any more.

Why is that? The answer is obvious: you can’t learn, or keep up, a foreign language – especially a language like Chinese that presents obvious issues to the learner like the writing system – without repeated exposure. If I had gone on to do a degree in Chinese, it would have been a different matter – more practice, the year abroad, whatever – but I didn’t. And guess what – most people who do degrees in Chinese do not come there having done it at school.

Exposure is the key to language learning. People tend to assume that differences in language ability have their roots in the school experience – but the real reasons are elsewhere. My six-year-old daughter picked up Norwegian at the nursery, and then repeated the trick with English, changing from a Northern Irish to a Scottish accent in the process. With no formal instruction except a genial person from the council who comes in for an hour most weeks and checks that there’s no issue with the EAL pupils not keeping up (there isn’t).

Or consider the case of our European neighbours. Anyone who has been around Europe will tell you that in the Nordic countries or the Netherlands pretty much anyone you run into speaks passable to very good English, whereas in places like France or Germany the chances of having to resort to gestures and grunts are significantly higher. Is this because of the amazingly better teaching at school? Possible – though hard to believe: Norwegians, for instance, are as fond as the next person of complaining about the teaching methods. A more striking difference presents itself on the telly: there is a lot of imported English-language programming everywhere, but where the Nordic countries subtitle it Germany or France tend to resort to dubbing. And with the best will in the world, a smaller country like Denmark will struggle to produce quite enough Danish-language culture to compete effectively with all the English-language delights out there – whereas for German the volume will be much higher. And the more exposure you get, the better the language. (Someone I know in Norway told me how their child struggled with English at school until the child got into Minecraft and started watching all the YouTube videos in English. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.)

What does this all have to go with Gaelic? At least two things. First, because immersion is better than L2 instruction, then if you care about the children actually learning the language you should be thinking about Gaelic-medium (resp. Chinese-medium) education. Can we get parents and children sufficiently energized to demand setting up Chinese-medium schools? I doubt it. People send their children to Gaelic-medium education for all sorts of reasons, but part of the reason why it’s a plausible proposition is that it’s actually possible (if maybe difficult) to get sufficient exposure to the language, both in the school and to a certain extent outside it (for all the flaws, you do have Gaelic books, songs, BBC Alba and all that). Only a very tiny proportion of schoolchildren and their parents will be motivated enough to seek out an equal amount of exposure to Chinese – or, I would guess, even Spanish.

Second. I hear you say – ‘all right, immersion education is not a goer, but why teach Gaelic as a second language in schools if we could do Chinese instead?’ Aside from the obvious proposition that we can do both (given the staffing situation, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it’ll be a long time before most schools are able to have permanent staff teaching either Gaelic or Chinese), I’d like to return to the point that L2 instruction at school only very rarely produces speakers who are competent enough to use the language in their jobs. The function of language education in school is less about producing good speakers and more about exposing children to foreign cultures and normalizing the idea of multilingualism. The more childern do languages at school the more of them will consider doing a language degree – and many of them will go on from a Higher in Spanish or Latin to a degree in Japanese – or at least a language course alongside whatever it is they end up doing. In this respect, Chinese does not have a particular advantage over Gaelic (but it might be argued that both have at least some advantage over your average European language like Spanish in that they’re more different from English).

So yes – by all means teach Chinese to the kids. It’s a great experience and one that will come them in good stead. Just don’t kid yourself: it is very, very difficult to make Chinese at school go much further than any other language – including Gaelic – when it comes to purely practical utility. There are excellent arguments for teaching Chinese – but they apply equally to Gaelic, Mordvin, and Sámi. (Or indeed Scots – but that’s another story.)


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About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I'm a Lecturer in Theoretical Phonology in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.

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