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A friend of mine passed this on a little while ago, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.  The story is about a paper published by the Scottish Government Languages Working Group which recommends that every student in state schools start learning two foreign languages, beginning with four-year-olds in their first year of school.

I have to confess I’m torn about this policy.  On the surface it echoes a recent statement by the Modern Languages Association in the US, which I found very inspirational, and I am absolutely, unequivocally supportive of foreign language learning at all ages. That bilingualism (or better yet, multilingualism) is both a cognitive and potentially economic boost to young learners is no longer a subject of debate, and it is rather irritating that English speakers seem to be the only people who dismiss the importance of speaking other languages in our polyglot world.  So this new Scottish government policy is admirable as well as ambitious.

My concern, however, is that this might be the last nail in the coffin of Scottish Gaelic: under the policy, the heritage language of Scottish students will not count for one of the two languages.  Scottish Gaelic activists have been attempting a sort of revival, and have had some success (not nearly on par with Irish, though), but even so a report from 2001 showed that less than 2% of people living in Scotland had any competency in the language.  It is already very rare for Scottish children to study their ancestral language.  How likely is it that these students will take the time to study it once they’re also required to study English and two other foreign languages?

This is all academic, and I’m not Scottish so it isn’t my decision to make.  The Scottish government has solid, pragmatic reasons for recommending this policy.  But I never claimed to be a pragmatist.  There has got to be a way for speakers of endangered languages to be high-functioning global citizens as well as fluent heritage language speakers.  I do not think that’s unreasonably idealistic of me to say that.  But where do we start?

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