Politics

We should teach our children Scots – and we should teach the English too, says David Leask

THEY are the first Scots words taught in school and they could not be simpler.

There is ‘lope’ for run, ‘kirk’ for church, ‘coo’ for cow, and ‘keek’ for look.

After this vocab introduction comes a basic sentence – ‘A dinna ken him’ – and a rudimentary linguistic history of our country.

Now this kind of lesson can trigger spittle-spraying fury on the more nationalistic fringes of pro-UK social media. But, for once, the online political cranks enraged by Scotland’s language diversity can relax.

That is because the teaching I am talking about is not from this country; it is from multi-lingual Switzerland.

Yes, some German-speaking teenagers studying English in the Alps are expected to pick up a little Scots. So, indeed, do a few other learners of English, even if (understandably, in my view) this rarely goes beyond a smattering.

READ MORE: The Scots cringe

Amid all the conversations we have been having in this country about the status and role of the Scots language in public life and education, I keep thinking about Switzerland. There might, I hope, be something for us to learn there, even in quirky little lessons in our language.

Let’s look at those first few Scottish words and why canny Swiss educators would choose them.

Pupils are asked to translate this basic vocab in to German. Lope? Laufen. Kirk? Kirche. Coo? Kuh. Ken? Kennen. Easy, right? Why? Because, as most readers will know, Scots is a Germanic language – just like the English with which it shares so much.

The little bit of Scots taught in Switzerland really brings that linguistic reality home. We often like to talk of a language barrier. We do not think enough about languages as bridges.

And that is the thing about Scots: it is the perfect reminder of how most languages, even the global lingua franca English, exist on what linguists call a “dialect continuum”.

READ MORE: Scotland’s language wars

English is not an island. It has sister languages and dialects and varieties of various degrees of intelligibility, most obviously Scots, in its different forms.

There is nothing unusual about this. If you ever have a spare half an hour or so, pop on to the Ecolinguist channel on YouTube. The brainchild of Edinburgh-based Polish teacher Norbert Wierzbicki, this is basically a fun attempt to test the mutual intelligibility of various languages against their linguistic neighbours. And so, in a sort of nerdy game show format, a Sicilian speaker will ask Catalans and Mexicans to guess what he is talking about. Or a Ukrainian will test her language on a Russian or Slovak.

If nothing else these little videos will convince you that learning a language is way easier than you ever thought: as an English or Scots speaker you already have a secret stock of both Germanic and Romance languages in your head.

That is the thing about languages: they underline both difference and affinity. Which is why the constitutional politics around Scots is quite so baffling: the language both accentuates a common history with England – and a distinct and separate one. And there is nothing unusual about this either. It is just how many languages are.

Swiss children learning Scots will not come as a surprise to anybody who has ever seriously studied another language. Teachers often encourage learners to look at “adjacent varieties”, languages in the same group as the one being perfected. So those trying to master Spanish might be advised to delve a little in to Portuguese. Or vice versa.

And, of course, foreign students of English are not just learning a language, they are studying the entire anglophone world and its cultures in all their diversity. Sometimes that will mean getting to grips with the UK, including the very fact that our current state has minority languages, the very existence of which speaks to its layered, complex history.

This British reality will not blow the minds of our Swiss learners. They are being brought up in a country where three other languages are spoken: French, Romansh and Italian.

Their native spoken language is rather different to the standard ‘high German’ they are taught to read and write.

Scholars might scold me for generalisations here. But there is a case to be made that the Swiss German language – while perhaps having a bit more prestige than modern Scots – shares some of characteristics of oor leid.

Like Scots, it comes in a wide variety of dialects and does not really have a standard written form. And it also helps cast light on its bigger neighbour. Learning German? Well, at some point a teacher or a textbook might well ask you dabble a little with Schwyzertütsch, especially if you are going to have anything to do with Switzerland.

Scots lessons in Scottish schools are increasingly routine, giving youngsters a jag of confidence and respect, and helping them navigate the nuances between their home dialect and the dominant public standard language dialect in Scotland, English. Sure, this annoys some internet partisans. We can live surely with that.

But the lesson from Switzerland is that Scots is also a handy tool for understanding where English sits on a dialect continuum, for thinking about how languages form and how they differ from each other. Which, for me, provokes a question: why is a little Scots not taught to children in England?

This could help bring down some psycho-linguistic barriers, remind young people that learning another language and culture does not have to be a chore. And, as an added bonus for the Union Jack brigade, a little bit of knowledge of Scots Scotland might also keep the UK together, as a state where diversity is respected.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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