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Language Matters

Graeme Trousdale
ScotLit 31, Autumn 2004

On March 1st 2004, the Scottish Executive announced that it was investing an additional £4 million to improve foreign language teaching in primary schools. Education Minister Peter Peacock stressed the importance of proficiency in foreign languages for all Scottish schoolchildren, noting that ‘better language skills also help pupils develop an understanding of other cultures, creating the type of outward-looking nation which will make Scotland an attractive place for people from other countries to live and work.’1 The issue of good language skills also features in the Scottish Executive’s National Statement for Improving Attainment in Literacy in Schools. Pre-school children should ‘be encouraged to develop a curiosity about words, how they sound, the patterns within words and how they are composed.’2 Students following the 514 curriculum should ‘be able to enjoy and respond to a variety of texts and, in so doing, achieve an awareness of genre and knowledge about language. For writing – pupils will be able to write in three modes (personal, functional i.e. informative and imaginative) and to convey meaning in language appropriate to audience and purpose. In so doing, they will pay careful attention to punctuation and structure, spelling, handwriting and presentation and acquire knowledge about language.’3

The message is from the Executive is clear: language matters. Scottish schoolchildren need to know about language if they are to become literate, if they are to be proficient in modern languages, and if they are to gain a better understanding of their own society and heritage. The question then is how to achieve these aims. How should Scottish children gain knowledge about the structure of language – for this is really what the National Statement is concerned with in its reference to, for instance, ‘the patterns within words and how they are composed’? Where should such a subject appear in the curriculum? One option is to shove it into the English curriculum. This is a bad idea, for a number of reasons: first, you don’t need to have done any Linguistics or English Language courses in order to become an English teacher in Scotland, and most university courses in English Literature teach you nothing about language, so not every English teacher would be willing to incorporate knowledge of language into the English curriculum; second, for those that are willing – those who have taken courses in English Language and/or Linguistics already, or are interested enough to find out more about such subjects – there are insufficient resources and training opportunities; third, there’s too much to do in a literature-oriented curriculum to do justice to the development of an in-depth knowledge about language and how it works (even just in literary texts); and fourth, language is too important to be seen as just an ‘add-on’ to literature: it deserves its own place.

An option at once more radical and realistic would be to create a series of separate Scottish National Qualifications in Language, along the lines of the increasingly popular AS and A2 qualification in English Language, which is available in England and Wales. The specifications for AS/A2 English Language suggest that courses ‘should encourage students to develop their interest and enjoyment in the use of English, through learning more about the structures and functions of English, drawing on their experience and knowledge of language change and variation.’4 Such a course would follow on well from the 514 curriculum as envisaged in the National Statement for Improving Attainment in Literacy in Schools, referred to above. And it is certainly the case that courses in English Language at AS and A2 are successful: the most popular board and specification (AQA specification B) had 13,040 candidates for its AS English Language exam, and 9,130 for the A2 qualification in the 2003 academic session.5 An additional bonus, therefore, is that a Language Higher in Scotland could benefit from the published material for AS and A2 English Language. But the Scottish qualifications both could and should be different from those offered in English schools, and this is not merely to do with differences in the educational systems of the two countries. The situation in Scotland offers many opportunities for students to explore language issues, both local and global.

What issues might a Language curriculum in Scotland address? First, students would require a basic training in linguistic concepts and terminology (within the fields of grammar, phonology, meaning and usage) to provide them with an appropriate framework for linguistic observation and analysis. This training would also serve to help students in their work in foreign languages. It is ludicrous to expect anyone to understand the different uses of French tenses if they have no understanding of what tense as a linguistic concept is. Would students not have a better chance of understanding the syntax of subordinate clauses in German if they had had the chance to understand what a subordinate clause in English is? The 2003 Principal Assessors’ Reports for the Modern Languages made the following assessment with respect to student performance at Advanced Higher level: ‘Across the languages, as ever, the basic grasp of grammatical accuracy was disappointing.’6 Giving students the opportunity to explore the wonders of grammar – and it is genuinely wonderful – will enable them to become more proficient in mastering the grammars of their own and other languages. This knowledge, then, is not merely relevant for foreign language learning (otherwise such work could be dealt with exclusively in the Modern Languages curricula.) Greater awareness of language entails greater literacy and awareness of style: students who know more about the nitty-gritty of their own language are able to manipulate it for greater stylistic effect.

Second, students should apply this conceptual knowledge to an investigation of linguistic issues in Scotland, past and present. There are so many topics which could be covered: accents and dialects in Scotland, and the language of Scottish literature, are obvious candidates, but one could also imagine a module on multilingualism in Scotland, which would allow for discussion of a number of critical linguistic issues, such as: language planning (for both Scots and Gaelic); minority languages in Scotland (Scots and Gaelic again, of course, but also other languages such as Urdu and British Sign Language); and English in Scotland (both now and in the past). If Scottish students are encouraged to engage with the linguistic situation that (a) surrounds them now and (b) influenced their culture in the past, they will come to a greater understanding of the diversity of language and of certain factors influencing linguistic change. Such topics are central to a liberal arts curriculum and yet are currently marginalized in the Scottish educational system. This is a disgrace.

Third, students should be encouraged to explore differences between spoken and written language, and again this could be achieved in a number of ways. One option might be to have a module on original writing, to show how different linguistic techniques can be employed in writing to serve different purposes and audiences. Another might be to have this topic assessed by project work, where a group of students take a topic (for example, the war on terror) and collect data from a range of spoken and written sources (speeches by Blair and Bush, editorials in The Herald and The Daily Record, web discussion groups, a class debate, a radio interview and so on) and then each individual topic analyses the data in a different way – one looks at the language of persuasion, one looks at grammatical characteristics of spoken vs. written language, one looks at broadsheet vs. tabloid style and so on. This is merely one way in which project work could be incorporated into a Language Higher, but it would be a great way of getting students to engage with linguistics and its applications.

There are many other topics which might be considered (language acquisition, for instance); and it must be said that some of these topics are already addressed in the ‘Language Study’ module of the English Advanced Higher. Notice, however, that the language module in that qualification is an option, whereas the ‘Literary Study’ module is compulsory, and the range of topics addressed is necessarily much narrower than that which could be available to a student were a separate Language (Advanced) Higher in place. But the purpose of this article is not to lay out a curriculum. Its purpose is to highlight the following:

  • An understanding of language is a necessary part of Scottish school education. Knowing how language works leads to improvements in literacy and greater competence in foreign languages.
  • At present, there is no possibility of a rich and systematic treatment of language issues in Scottish classrooms. This is not the fault of teachers, but a fault of curriculum design.
  • In order to allow for a systematic treatment of language, therefore, a separate curriculum must be designed, and adequate training and resources must be provided for teachers.
  • Such a curriculum should be negotiated by school teachers, university academics, and representatives from local and national government, as well as representatives from autonomous agencies of the state, including especially perhaps professionals concerned with testing, qualifications, awards, and career development. Greater dialogue between those employed in Scottish universities and those employed in Scottish schools, and who have an interest in linguistic issues, would be a useful first step. The absence of such dialogue is as much a fault of the universities as it is of the schools.

Graeme Trousdale is a lecturer in English Language at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a member of the ASLS Language Committee.

Notes
1 Source: National Grid for Learning
2 Source: National Statement for Improving Attainment in Literacy in Schools (Scottish Executive publication), Part 1, page 1
3 ibid., Part 2, page 3
4 Source: QCA Subject Criteria for English AS/A Level
5 Source: ‘A-Level English Language: a collection of facts and figures’, by Professor Richard Hudson
6 Source: Principal Assessors’ Reports 2003 (Assessment Panel: Modern Languages)

 

Copyright © Graeme Trousdale 2004

 

Last updated 18 August 2010.