Our constitution, July 2012: Cultural Rights

The British are second only to Americans in being the kind of foreigner who is an international stereotype for never understanding any language but English. (An English secretary, who understood French pretty well, travelling with her boss, who spoke only English, took advantage of the situation to eavesdrop on the English company’s competitors discussing the terms of the deal in French, sure that neither boss nor secretary could understand them. True story.) Still, the stereotype holds up alarmingly well: over two-thirds of the UK population are English-speaking monoglots: and thanks to Doctor Who and Star Trek, this is practically an interstellar stereotype.

“To create a constitutional order that reflects a broad public commitment to a more inclusive, egalitarian, and communitarian way, and to mark Scotland out as a ‘progressive beacon’, the following additional provisions might be considered:”
1. Enhanced constitutional rights (c) Cultural rights (ie for Gaelic, Scots)

Cultural rights isn’t just language, of course, but language is likely to be the most contentious of the cultural rights issue, both by those who take for granted it should be English and those arguing for Gaelic and/or Scots.

More and more the international festivals in Edinburgh in August seem primarily for tourists – the days are long past when you could get home from work, decide you felt like going out to a show, and pick something from the Fringe programme that was handy to get to and would cost a fiver or less for an hour or two – and when concessions for students, under-16s, unemployed, and pensioners meant half-price, not “so we’ll knock a quid off the £12 or more we’ll be charging you”. But once upon a time that was do-able: when I was reading Hamlet for Higher English I could and did go to all the perfomances one year on the Fringe, and it didn’t cost my parents their life savings the way it would if an enthusiastic schoolkid got the idea of doing that this year. We should keep the Scottish BBC funded by licence fee. We should be investing in written and spoken Scottish culture.

I also liked Kenneth Roy’s trenchant finish to his three-part dissection of the current state of Scottish newspapers in the Review, earlier this year:

The Scotsman needs to win back all the broadsheet people – the ones who take those decisions, the others who influence them – and move out from there to the idealists and teachers and artists, the many thousands of us who are alienated by the state of our mainstream media. We are there for the taking. We wait for something better. We long for it every day.
Can this be done by the Johnston Press? Clearly not. They talk not of newspapers, but of products. They have failed journalism and they have failed journalists. Their grave is fit only to be danced on. I suggest the Eightsome Reel. I issue this challenge to the wealthy patriots of Scotland, of whom there are many. Get out there, form your consortium, convince us of your honourable motives, and make a reasonable offer to this lot’s bankers to take a great newspaper out of their hands. Better still, let’s have a trust along the lines of the Guardian’s, safeguarding the paper’s interests and supported by all who care about Scotland.

But what language is our culture?

Until human babies are about six months old, they can make and imitate any of the sounds in any of the human language families. After this age the facility diminishes: older children make only the sounds of the languages they hear spoken. Until human children are about five years old, they appear to have an innate facility for learning with ease any language they hear spoken: bilingual children may be more common worldwide than monoglots, and trilingual and quadrilingual children are not uncommon (mother speaks one language, father another, plus whatever languages are spoken by childminders or playgroups or by other adults the child hears regularly) and while it was a theory for a while forty and more years ago that a child’s intelligence would be affected if they had to learn more than one language, this theory now has no credence.

Around the world, the single most commonly-spoken language is Mandarin Chinese: Spanish second-most: English is the third most common. The others in the top seven (languages with at least 100 million native speakers) are Hindu-Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Portugese, Russian, Japanese, and Panjabi. From Europe, the languages with 50 to 100 million native speakers are German, French, and Italian.

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

In the UK, the most commonly spoken languages apart from English which are also commonly-spoken around the world: Panjabi, Bengali, Urdu, Cantonese (70 million speakers worldwide), Polish, and Italian. (Also, about 23% of the British population claim to be able to speak French.) Most people who speak fluently a language that is not English also speak English as a first or second language: the two largest groups of monoglots are English speakers and British Sign Language (BSL) signers.

If we were to take a strictly utilitarian view of languages, we’d start teaching children languages commonly spoken around the world and in the UK in playgroups and nursery school, with support continuing through primary and secondary school: with the option of playgroup, nursery school, and afterschool learning for minority languages, plus translations offered of official documents in any language with enough speakers to show a need. But no one ever takes a strictly utilitarian view of language, and probably never should.

(At my high school, they offered the students a choice between French, Russian, or Latin from 2nd Year onward: I opted for Latin because it didn’t entail any language lab visits, with which I don’t get along: my brother chose Russian, and my sister chose French. My brother now lives in France, and my sister is the only one of the three of us to visit Russia. Russian, in the early 1980s, must have looked like the radical yet utilitarian language to the curriculum’s deciders.)

Looking at language from a human rights angle:

Article 27: (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

The Scottish educational system should take advantage of the fact that the prime years for learning a language are under the age of 12 – and provide support to those who want it to keep their languages in practice and to use it . But public services and government should regard it as a basic obligation to provide essential documents in every language with monoglot speakers or signers.

Article 21: (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

I wrote a blog post last week on Scotland’s Languages, Scotland’s People, in which I suggested that focussing on Scots and Gaelic would be a “nationalist flourish”. This got taken up rather sharply in the comments by Scots Anorak, who made what on reflection I realised was an excellent point:

However, I’m afraid that with language it’s a case of “use it or lose it”. To me, what you’re saying is that Gaelic should be supported, only not in a way that actually results in its continued existence. As long as a minoritised idiom is not used monolingually to the exclusion of more widely understood languages, I can’t see what the problem is. Apart from anything else, it saves a lot of money and lives that might otherwise be lost to ethnic conflict, and it is widely accepted internationally that some states do accept the notion of a special responsibility in safeguarding minoritised idioms for future generations. Generally speaking those states tend to be richer and more liberal rather than more nationalist, and the very fact that there are two such speech varieties receiving support in Scotland should suggest that it is not some kind of chauvinist shtick.

In 2009, there were only 626 schoolchildren who spoke Gaelic at home. (The rather more often quoted figure of sixty to eighty thousand Gaelic speakers evidently includes quite a large proportion who don’t use it in daily converse.) Suggestions that all Scottish schoolchildren ought to be made to learn Gaelic in first or second year at secondary school would be a painful and resent-filled waste of time and money: language teaching resources ought to be focussed on nursery school and primary school. But it’s true that it would be terrible to lose Gaelic altogether as a living language, and it would be worth investing thoughtful amounts of public spending and public effort to save it.

Scots Anorak also asserted, in response to my point that spoken Scots has four dialect families and no accepted orthography:

Modern Scots in fact has widely accepted pandialectal conventions such as the ui-digraph that work very well for all varieties with the possible exception of Insular Scots. Any weakening of that standard is directly related to lack of use, and transactional texts are one way of making it relevant again. The Scots dialects are in fact rather better catered for by traditional Modern Scots orthography than the traditional dialects of England are by Standard English.

We don’t need to argue about who the best Scottish poets are to agree it would be a shame if Scottish schoolchildren were growing up not able to understand Hugh MacDiarmid or Robert Burns or other writers in Scots. At the same time, given the multilingual resources of native speakers of many languages in Scotland, I think would be a shame if a Scottish Constitution didn’t allow for parents to value their children growing up multilingual and literate in languages their parents speak and want their children to speak.

Article 26: (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

I’ve visited Montreal several times, between 1998 and 2008, and it’s the most comfortably-bilingual city I know: everything you need written in both French and English, and as far as I could tell, most people born since 1977 switch casually between French and English depending which language they’re addressed in. You can still find small-scale English-language newspapers and older Anglophones panicking about the Francophone revolution, but it’s rather like reading anti-gay panics about same-sex marriage: it’s fairly obvious that none of their fears have come true or are likely to.

This may seem like a fumbling kind of post but if anything it’s because while I’ve wished I’d learned a language that people speak outside of gravestones (and law courts, and occasionally Parliament) it’s never been Gaelic. (When I was 12, I realised I could travel across large parts of the world and be understood if I spoke English, Spanish, and Chinese. Need I say neither of the latter were being taught at my high school?) I read Lallans reasonably well, but as I speak with an English accent with a Canadian sub-flavour (my parents grew up in England and Canada) I haven’t tried to speak in it since my primary school class made me realise it sounded ridiculous. (I’ve wished I could speak with a Scottish accent since I realised it would save me from getting bullied at school. That’s life.)

I was born in Edinburgh and still live within five miles of my birthplace, as I have done for nine-tenths of my life. I speak English, very limited French, and minimal Latin: I learned two words of Chinese on a short visit there ten years ago, and a few more words of German on a short visit there more recently. I would count myself in with the two-thirds of the population of the UK who don’t speak any language other than English.

We need to value languages other than English: we need to preserve and expand Gaelic as a living language: I don’t think anyone need fear English will ever cease to be the culturally dominant language in Scotland (see Joey Lucas below) – but what’s wrong with also valuing and teaching children how to speak the many languages of the world – turning the paradigm of the monoglot Brit inside out for Scotland?

JOSH: Joey, what say you to the position that with ethnic warfare spreading around the globe, and in particular in Eastern Europe, it’s only a matter of time before it reaches our shores and making English the official language of the United States will safeguard against the destruction of our national identity and help us avoid ethnic strife? What say you to that?

JOEY: (who is bilingual in English and ASL) *blows a big raspberry*

JOSH: You see that? That’s what I’ve been dealing with all week.

JOEY: *signed in ASL, translated into English by KENNY* Mr. President, 72% of Hispanics are strongly opposed to such a law. The Republicans will never put it on the table because they’ll risk losing the second largest ethnic block of voters in the country. But if you need a counter argument, then I’d mention to Monsieur de Tocqueville, over here, that aside from it being bigoted and unconstitutional, it’s ludicrous to think that laws need to be created to help protect the language of Shakespeare.- West Wing, 1.21, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

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Index of all posts in the Scottish Constitution series
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Filed under Childhood, Education, Elections, Human Rights, Scottish Constitution, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics, William Shakespeare

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