Jamaican and Scots

A few weeks ago I had an interesting discussion with a Jamaican poet about the Jamaican language. He told me how it is being standardised and used as a medium of instruction in schools, and is now considered a language in its own right. One advantage of using Jamaican in schools is that pupils who are hesitant to express themselves in English feel much more comfortable using Jamaican, and according to an article I found today, pupils educated bilingually in Jamaican and English tend to achieve better results and have better literacy skills in both languages than those educated solely in English.

In related news, the use of Scots in Scotland is increasing and this has had positive benefits for the pupils. According to this article, the introduction of Scots in one primary school has led to significant changes in the attitudes of some pupils. For example, boys who had little or no interest in reading really took to reading in Scots, and using the language they normally speak outside school has made them feel more engaged, comfortable and confident in school.

‘Extreme’ language exchanges

Language exchange trips have been popular for many years, but usually involve spending only a few weeks in a foreign country. For example, I took part in a language exchange with a French lad while at school which involved me spending three weeks with his family in France, and him spending three weeks in the UK with my family. I also spent two weeks with a family in Germany, and a month with a family in Austria.

According to The Independent, the latest trend is for children between 9 and 13 to spend six months in a foreign country, staying with a family and going to a local school. Even if they don’t know the local language at all at first, they’re usually fluent in it after six months.

The exchanges discussed in the article were arranged by En Famille International, a French company set up in 1978, and are available in Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain and the UK. One perennial problem they have is a lack of English-speaking families willing to participate in the exchanges.

Mandarin for all

According to this report, the UK Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, would like all secondary pupils in UK schools to have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. One reason for this is that a poll of employers found that Chinese is the most useful language for employees to know after French and German.

The poll, conducted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in 2008, found that 52% of employers wanted French speakers, 43% wanted German speakers, 38% wanted speakers of Mandarin or Cantonese, and 28% wanted Spanish speakers.

The UK government would also like there to be a greater range of languages offered in primary schools, including Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese.

Critics of these plans point out that the government should be worry about the ever decreasing number of pupils are studying any languages at secondary level, and that there aren’t enough teachers of Mandarin and other languages.

There’s an comment piece on this story in the Telegraph in which the writer claims that schools should concentrate on improving the English of pupils, rather than trying to teach them ‘difficult’ languages like Chinese. This is a common argument when languages are mentioned – many believe that today’s youth have poor English, especially written English, and don’t know their grammar, and therefore shouldn’t waste time learning foreign languages. Such opinions are often based on impressions, prejudices and are rarely backed up with evidence.

Are such arguments used in other countries?

Canis mea studia domestica devoravit

There are plans to introduce Latin lessons to more than 60 UK primary schools, according to this report. The initiative, which started with a small number of schools in Cambridgeshire and was taken up with enthusiasm by both pupils and teachers, is designed to introduce the children to language learning, language structures, links between languages and cultures, and also history.

A number of organisations are keen for language study to be compulsory for all pupils between 7 and 11 by 2011, and they think that pupils should have opportunities to learn a range for languages, such as French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Punjabi and Latin, and that they should concentrate on one or two of these. Learning Latin helps you understand such things as word order, verb conjugations, agreement and gender, they believe.

The title of this post means ‘the dog ate my homework’, by the way.

Language of the month

On a recent edition of Word of Mouth, the BBC Radio 4 programme about language, they talked about an interesting scheme at a primary school in London where over 40 different languages are spoken by the pupils. Each month one language is chosen as the language of the month, and a pupil who speaks that language teaches the other children and the teachers some words and phrases in their mother tongue both in person and via video and audio recordings. The pupils also tell people about their culture. The recordings are also made available to other schools via the web.

The school sees the multitude of languages spoken by the children as an opportunity and asset rather than a problem. The children can share their own languages and cultures, and learn about the languages and cultures of others, and they become familiar with the sounds of the different languages.

Maybe we could do something similar here. Would any of you like to share some of your native language(s) with the rest of us? This could involve audio and/or video recordings of useful words and phrases, information about your language and culture, and anything else you think would be interesting.

Language teaching in primary schools

Over the past six years the number of children in primary schools learning foreign languages has doubled, according to a report in The Times. So it appears that the UK government might just achieve its aim that all primary school pupils are learning a language by 2010.

The most popular language by far is French, which is taught by 89% of primary schools. German is taught by just 9% of schools, and Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Urdu are by fewer than 3%. Over 4,000 primary school teachers with a language specialism have been trained, and thousands more will be trained by 2010, at least that’s what the government hopes.

A review of languages in schools carried out last year by Lord Dearing recommended that languages be made compulsory at primary level. This hasn’t been implemented yet.

Do you think the study of foreign languages should be compulsory in schools? Is it compulsory in your country? If not, do plenty of people study languages anyway?

Talking Taiwanese

Talking Taiwanese is the name of an interesting blog I came across today. It’s written by a linguist originally from Belgium who currently teaches English in a university in southern Taiwan, and discusses the Taiwanese language and language education in Taiwan.

The most recent post discusses the current state of the Taiwanese language and suggests that the majority of people in Taiwan are likely to shift to Mandarin within a couple of generations. Apparently many young Taiwanese already prefer Mandarin, and though most speak Taiwanese, few speak it as much or as well as their parents or grandparents. Quite a few Taiwanese-speaking parents are choosing to raise their children as Mandarin speakers as they perceive that Taiwanese is not a useful language to know. Moreover, almost all education in Taiwan is conducted through the medium of Mandarin.

In my own experience, some of my Taiwanese friends spoke Taiwanese at every opportunity, while others only spoke it when absolutely necessary. When I asked the latter group to speak Taiwanese to me so that I could practise it, they often claimed that their Taiwanese wasn’t very fluent and that I should ask people who speak Taiwanese as their first language.

The mither tongue

Moves are afoot in the Scottish Parliament to introduce lessons in Scots in Scotland’s schools, according to an article I found the other day.

The Minister for Schools and Skills, Maureen Watt, thinks that the language of Scots should be used in classrooms. This proposal is part of a new curriculum being published this week which will aim to ensure that “schoolchildren are exposed to Scotland’s literature and the languages of Scotland”. Presumably that would include Scottish Gaelic as well as Scots.

Quite a few of the comments on the article are written in Scots and most are supportive of the idea. There are also those who question whether Scots is a language, an old debate that will probably never be settled conclusively either way.

Another article discusses the role of Scots in schools and gives practical tips for teaching it, and this page is a transcription of a talk, partly in Scots, about Scots in schools. A recording of the talk is also available.


Today I came across a site about the Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge (The European Certificate in Irish) or teg, which is the first and only examination system for adult learners of Irish. There will be six levels of exams from A1 (Beginner) to C2 (Advanced), though the Advanced ones are still being developed, and they test speaking, listening comprehension, reading comprehension and writing.

This test sounds similar to other language proficiency tests, such as IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TEF (Test d’evaluation du Français), and provides proof of one’s Irish language abilities. The teg site, which is bilingual in Irish and English, provides detailed information about the exam, the syllabi, sample papers, and teaching materials.

If I was planning to search for a job in an Irish-speaking area or organisation, I’d consider taking the teg. For now, however, I’m content to continue my studies of Irish in a haphazard and relaxed way. I haven’t taken any other language proficiency tests and don’t plan to. Well, I did receive an assessment of a sort at the end on my Welsh course in Lampeter in June last year.

Such tests provide a snapshot of your language abilities at a particular point in time, and are usually taken after a lot of preparation. If the preparation involved last minute cramming, you might well forget much of it afterwards. I see learning a language more as a long term project, rather than something to cram and forget. Tests, qualifications and certificates can provide useful goals, though shouldn’t be seen as the end of your journey. There’s always more to learn.

Do you think such language tests are useful? Have you taken any, or do you plan to do so?

Teacher shortages

According to an article I found today, the numbers of students studying Arabic at colleges in the USA has been increasingly significantly since 9-11. At the same time, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the numbers of qualified teachers of Arabic. In some areas, potential students of Arabic have been turned away due to the lack of teachers.

Many colleges are hiring native speakers of Arabic with little or no teaching experience or qualifications. That set up sounds familiar – much of the English as a Foreign Language teaching seems to be set up along similar lines.

Elsewhere, due to popularity of Gaelic-medium education in parts of Scotland, there is a shortage of qualified teachers. There’s also a shortage of Manx-medium teachers in the Isle of Man, of Welsh-medium teachers in Wales, and of Irish-medium teachers in Ireland.