Don't neglect the UK's indigenous languages

Don’t neglect the UK’s indigenous languages

Don't neglect the UK's indigenous languages

Originally appeared in the guardian

Yes, we should learn French and German – but we shouldn’t ignore our indigenous languages
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‘Children from Gaelic-medium schools outperform their English-educated counterparts in English tests.’ Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian Murdo Macleod/Guardian

Would you be surprised if I told you that, far from being a land of monoglots, there are ten indigenous languages spoken today in the British Isles? Yet we are very quick to tell ourselves that we’re rubbish at languages. We are linguistically isolated monoglots, marooned on a cluster of islands on the edge of the Atlantic. If we were in the mix of mainland Europe, we tell ourselves, we’d be blethering away in at least two languages.

Except, as you read this, people the length of these islands are using indigenous languages other than English to communicate with friends, family, teachers, colleagues and public services. That they are in the minority doesn’t meant that they don’t exist. In fact, the numbers of primary school-age speakers are growing; almost a quarter of school pupils in Wales are educated through the medium of Welsh, Northern Ireland is home to 30 Irish-medium schools, Scotland’s capital has just opened a new, dedicated Gaelic school due to increasing demand, and the Isle of Man has a Manx-medium school.

All of these children are also fluent in English; indeed, in the case of Gaelic-medium pupils, they outperform their English-educated counterparts in English tests. Their bilingualism bucks the monoglot trend of the majority.

There are those who would claim that such languages aren’t “useful” in the modern world and the global job market, and are therefore irrelevant to the current debate. “Why are you wasting your time with Welsh/Gaelic/Irish/[insert your minority language of choice] anyway?” scoff the naysayers. “We should all be learning Chinese!” Needless to say, the so-called reasoning behind such statements isn’t about getting to know China’s culture, heritage and people; rather, it’s about how it could help you make money. But while Mandarin Chinese may well be useful for an international businessperson of the future, we don’t only use language to earn money and do deals: we use language to communicate. To say there is no worth in learning a language that isn’t economically useful is like saying there’s no point in being friends with somebody unless they’re going to help you get a better job. It’s a spectacular, cynical miss of the point.


It’s also inaccurate. My minority language skills have allowed me to earn a living, by teaching Gaelic to adults at various colleges and universities in Glasgow and in the West Highlands of Scotland. The same is true for many of my friends, whether they’re schoolteachers, journalists or musicians. While the vast majority of Gaelic learners are not doing so for economic reasons, being a Gaelic speaker does open up employment opportunities that wouldn’t be available to somebody without those language skills. There are also specific job opportunities for those fluent in other indigenous minority languages, with Irish also having the added bonus of being an official language of the EU, giving speakers access further job opportunities.

When it comes to representation in the media, the successful establishment of separate minority language provision has absolved mainstream channels of the responsibility to feature them. But must our indigenous minority languages be ignored outside their own niche media outlets? Would it really be so bad if the occasional news item allowed a minority language-speaking interviewee to respond in their own language, with English subtitles? Or if a contestant on the Great British Bake Off did the odd subtitled piece to camera in an indigenous British language that wasn’t English? Or if newspapers like this one published an online article each week in one of our indigenous minority languages? Or, might such measures actually better reflect, and raise awareness of, our multilingual makeup? Might more people consider learning these languages? Might more speakers be inclined to use them more often, in more situations?

Different aspects of our cultures and beliefs, our habits and history, not to mention our humour, are all encoded in our languages. By knowing them, we know ourselves better. Thankfully, they have clung on to these islands despite decades, if not centuries, of cruel and systematic persecution; the people of Man and Cornwall have stared the awful reality of language death in the face, yet still they speak. There are now growing opportunities to learn many of these languages, and not just in their traditional heartlands. If you can, grab them with both hands; you will be the richer for it.

• The ten languages indigenous to the British Isles and still spoken today are English, Scots, British Sign Language, Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Angloromani and Shelta.

Rhona NicDhùghaill is a language teacher from Oban


How many languages can you speak? 90pc of Hong Kong under 30s speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English


Originally appeared in South China Morning Post

A growing number of Hongkongers have become trilingual, with more than 90 per cent of residents under 30 now speaking English and Putonghua, according to a study, although English standards lag behind Chinese.

This compares to the 2011 census, which found only about 70 per cent in the same age group could speak the two languages.

The increasing use of Putonghua has also raised concerns, as almost half of the survey respondents believed Cantonese had been at least moderately threatened as the city’s main language.

READ MORE: INFOGRAPHIC: A world of languages – and how many speak them

Researchers believed the study showed the government’s “biliterate and trilingual” policy had been effective. They said they could not see Cantonese losing its dominance unless there were deliberate policy changes.

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“For Hong Kong people in the 1980s, it was all about learning English, but in the 1990s it was all about Putonghua,” said Professor Kingsley Bolton, one of the researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Centre. “Now we have a younger generation who are, increasingly, trilingual. The future for Hong Kong appears to be a trilingual society.”

The research showed that Cantonese continued to be dominant, with almost all people in all age groups able to speak it.

The survey, commissioned by the government’s Central Policy Unit, was conducted by the centre between August 2013 and January this year. Researchers interviewed 2,049 residents aged 15 and above by telephone in Cantonese, English and Putonghua.

They tested respondents’ proficiency in English and Putonghua by asking them questions with different difficulty levels. In an online test, they also checked their ability to write in English and in simplified Chinese characters as used on the mainland.

The survey found that up to 93 per cent of respondents under 30 could speak Putonghua and up to 97 per cent English. But only 27 per cent could speak English at least “quite well”, compared with 68 per cent for Putonghua.

About 24 per cent could write English at least “quite well”, compared with 30 per cent for simplified Chinese characters.

Researchers said as Hongkongers increasingly needed to use oral and written English and Putonghua and simplified Chinese at work, the government should consider how “high-level proficiency in both oral and written English and simplified written Chinese might be more effectively promoted through Hong Kong’s education system”.

But Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said there was no need to brush up on simplified Chinese as anyone who knew “proper Chinese would not have too much problem with the mainland version”.

She said English could be seen as “not in line with the development of Chinese as desired by Beijing”, which could partly explain falling English standards.

The study showed that 45 per cent of the respondents believed Cantonese was at least “moderately” threatened by Putonghua as the main language. About 83 per cent also said it would not be acceptable if the next chief executive spoke Putonghua instead of Cantonese.

Screenshot 2015-09-30 19.44.50

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Screenshot 2015-09-30 19.44.50

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International Mother Language Day 2014


2014 Theme:
Local languages for global citizenship: spotlight on science


International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999 (30C/62).

On 16 May 2007 the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 called upon Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. By the same resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

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The Language of Love

A language dies every 2 weeks. Love our languages.


International Mother Language Day 21 February


International Mother Language Day is an ideal opportunity to highlight the importance of languages to group and individual identity, as the foundation for all social, economic and cultural life.