Originally appeared in the guardian
Read more at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/29/dont-neglect-uks-indigenous-languages
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