Monday, 1 September 2008

Scottish minority languages on the agenda at Festival of Politics

Published in Holyrood Magazine

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Progress has been made to recognise minority languages in Scotland but more must be done at both the domestic and EU level, according to a panel at the Festival of Politics.

Speaking at the ‘Linguistic Diversity in Europe – Let’s Begin at Home’ event chaired by Rob Gibson MSP in the Scottish Parliament, specialists in the field engaged in a lively debate on the way forward for Scots and other minority languages within the European context.

Neasa Ni Chinneide, native Irish speaker and President of the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages, an organisation partly funded by the European Commission that promotes and funds minority languages in Europe, described the shift in culture and attitudes towards language taking place across Europe. It used to be the case, she said, that minority languages were viewed as a threat to cohesion and any mention of them would make EU politicians ‘sweat’. However major advances have been made in recent years to recognise and promote lesser used languages, she told the festival. The move by the French Government, “the European state with the strongest leaning towards monolinguislism”, on 21 July to recognise regional languages in their constitution was a major step which demonstrates this shift, Ni Chinneide said.

A disparity between the way Scots and Gaelic are treated by the UK and Scottish Governments was highlighted by Billy Kay, broadcaster and author of The Mither Tongue. Kay told the audience that although Scotland is home to 1.5 million Scots speakers compared with 60,000 Gaelic speakers, Gaelic has a highly effective lobby and gains more recognition and representation than the more widely spoken language with a Gaelic television channel due to be launched next month. He lamented the way Scots had often not been taken seriously by the political establishment in the past, recalling a former Scottish Culture Minister telling him he had thrown his invitation written in Scots in the bin, referring to it as ‘funny writing’. Kay commented: “I would say the UK is probably the second most hostile country in Europe to its minority languages.”

Mathew Fitt, author of Butt n Ben A Go Go and Education Officer with Itchy-Coo, an imprint for children’s books in Scots, spoke about the use of Scots in education. He said that a lot of progress was being made on this front under the SNP Government with Scots included in Curriculum for Excellence following a campaign. Fitt, who has visited around 500 schools across Scotland to promote the use of Scots in education, told the festival that in his experience when children are asked to speak in Scots in the classroom, the language they often use in the home, they fill with confidence. Fitt said: “Scots has often been ignored in the past and airbrushed out. This is changing but it must change faster.”

Ni Chinneide agreed that education was a key battleground for the promotion of minority languages, at all levels from primary to third level. The other chief battleground, she said, is media. New media, including internet and digital television channels, present a major opportunity for languages to break into the mainstream she added.

Neil Mitchison, the European Commission Representative in Scotland, stressed that the debate on Scotland’s minority languages must begin at home. Political decisions must be taken in Scotland first and then the EU can play a role, acting as an umpire in the process, he said.

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