Languages, spoken and signed

The British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill is nearing the end of its stage 1 consideration. On Tuesday 17 March, the Education and Culture Committee heard from the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, Alsadair Allan, and the member in charge of the bill, Mark Griffin MSP. He talked about the high level of engagement with the bill and his reasons for introducing it:

Thank you for giving me another chance to give evidence to the committee. I have been following the evidence-taking sessions and the fantastic Facebook group that has been set up. The massive quantity of evidence that has been submitted has been really encouraging.

The reasons why I introduced the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill are partly personal. Two of my great-grandparents were deafblind, and I was brought up hearing stories of how they had raised their children and how they accessed services while having that dual sensory impairment. When I became an MSP, I joined the cross-party group on deafness—I heard the experiences of people on that group and was disappointed that almost three generations later people are experiencing the same difficulties in accessing services, the same difficulties in relation to recognition of BSL and its culture, the same difficulties in accessing medical advice and police services, and the same difficulties in relation to educational attainment. That is my motivation for bringing the bill to Parliament.

BSL, however, has not been the only language under the spotlight. On 25 February, Murdo Fraser, convening a meeting of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, made a comment about French that was widely picked up in the media:

I have a follow-up question on the point that Garry Clark made about the teaching of foreign languages in schools. It is a constant source of frustration to me that the only foreign language that is available in my children’s primary school is French. Nobody in the world speaks French—well, apart from the French, obviously. In terms of international trade, French is a very minor language. We should surely be teaching Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin or even German. Those languages have a far wider international reach than French does. 

Media reaction aside, his peers have not allowed Mr Fraser to forget that comment.  Dennis Robertson, in a debate on Scotland’s place in Europe, said on 17 March:

I smiled when Murdo Fraser said at committee a few weeks ago, “Who, in this modern day, speaks French?” Well, apart from Mr Allard, the French and many other people, a lot of children in the playgrounds are speaking French, German or Spanish.

When I consider that cultural embracement of languages, I feel quite embarrassed because I struggle with English never mind any other language. My colleague John Mason said that he has a love of the Dutch but fails to be able to speak the language. Is that something that happened within the UK and the Scots? Have we not embraced the ability to speak different languages?

To which Stewart Stevenson responded:

Een schip op het strand is een baken in zee. That is a Dutch saying that a ship that is stranded on the beach is a warning to the sailor. Perhaps that is the Dutch capturing in their language exactly the position that the UK will be in. If the UK leaves, that will warn everyone else of the dangers and promote cohesiveness in the EU.

We’d be very happy for our Dutch colleagues to let us know whether we got that quite right. On 18 March, Mr Fraser asked a question about foreign language courses in schools and Dr Alasdair Allan, the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, couldn’t resist a dig. There is no mercy in politics.

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