IN a report entitled Breaking the Language Barrier, published by Reform Scotland in October 2018, it is noted that the UK Government estimates poor language skills cost the economy £48 billion annually, equivalent to 3.5% of GDP. While Anglophone countries often dismiss other languages, Scotland is demonstrating an appetite to turn the tide.

The flagship for change is the Scottish Government’s 1+2 policy, launched in 2012, providing children with the opportunity to learn a first additional language from primary one and a second from primary five. Seven years later, the 1+2 generation is now starting secondary school.

There are already encouraging signs at Higher level, where, according to recent research by Dr Hannah Doughty on trends over a seven-year period, languages as a whole enjoy a higher percentage uptake than biology or physics.

Further encouragement comes from Holyrood. Ivan McKee, the Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, recently stated that: “It is essential we inspire young people to learn languages, to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to take full advantage of opportunities in our fast-changing world.”

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Crucial here is that McKee mentions “skills”. Languages are not simply about the ability to move between tongues, mechanically expressing information and ideas. Arguably the greatest benefit from the study of languages lies not in their mastery, but in other skills acquired on the journey.

Fhiona Mackay, director of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, does not deny that English holds the dominant position as an international language. However, as young people across the globe are learning English as an additional language, they’re simultaneously developing, she notes, “an international mindset, intercultural sensitivity, communication skills and enhanced literacy in their mother tongues”.

“If we allow our youngsters to remain monolingual,” Mackay continues, “they will miss out on all these vital meta-skills, and will therefore be unable to take their place in the workforce with the same set of skills as their peers from other countries.”

For the 1+2 policy to bear fruit, and ensure these skills in our future workforce, Scotland’s soil must be fertile. There is evidence that we already embrace additional languages. Scotland, of course, has other native languages. The 2011 UK census revealed 57,375 speakers of Gaelic, representing 1.1% of the population over the age of three. While Gaelic has declined in its heartlands, Western Isles Council recently made the Gaelic medium the default for schools, with an opt-out for those preferring to be educated in English. This policy was shaped by a majority of parents there registering a preference for their children to be taught through Gaelic.

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Charandeep Singh, deputy chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce and a speaker of four languages, is acutely aware of the importance of languages to the Scottish economy. He feels the current direction of travel is encouraging and believes Scotland’s “rich tapestry of communities and cultures” means that our “cultural currency is stronger than we think in relation to communication and languages”.

Singh’s optimism is underpinned by statistics, published by the Scottish Government in 2017, revealing 158 main languages spoken in the homes of pupils in publicly funded schools. More than 53,000 (a significant number of our future workforce) had a main language other than English, Gaelic, Scots, Doric or British Sign Language.

Singh’s optimism is shared by Dr Jonathan Downie, founder of Edinburgh-based Integrity Languages, a provider of specialist interpreters. Downie believes that Scotland “does languages well” and that the challenge lies in bringing about wider attitudinal change. He points to the international renown of Heriot-Watt University’s activities in translation and interpreting, and stresses to Scottish companies that “providing materials for clients, in their languages, shows them that you care, that they matter.”

Listening to Downie, the words of Nelson Mandela come to mind: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Consequently, it is difficult to argue with Downie’s definition of languages as “impact multipliers”.

The point is confirmed by Scotland-based organisations who do business internationally. Paul Sheerin, chief executive of Scottish Engineering and a speaker of French and Italian, notes that, when member companies start a meeting in the language of their guests or hosts, a rapport is established, often setting the business relationship on a more positive course.

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Elsewhere, Andrew Gillespie, operations specialist at Dundee-based ACE Aquatec, speaks Spanish and works extensively in Latin America. Promotional materials and presentations in Spanish give the company a competitive edge, while knowledge of languages impacts strategy, enabling market research in target regions and ensuring clients do not slip through the net.

The case could be made that Scotland’s affinity with languages is linked to the sense of identity as a European nation that saw her so resoundingly reject Brexit. Regardless of current and future political trajectories, it is clear that our young people will be faced with some of the greatest challenges of all time – environmentally, politically and economically.

To succeed, they will have to work collaboratively across borders, across languages and across cultures. The skills acquired through learning languages will be crucial.

Dr Paul Hare is a professional development officer at Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT), senior teaching fellow in Italian at the University of Strathclyde and player integration officer at Celtic Football Club