Learning languages is critical for Scottish tourism

Translations of guide books are scarce, says Sue Gruellich

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Ici on parle francais.

Hier spricht man Deutsch.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sadly that is not found to be the case as one travels round Britain today.

Picture: Jon Savage

You may think that everyone visiting these shores speaks English. We seem to make this arrogant assumption all too often. But it is not the case. Where the tourism industry is concerned, we see a growing market from Russia, China and Brazil, but the traditional markets from France and Germany are still very strong.

Last available figures from 2011 show the following:

USA, 333,000 visits, £228 m spend

Germany, 250,000 visits, £138m, spend

France, 169,000 visits, £130m spend

Spain, 132,000 visits, £79m spend.

It is quoted that 56 per cent of Europeans speak English (still not everyone!) and only 38 per cent of Britons speak another language. We really do need to learn to communicate with our visitors so they feel welcome and can enjoy our country to the full.

Students studying modern languages halved

Teaching and learning of foreign languages in Scotland and the UK is in a parlous state. Learning a foreign language at school is no longer compulsory from S1 to S4. It is merely afforded an “entitlement” which results in it being taught for the first two years to all secondary pupils and then becomes an elective option in competition with other subjects. It may remain compulsory at some schools, and even some primary schools offer a taster of a language – when the brain is the most receptive to learning a language. But it all seems rather half-hearted. Different languages are offered as options resulting in an introduction to Mandarin here, Spanish there and Russian nowhere! The number of students studying modern languages has halved in the last 20 years. German has sunk to its lowest level this year with only 5,000 pupils presenting themselves for A-level exams in England. Learning a foreign language is seen as difficult. Is our whole learning experience expected to be easy? Is it not worthy of a challenge? Once you have learned one language with all its rules and exceptions and different pronunciation, it is actually easier to learn another.

Language assistants from other countries are no longer funded in the state sector, which is a great shame as they always brought life and energy to the classroom and introduced young people to a different culture and way of seeing things.

A decreasing number of school pupils presenting themselves for exams at Higher or Intermediate level results in a decreasing number applying to university courses in languages. Many pure language courses have been withdrawn and universities now offer languages combined with business, travel and tourism, computing etc. This is good, but we still find that Scottish students are far more reluctant to take up the option of a year abroad, whereas our universities are buzzing with students from countries around the world.

Within the tourism sector and in my particular field of accompanying tourists around Scotland, this lack of language ability is becoming critical. We even seem to be becoming more insular by not even offering translations of guide books or providing brief explanations in different languages. On my recent visit to the beautifully refurbished house of Abbotsford I was disappointed to find that the excellent audio guide system was only available in English. I’m sure Sir Walter Scott would be disappointed too, as his first venture into the literary field was a translation of a story from German into English, and his Ivanhoe was translated into numerous languages.

Open minds to other languages

We seldom see books on Scotland and its history in other languages in book stores or gift shops. Looking at the numbers of visitors, as quoted above, it is surely worthwhile producing such publications.

One example of a brave venture in German is a recent magazine, Schottland, to be published and distributed both here in Scotland and in Germany. One of my German guiding colleagues published a book on Scottish history, Die kleine Schottlandfibel, which is still in print and selling well. These examples are all too isolated and both are produced by German nationals now living in Scotland. Many people working in tourism have settled here from Europe, Japan, Russia and all round the world, and many speak another language as well as English and their native tongue. My plea is for English and Scots to open their minds to other languages, make an effort and the rewards will be great!

• Sue Gruellich is chair of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association