Hugh Reilly: TV hinders foreign tongues? Crazy talk

Johann Lamont. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Johann Lamont. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Last week, minutes after Johann Lamont delivered an emotional speech laying bare the hard times she endured as a youngster, A&E departments across the country were flooded with hundreds of visually impaired people complaining that their glass eyes were floating in their sockets, as if orbs of cork.

The First Minister-in-waiting (waiting like Godot but for a far longer period, I hope), told of her childhood on the island of Tiree, a place where a puffin is less a thing of beauty, more an hors d’oeuvre before dining on a fillet of grey seal pup.

Oddly, according to reports, the doughty fechter doesn’t speak Gaelic, she merely “respects it”. Rather disrespectfully, monolingual Hebrideans who speak that ancient tongue feel blessed that they cannot comprehend a single word the woman says. Unfortunately, those of us cursed with an understanding of English are doomed to endure more angst-ridden outpourings from London-Labour’s outreach agent.

Previously, I’d thought that Lamont’s ignorance of Gaelic was down to laziness but, if Alasdair Allan, the Scottish Government minister for learning is to be believed, English language television is the bane of learning a foreign language. If this is true, one must presume that The Woodentops, Bill and Ben and, yes, the biggest culprit, Noddy, shoulder the blame for Johann’s inability to converse with her archipelago-dwelling neighbours.

Channelling the blame in the direction of the oversized idiot-box in the corner is an easy option; after all, Logie Baird’s Frankensteinesque invention already burdens the responsibility for all forms of violence and the decline in family values. Sitting alone in their cells, lifers reflect that were it not for those stolen guilty pleasure moments of avidly watching re-runs of Tom and Jerry, their lives could have been oh so different. Similarly, before TV, there were no such things as adulterous affairs or divorce. Mr Allan laments the fact that our children eyeball English-language programmes, stating that such shows are an impediment to learning a second or third language. This is absurd. I relocated to Spain recently and, almost without exception, youngsters here speak a passable form of English. UK and American films and dramas are dubbed rather than subtitled thus children are denied the opportunity to hear proper pronunciation of English. Consequently, most teenagers in my town speak English with an accent like a soon-to-be dead Mexican companero of Eli Wallach in A Fistful of Dollars.

The SNP administration’s desire to boldly go where no Scottish government has gone before, that is, to ensure every primary school child learns two foreign languages, is an enterprise too far. For once, I find myself in agreement with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, hitherto an organisation whose contribution to education I normally valued on a par with a speaking clock with a stammer. The SPTC says the SNP’s policy is flawed. We don’t have the necessary number of language teachers. Further, the seven-year timescale is way too ambitious, given the scarcity of human and material resources to successfully implement this cultural revolution.

Bizarrely, speaking from gut-instinct and based no data whatsoever, the minister claims that our youth exhibit a changing attitude to learning alien tongues because – wait for it, this is really good – kids hear different languages in the street and while on holidays abroad.

As someone who, until recently, patronised Glasgow’s number 12 bus service serving the Red Road flats, I was somewhat accustomed to hearing all manner of esoteric languages from every part of the globe: Eastern Europe, China, the Horn of Africa and Easterhouse. Perhaps I am just unlucky but never once on my FirstBus travels did I observe a youngster smartly alight the litter-strewn vehicle and rush off to sign up for evening classes in Farsi or Swahili.

The sad reality is that most Scottish children abhor learning a foreign language. Unlike youngsters elsewhere, the ability to communicate in English is not a passport to a secure, well-paid job. Our young people lack the motivation because English, like it or not, is the dominant language of the world. For the pedants among you, yes, I know more people speak forms of Chinese but, believe me, wandering through Africa or Latin America I’m more likely to meet an English speaker than a Chinese bloke is likely to meet a fellow warbler of Han.

Hasta luego!