Language, power and education

Language and power are closely related; as Christina Chimisso (2003:41) recognises “all cultural identities have to be learned, performed and reproduced”. Heller (1999 p18) sees schools as “important sites of social and cultural reproduction” (p 18) controlled by the state and state agendas and so “as a result, they have often been sites of struggle over state versus local control; for linguistic minorities”.

Chimisso (2003:55) refers to the sociologist and educational researcher Pierre Bourdieu who “had no doubts: the culture and values of school education are those of the dominant class” and so “education mirrors and reproduces existing social structures”. Romaine (2000:205) agrees “as one of society’s main socialising instruments, the school plays a powerful role in exerting control over its pupils. It endorses mainstream and largely middle-class values and language”. The consequence is that “children who do not come to school with the kind of cultural and linguistic background supported in schools are likely to experience conflict”. Linguistic ‘conflict’ of this nature can be internalised and so hidden.

The debate about the Scots language is just the visible tip of a much deeper semi- hidden discourse about the nature of Scottish identity. As Romaine succinctly observes “…the division between standard and non-standard is symbolic of other very deep fault lines in society. Debates about language are thus really about issues of race, gender, class, or culture, and about whose norms will prevail” (2000:224).

Bateman (2006:11) notes the success of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act which in 2005 recognised Gaelic as one of the official languages of Scotland “with parity of esteem with English”. Gaelic with about 60,000 speakers, compared with an estimated 1.6 million Scots speakers, has for many years been comparatively well funded and represented in education and the media. The Scottish Government is however still only tentatively considering the status of Scots despite various reports over the past decade making encouraging (and occasionally urgent) recommendations for Scots language planning and funding. Bateman concurs this is essentially a political debate; “endorsement of Scots…has always been easier to achieve in literary terms than in official or legal terms” (p 14), and cites the continuing health of Burns celebrations and a fairly thriving Scots writing scene.

The result is that although Evans found in the 2009 audit of Scots language provision in education “much practice happening on the ground” (p 20), particularly in primary education, such activity was fragmented and “uptake is dependent on local prioritisation of Scots language teaching” and so is difficult to quantify. Scots language had been highlighted within the Scottish Government’s 3-18 “Curriculum for Excellence” as part of the experiences and outcomes for Literacy and English. There is an emphasis on Scotland’s literature and the languages of Scotland but uptake was optional. Thus there was “no apparent consistency regarding educational provision across local authorities from a top-down perspective” (p 20) although he reported “strong interest and growing practice in most of them”. A curious aspect to this is that much work in terms of teachers’ workshops and the publishing of Scots materials suitable for primary school children has come from a commercial publisher Itchy Coo rather from official sources.

Some of the work done is outstanding however; one example from the  Learning and Teaching Scotland website “a primary school in West Lothian is currently exploring ways of introducing Scots throughout the year on a graded scale from P1 up to P7. Kirkhill PS in Broxburn has been working since January with Matthew Fitt, Schools Officer for Itchy Coo, to develop teaching materials and strategies appropriate to the different stages of primary. Head Teacher Anne Moir believes that a more structured approach to Scots among the school community will be of significant benefit to the linguistic development of her pupils.” It concludes “the EU-funded organisation Mercator Education based in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands is keen to see how this particular Scots Language programme develops. It has been suggested that Kirkhill PS may become eligible at a future date to join Mercator’s prestigious European Network of Bilingual Schools”, placing Scots in the wider European context.

I attended a Scots Language Conference at the University of Stirling a few years ago after the 2009 audit was published, and the work then being done with Scots in many individual primary schools was inspiring and moving. Nevertheless it was evident there was little coherence in the provision and the ambivalence towards Scots was captured in a quote from Eleanor Coner, the then ‘Information Officer’ of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. She said: “We should embrace native (sic) languages, if you like, but the most important thing in primary is to learn to read and write and I don’t think we can force much more into the curriculum” (Cornwell 2009).

To conclude it hard not to concur with Eilidh Bateman’s belief that  “without the appropriate backing and funding the required level of language planning and promotion needed to significantly raise the profile of Scots is impossible” (Bateman 2006:21).


Bateman E (2006) Molts noms a un sol amor: many names for a single love, Scots Language Society, Blackford
Chimisso C (2003) What is identity? in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Cornwell T (2009) Support Scots language in our schools, ministers told, The Scotsman online version 28 January 2009
Evans R (2009) Audit of current Scots language provision in Scotland, Scottish Government Social Research, Edinburgh
Learning and Teaching Scotland (undated) Scots language in the primary schoolRomaine S (2000) Language in society, 2nd edition, Oxford Press, Oxford

Catalonia – the return of the language question

Children in Tarragona: 'For a country for everyone, schooling in Catalan' (by R. Segura) CNA
Children in Tarragona: 'For a country for everyone, schooling in Catalan' (by R. Segura) CNA

Comparisons are often made between the status of Scots and Catalan as ‘minority’ languages and Catalan is often regarded as the poster-child of linguistic revitalisation. There are certainly some similarities; Scotland and Catalonia are both historical European nations of a comparable size, self-governing but part of larger states dominated by global languages (English and Spanish) linguistically close to the local variety. The role of the two languages in shaping and defining national identity are quite different, however, and that is reflected in their relative status in public life.

To some extent Catalan is not really a minority language in terms of number of speakers or status in the territory in which it is spoken. In many respects it resembles an official state language and Catalans are justly proud of the  post-Franco developments on its legal protection and obligations (e.g Ruiz et al 1996). The 1978 Spanish Constitution made Spanish (or Castilian as Catalans call it) the official state language but the Catalan Statute of Autonomy the following year declared Catalan to be Catalonia’s “own language” and the official language of Catalonia, alongside Castilian. A transformative process of ‘linguistic normalisation’ (language recovery) was then put into place by the centre-right Catalan government. Again this was scaffolded by various laws from the 1983 Catalan Linguistic Normalisation law to the 1998 Language Policy law which states “the Catalan language shall normally be used as the vehicle for learning and non-university teaching”. Significantly the 1983 law makes specific reference to the “prohibitions and persecutions of the Catalan language and culture unleashed after 1939” (Bateman 2006:100) but this was removed for the 1998 law, much to the concern of some language activists who feel Catalan’s history of persecution is an important reason for protecting it.

Normalisation has been a delicate process as there have been very large numbers of monolingual Castilian speakers in Catalonia, immigrants from the poorer regions of Spain attracted by the buoyant local economy. The same process is continuing today with over the last decade large numbers (in Spanish terms at least) of immigrants from outside of Spain (Maragall 2009).  Catalan is now the principle teaching language used throughout primary and secondary education but policies also emphasise ‘linguistic diversity’. Multilingualism is promoted by using Catalan as a basis for acquiring fluency in Spanish and learning other languages as well. By the end of compulsory education pupils should know the two official languages of Catalonia (and be able to read and write in both by age 7) and have a good knowledge of at least one other, usually English.  In the Catalan-speaking Balearic Islands there was even talk of a more ambitious policy of eventual trilingual education with children being taught in Catalan (or the Mallorquin dialect), Castilian and English.

In September of last year, however, the story took a dramatic turn. In the face of growing Catalan nationalism the Spanish Government approved a wide education reform “to fight school failure” by  recentralising part of the school curriculum. The Spanish Education Minister, José Ignacio Wert, of the conservative People’s Party (PP), is infamous in Catalonia for stating in 2012 that he wanted “to Hispanicise Catalan pupils”, and continues to push for a reform that will deliberately undermine Catalonia’s education model described above, which has been in place for more than 30 years.

Unsurprisingly the proposal has caused outrage in Catalonia where according to the nationalist Catalan News Agency (CNA) the Government “fear it would split Catalan society into two separate language communities, breaking apart the current social cohesion and creating a linguistic problem that does not exist at the moment”. Currently The Basque Country, Andalucía, Canarias and Asturias joined Catalonia in their opposition to the reform (the Autonomous Communities that not run by the PP). The 12 regional governments run by the PP supported Wert’s reform.


Bateman E (2006) Molts noms a un sol amor: many names for a single love, Scots Language Society, Blackford
Maragall E (2009) Decentralizing Education in Spain and Catalonia: opportunities and challenges, lecture, LSE London
Ruiz F, Sanz R and Solé i Camardons J (1996) Història social i política de la llengua catalana, Contextos 3 i 4, Barcelona

Scotland: the sociolinguistic context

This post expands a post from a few months ago where code switching and style-shifting were outlined. How do these mechanisms fit into a broader context of language and society?

As Scottish linguist Tom McArthur notes in his 1998 book The English Languages, the linguistic status of the variety of English spoken in lowland Scotland is very much contested. Linguistic ‘separatists’ such as Billy Kay (1993) who promote ‘Scots’ as a distinct historic language are ranged against pragmatists (e.g. Charles Jones 2002) who argue that the original distinctiveness of Scots is so eroded that it is now merely a fading dialect. There is also a surprisingly numerous (and powerful) band of Scottish language conservatives who still consider any vernacular forms ‘bad English’. The Scottish Government’s 2009 audit of Scots language provision in Scotland (Evans, 2009) represents the ‘official’ consensus describing Scots as “one of Scotland’s three indigenous languages and is the second most widely spoken indigenous language in the UK. The General Register Office for Scotland estimated in 1996 that there were approximately 1.6 million speakers of Scots” (p 4). 

Any description of Scots needs some sociolinguistic context. Speakers draw on their linguistic repertoire (Holmes, 1992 p21) to communicate shared social meaning in their linguistic community. Variation in speech pattern is thus used both to convey personal identity and to negotiate social relationships. Speakers may deliberately or unconsciously shift between different accents or varieties (referred to as ‘styles’) depending on context. One of the key sociolinguistic variables of context that influences this type of change is its degree of formality. Speakers use more ‘high prestige’ forms in more formal situations (such as school) and ‘vernacular’ alternatives in less formal contexts (at home, for example). In groups, however, several researchers suggest that speech patterns tend to converge when speakers want to show a degree of social solidarity. This is why the relationship between linguistic, personal and group identity are exceptionally close.

In this fluid context, Scottish speech is notoriously hard to pin down as it functions sometimes as a full language and sometimes as a ‘dialect’. The Scots Language Centre website rightly notes “Scots use a mixture of Scots and English in their speech, with some using mostly Scots and others mostly English. In this sense the language exists as part of a continuum with Scottish Standard English”. Jones (2002:5) suggests “the linguistic manifestations of Scots should be seen as a type of scale or cline, encompassing a very broad range of usage and formal characteristics“. Britain’s leading dialectologist Peter Trudgill (1983:112) recognises the uniqueness of the Scots vernacular; “Native speakers of Lowland Scots dialects may switch, in relatively formal situations, to standard English (spoken with a Scots accent of course). It is legitimate to regard this situation as rather different from that of an English speaker who simply switches styles.” Aitken (1979:86) makes a similar point; “Some [Scots] speakers can switch cleanly from one to the other—these people have been called dialect-switchers. Others again cannot or do not chose to control their styles in this way, but they do shift styles in a less predictable and more fluctuating way—these people we may call style-drifters.”

Conflict however does not stem from linguistic complexity but from perceptions of prestige. Purves (2002) puts this forcibly; “At school, a policy of cultural repression became the norm and generations of children were presented with an image of ‘correct’ or ‘good’ English but little or no attempt was made to present an image of good Scots. Commonly, the natural speech of Scots children was simply represented as a deviation of good English”. Thus we have what sociolinguists describe as a form of diglossia where English is associated with formal contexts such as education and in these settings “Scots will be equated with illiteracy, inarticulacy, low intelligence, or other negative qualities” (Wilson 2002:9). He goes further; “People who normally express themselves in Scots will often, if able, go over to English when talking to strangers, because not to do so might be seen as uncouth or ignorant”.

Linguistic ‘prestige’ is of course a social construction which can be unpacked further. The primary component is class; Scots is generally associated with working class and rural speakers. This has a profound effect in education where teachers are often from middle-class non-Scots backgrounds. However Scots is also, not surprisingly, associated with a Scottish identity.  Across the English-speaking world, using any non-standard language or variety is generally regarded as an act of defiance or a political stand (Abley, 2005). This seems to trouble Scottish politicians of both the left and the right. As sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine (2000:224) puts it “a fear of divided loyalties and identities – supposedly the result of unassimilated ethnic groups – has underlain the foundation of most nation-states”. The Scottish establishment seems to fear the emergence of what the Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells (cited in Chimisso, 2003:60) described as a ‘resistance’ identity. A resistance identity is where previously-marginalised groups, perhaps Scots speakers, legitimise themselves, often by excluding members of the dominant group (in this case linguistically). He contrasted this with legitimising identity, identification with state and established civil society (in this case the English-speaking establishment) and project identity where groups attempt to change structures of society or the roles of participants in it. The Scots language movement probably fits most neatly in the last group, but there is definitely some aspect of resistance to linguistic uniformity. Political theorist Chris Brown (2005) recognises the important psychological function of this type of identity “assuring us that we are not simply the product of global branding, but can control our own destinies by asserting ourselves as Christians, Scots, Sikhs or whatever” (p195).  It could also be argued that Scots language activists simply want the language to become established (‘normalised’ is the interesting term used by Catalans).


Abley M (2005) Spoken here: travels among threatened languages, Arrow Books, London
Aitken A J (1979) Scottish speech in  Aitken A J and McArthur T (eds) Languages of Scotland, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper Number 4, Chambers, Edinburgh
Brown C (2005) Understanding international relations, Palgrave, London
Chimisso C (2003) What is identity? in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Evans R (2009) Audit of current Scots language provision in Scotland, Scottish Government Social Research, Edinburgh
Holmes J (1992) An introduction to sociolinguistics, Longman, London
Jones C (2002) The English language in Scotland: an introduction to Scots, Tuckwell Press, East Linton
Kay B (1993) Scots: the mither tongue (revised edition), Alloway Publishing, Darvel
McArthur T (1998) The English languages, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Purves D (2002) A Scots grammar: Scots grammar and usage (revised and extended edition), The Saltire Society, Edinburgh
Romaine S (2000) Language in society, 2nd edition, Oxford Press, Oxford
Trudgill P (1983) Sociolinguistics: an introduction to language and society, (revised edition), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth
Wilson L C (2002) Luath Scots language learner, Luath Press, Edinburgh



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