From the time when I studied teaching in Glasgow, I recall one particular lecture about multiculturalism and diversity. The students were asked to read silently a story written in what appeared to us to be standard English.
It told of a boy who had the cold. He jagged his pinkie in the byre and went to his bed thereafter. We read without batting an eyelid and were flabbergasted when the lecturer explained that our ease in reading the passage was an indication of our Scottish identity and heritage.
It seems that other English speakers get “a cold” rather than “the cold”.
“To jag” is apparently a uniquely Scottish verb and the pinkie, which I think everybody understands nowadays, is known elsewhere as “the little finger”. As for going to your bed – the lecturer explained that English people would ask: “Well, who else’s bed would you go to?”
This was a text in Scottish English. It was not written in the Germanic language known as Scots, which we would have identified immediately as the everyday tongue of the Scottish Lowlands, Borders and the North-East, where it is often called “Doric”.
So much good work has been achieved in combatting racism over recent decades; but sadly some people still have difficulty understanding that seeking to destroy the indigenous culture of the home is every bit as offensive as trying to destroy the home culture of pupils who enhance our society with perspectives from elsewhere.
That is why I am always delighted and dismayed at the same time when some first year pupils tell me that, at primary school, they participate in token celebrations of Scots language and culture once a year on Burn’s Night, but for the rest of the year they are taught to dismiss their cultural heritage as mere “slang”; an impediment to social progress. I must say, this does not happen everywhere.
Given the varieties of English they hear nowadays on television and in other forms of media; I find that pupils have no difficulty switching between standard English and Scots, which leaves me baffled as to why some colleagues feel they cannot tolerate both languages in the classroom. Scotland has always been home to different cultures but has only recently begun celebrating diversity.
Everybody recognises bilingualism among Gaelic children, because their mother tongue, being a Celtic language, is not mutually intelligible with Germanic English; and there lies the problem for Scots speakers – their cultural contribution is often not recognised because Scots is so close to English that certain people mistake it for a mere slovenly dialect of English.
However there is progress. The 2011 census asked respondents for the first time about their command of Scots, just as, since the 19th century, censuses have asked about proficiency in Gaelic.
Personally, I frequently use Scots in the classroom. I can see no point in building artificial barriers between students and myself and I find it helps me maintain order in so far as that my students soon realise they cannot upset me by defiantly speaking Scots in retaliation to the Queen’s English, as they try with some other educators whom they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as rubbishing their home culture. Dedicated teachers help pupils aim for clarity, whatever the language.
I used to work in a Fife school where I once observed a teacher in a corridor imperiously commanding a lad to come hither.
“I’m coming the noo!” the youth retorted defiantly as he made his way. The teenager was probably already sick and tired of having his parental culture disparaged every time he opened his mouth to people who understood him perfectly.
However the teacher too, to my mind, had himself been a victim of miseducation and haughtily corrected the boy, “You’re coming the now!”, revealing not only the teacher’s background in common with the pupil, but also, sadly, his reluctance to express pride in those roots.
James Forbes is president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association. Visit www.ssta.org.uk