European Award for Languages: a perspective on “community languages”
So, the news is out, and now the Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean prize has finally been collected – hebridean-language-project-awarded-european-accolade. The occasion was formal without being grandiose, and a useful opportunity to meet other people doing interesting things in the language teaching field. The speeches were generally kept brief – which didn’t necessarily exclude the chance to make some challenging points. Lots of people are exercised by the shrinking take-up of languages in UK schools.
Heartening for me was the high profile given to various Community Language initiatives – with prizes also going to a primary Tamil project, and a teacher training course taking in Arabic, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Urdu. Those of us living in an Anglophone world may consider ourselves lucky to have instant access to a language with the all-pervasive and international reach of English, but there’s a less welcome flipside to that coin. For starters, in a world in which everyone speaks English where’s the advantage in speaking ONLY English? Yet “English only” is probably what most “native” English speakers speak. I’m afraid the Anglophone world generally has a pretty monolingual notion of what language competence entails. It’s when you engage with the other language communities in the UK – for example Gaelic or Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi in my own experience – that you begin to appreciate the wider communicative horizons that bilingualism naturally offers.
Integral to bilingual competence is the exercise of extended choice. Every bilingual has a choice of linguistic codes on which to draw, and code-switching and code-mixing are perfectly natural and productive responses to that choice. That there are pockets of working bilingualism still existing in the wider monolingual Anglophone environment means that there are alternative and liberating models of language competence close at hand. To the extent that wider society is open-minded enough to acknowledge, accept, and learn from this happy situation then there remain grounds for hope that native English language skills can become a springboard to an extended language competence, rather than a recipe for complacency and a needlessly restricted communicative range. “Aye, dream on”, some might say. It’s certainly a big ask and I wouldn’t want to underestimate the scale of the task, but recognising through awards like this the potential contribution that community languages have to make is probably a useful first step.