Minority languages, such as Gaelic, are being boosted by growing numbers of multilingual students from foreign countries choosing to study or attend specialist schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
This is one of the discoveries that forms part of a research project being led by Heriot-Watt University. The project has been set up to unpick assumptions about non-native ‘new speakers’ of languages within Europe.
Researchers will also study the subconscious assumptions that native speakers make when hearing accents or non-standard use of words or phrases, an increasingly common occurrence as people move across European borders with relative ease for study, work or leisure.
Dr Bernadette O’Rourke of Heriot-Watt University will head up a New Speaker Network as part of a four year, EU-funded initiative to identify key issues in multilingualism. A ‘new speaker’ is defined as a multilingual person who adopts a new language other than their native one.
She said, “There is less emphasis in the UK on acquiring other languages, particularly compared to mainland Europe. These workgroups have been set up to research topics such as identifying the barriers for new speakers, even those who would consider themselves fluent. For example, certain services may be withheld because language skills are judged inadequate, yet these assessments may be very subjective.
“Another area of interest is looking at the growing evidence that indigenous minority languages such as Gaelic are being boosted by new speakers in urban areas such as Glasgow and Edinburgh. These are people who are not traditional native speakers of the language or who are not born in Scotland. Hearsay evidence is showing that children whose first language is German, Spanish or Italian, for example, are attending mainstream Gaelic schools and we would like to look further into this trend. We want to study whether being multilingual throws new light on attitudes to minority local languages.
“At a time when the UK Government is considering using language fluency as a key factor in delivering benefits and other support, then I think we should be considering what that means and how it might impact, and also how countries with far more exposure to different language groups embrace multilingualism.”
The research will consider:
- Immigrant communities, where becoming a ‘new speaker’ of a language is often essential to participating in the economic, social, political and artistic life of their new host community
- Transnational workers, who to varying degrees invest in multilingualism at work, at home and through the cultural products they consume
- Regional linguistic minorities, where there are now growing numbers of ‘new speakers’ who as a result of revitalization projects have learned their heritage languages outside of the home through formal schooling or as adults
The first working groups will meet in Edinburgh on 6-7 March to start the formal research. The New Speakers Network has been funded by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology and the project will run for four years.
Representatives from 20 countries across Europe are expected to attend the first workshops at Heriot-Watt University.