As the story goes, back in the days when “the whole earth was of one language and one speech” the unified, monolingual humanity decided to encompass its achievement by constructing a super tower that would stretch to the unimaginable heights. Yet, having lost the ability to communicate, humans were “scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Genesis, 11:4). The unfinished tower turned derelict.
While the story does not explain the reasons for such linguistic uniformity at the start of the construction works, it is clear that the only obstacle to completing the project was unawareness of the diversity in languages and cultures among the participants.
Indeed, having one language that performs an “umbrella” function might appear as an attractive option in the context of monolingual leadership. However, as the example with the Tower of Babel demonstrates, such perspective hardly allows optimal performance, neither does it offer a sense of security in case of an unpredictable turn of events.
Few of those in a position of power and authority understand the importance of the comfort zone that rests within the mother tongue. Monolingual parliaments tend to offer almost exclusive support to the official language of the state, disregarding the consequences for those who have to leave their linguistic comfort zone in order to satisfy the pre-requisite, i.e. the perceived and predetermined lingua franca — irrespective of their ability to do so.
While it is true that when moving to another country people are expected to embrace its language and culture, it cannot be helped, however, that the most intimate and profound part of their identity remains in the domain of their native language and culture. To negate this aspect means to discard a sizeable chunk of the creative potential that is concealed within a multicultural and multilingual society.
A BIT OF HISTORY…
The turbulent past of the British Isles includes, among other struggles, the ban on the use of Gaelic language, which was imposed by the Act of 1616. Moreover, to enforce the legislation the Bishops were awarded special powers to impose taxes for school maintenance.
By the time the Act was introduced, around fifty percent of the Scottish population living in rural and remote areas spoke only Gaelic.
The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 introduced compulsory schooling for children across Scotland and effectively made Gaelic illegal. Less than 100 years ago children were still beaten into speaking English at school [Source: The Guardian].
In the meantime, the passing of the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730 forbade any language except English in Court proceedings.
Only in the mid-1980s, very gradually, did Gaelic start to make its comeback to the educational system and into the land it had come from.
THE SCOTTISH CONTEXT — TODAY
Scotland has always lived on the borderline between “the centrality of English and the peripheral syncretic heritage of the Scottish world”.
Perhaps for this, if not for any other reason, while in London the calls from MPs to overturn a ban on speaking Welsh at Westminster were rejected on the grounds that “it would not be “sensible” to spend taxpayers money on translation facilities”; the Scottish Parliament has become a place where multilingualism and awareness of linguistic diversity is interwoven into the fabric of national governing and politics.
Since 1999, when the Scottish Parliament opened its doors, Gaelic Language has been welcomed and used. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 has solidified the status of Gaelic by providing a legislative framework for its use. Following the Act and the subsequently devised Gaelic language plan, Gaelic now forms an integral part of the parliamentary life in Scotland.
The official website of the Scottish Parliament has Gaelic version.
According to the Scottish Universities Insight Institute Sign language users worldwide face exceptional barriers to meaningful participation in political processes because such processes are almost never conducted in signed languages; and consequently the views of this group are almost never adequately represented.
Since 2003 British Sign Language (BSL) has been officially recognised as a minority language throughout the UK, whereas in Scotland it gained the status of an official language.
British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, the first ever legislation for Sign language users in the UK, was passed by the parliament in 2015. Subsequently, Scotland has adopted the British Sign Language Plan (2018-2024) to promote BSL in everyday life and to integrate BSL into the fabric of the parliamentary work.
Since 10 January 2019, all “First Minister’s Questions (FMQs)” sessions are interpreted into British Sign Language (BSL). The recordings are available on the Scottish Parliament YouTube channel and if you want to attend the Scottish Parliament you could book BSL Tickets to ensure you are given a seat with a clear vision of the screen showing BSL interpreter and the live debate.
Following on from the Scottish example, a year later, on 5 February 2020, the House of Commons introduced a trial of British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation of Prime Minister’s Questions.
In Scotland, BSL interpreting has now become common place.
Indeed, the idea of involving everyone in the work of the Scottish Parliament, irrespective of their language, stretches beyond the boundaries of Gaelic, Scots and BSL.
The Scottish Government maintains that language “is central to our cultural heritage and national identity, and essential for supporting a diverse and inclusive society”.
“We recognise the importance of Scotland’s rich diversity of languages, and the cultural, economic, historic and social benefits they bring.”
“English is the main language spoken in Scotland today and has been the since the 18th Century. However, there are a wide range of different languages, accents and dialects spoken across the country.”
This article was inspired by my very last endeavour before the infamous lockdown cast a horrific shadow of COVID-19 over the country. I happened to visit the Scottish Parliament while waiting for a train at Edinburgh on the 12 of March 2020.
Although a lot of what I saw on that trip amazed and impressed me, here I have left the politics aside and focused on the direct link to my trade and lifetime passion, linguistics.
Some information shared in this article is available at the Parliament Museum as well as on numerous notice boards, the rest is the result of my own research into the topic.
The passion comes from my love for languages that is rooted in the pursuit of linguistic harmony, diversity and inclusion.
Walking away from the Scottish Parliament, I felt proud to be an affinity Scot and excited to be connected with the country where linguistic diversity matters!
There is no danger in these humans being “scattered abroad upon the face of the earth”. By embracing and welcoming difference, people build bridges of understanding and create common goals that propel society forward while ensuring a harmonious environment where everyone is welcome and every language is treated as equal!
Copyright © 2020 Liudmila Tomanek, Russian Translation World Ltd