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Elphinstone Kist   Background and Contexts

Why Scots in Schools?     by: McEwen, Aileen

In Aberdeen and in Aberdeenshire a significant number of children enter
pre-school care and education (Toddler Group, Playgroup, Private and State
nurseries) and infant schools speaking Scots. For many of these children Scots
is their first language, their Mither Tung, the one which is spoken at home and
in their own communities. For some of these young children Scots is the only
language that they use to communicate with their families and friends, and to be
suddenly confronted with Standard English in nursery or in school, can cause
children to become confused, isolated, silent and withdrawn. This does not mean
that all children in our schools should not have access to and be taught SE, but
it must certainly not be taught exclusively or at the expense of Scots, or any
other first language for that matter. The child whose first language is
acknowledged and actively encouraged will learn SE much more easily and

It is essential that you have a thorough understanding of the development of the
four strands of language and communication in children from birth onwards, some
say before birth, to enable you to facilitate this development as you teach the
children in class. I am sure that the four strands, listening, speaking, reading
and writing, will have been covered in depth during your Course.

Let us think briefly how children learn to speak. Children are born programmed
to speak any and every language in the world. Very quickly they tune into the
sounds which they hear every day, the voices of their parents, siblings,
families and communities. However, children of every language have the same
range of babbling repertoire. Thereafter, as they learn to speak, by imitating
what they are hearing, young children discard as unnecessary those babbling
sounds which they do not hear and do not need to communicate with others.
Therefore the baby learning Scots concentrates on and uses all the Scots
language sounds which he hears; the English baby and the French baby and the
Chinese baby do exactly the same with the particular sounds in their own
language. By the age of 3 years all these babies will have a very competent
command of the language of their families and of their communities, their first

Now just pause for a moment to consider what these children have lost in terms
of learning the languages of other communities and countries, because they have
discarded the sounds they do not hear any more. In addition they have lost the
ability, in many cases, the physical skills in the muscles of the mouth and
lips, to articulate the sounds of other languages. It has been suggested that
English speakers find it very difficult to learn a foreign language because they
are simply unable to hear, therefore imitate the sounds required, something lost
very early on in their English language development. It is amazing to find
Europeans so much at ease speaking English while many of us stutter away in
their language hesitantly or articulate our wishes in English with an increase
in volume!

Now, consider the bonus bilingual children have, who grow up hearing more than
one language, either from parents of different nationalities, or who live in a
foreign country. From a very early age they hear many more sounds and discard
fewer than the baby in the monolingual family. What these babies hear, they will
use effectively and efficiently as they acquire the vocabulary and grammar of
both languages and the ability to communicate confidently and fluently in both.

An interesting factor in children who are bilingual is that they often find it
easier to acquire subsequent languages because they have a wider range of sounds
in their repertoire, both in hearing and in imitation. Very young children are
less self conscious about trying other languages and will readily use this
communication skill within their play activities with other children where
language is an inevitable part of the play. Just listen to the children's
language as they play in the "housie corner" for instance. You will be amazed
and probably as heartened as I am, by the skill and accuracy with which they can
imitate the "posh" accents, perhaps heard on television, or the voice of the
teacher or parent or carer, telling a story, giving a row, or passing the time
of day in fluent SE.

These children, who have not been forced to learn two languages, have control
over which language they use and with whom. Yes, there may be some confusion of
words in context but this should not be confused with the young bilingual's
inadequacy in language, as this is rather a sign of the young child associating
one language with a particular person, situation or activity in a regular and
systematic way.

Marian Whitehead in her book Language and Literacy in the Early Years 2nd
Edition p.78 writes,

"Bilingualism is not a hindrance, but an asset which will increase children's
awareness, cultural sensitivity and cognitive functioning."

With this in mind we can assume that using Scots and simultaneously learning SE,
undoubtedly an entitlement, can go hand in hand, as long as the teaching of SE
is done in a sympathetic and sensitive manner.

This is not the forum to argue whether Scots is a Language in its own right or a
Language Variety of Standard English or a Dialect. For your purposes as primary
teachers in training, who have a huge responsibility in developing the language,
communication and literacy skills of children, particularly at the pre-school
and infant school stage, it really does not matter. What does matter, however,
is your response as a professional educator to the language and accents you
encounter. It serves us well to remember what Marian Whitehead writes in
Language and Literacy in the Early Years 2nd Edition, p. 80,

"Children are closely bound to the accents and dialects of their homes and
communities; very young children know no others and they associate the familiar
'voice' and forms with deep affection and their closest relationships. Any
outside criticism or rejection goes beyond language to become an attack on the
child and the home. The most damaging criticisms of all are the unspoken ones
which small children pick up so quickly: raised eyebrows, grins, grimaces,
shudders, physical recoil, pursed lips and averted gaze."

Knowing this, what can we do as educators of the young children in our care to
enable them to develop into emotionally secure and confident communicators in
Scots and in SE? In Scotland the Government has a strong belief in the
importance of pre-school education and has produced excellent guidelines for us
to follow as outlined in "A Curriculum Framework for Children 3-5." This
Framework is based on the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity for
all and inclusiveness must underpin the provision of high quality learning
experiences for all children.

The importance of the development of Communication and Language and the key role
it plays in other areas of development are outlined on p.15 of the Framework,
something which you must become familiar with. Here also the Framework
recognises that,

"Children will bring their own experience of understanding and using language in
the home and community to the pre-school setting. Their home language should be
valued and encouraged so that children can respond confidently to adults and
other children, and express their needs thoughts and feelings. It is important
to allow children to express themselves in a language in which they are
comfortable during free play and social activities."

I cannot emphasise enough that forcing non English speaking children in the
early years in pre-school and nursery to speak SE, an attitude still prevalent
in schools, is damaging. Marian Whitehead puts it more bluntly,

"To exclude a language is to exclude its speakers."

Yes, SE is the language of national public communication and speaking it will
undoubtedly help us find jobs, so all children should be comfortable and
confident in using it, but pressure to use it exclusively is unhelpful.


As a Primary Teaching Student you will have some opportunities, at first hand,
of discovering the extent to which Scots is spoken in the Aberdeen and
Aberdeenshire schools, both in the classroom and in the playground. You will
probably discover a little about the attitudes of the professionals within these
settings towards the speaking of Scots and the speaking of Standard English. At
this point it might be a good idea for you to consider your own attitude towards
Scots. Do you consider that the young child at 4 or 5, who is a fluent Scots
speaker, is using a form of debased English? Or, do you consider that the young
child who is a fluent Scots speaker at the age of 4 or 5 has demonstrated an
amazing capacity to learn and an achievement which should be respected?

Matthew Fitt in Scots Language in the Classroom, The Scots Language its Place in
Education, p. 92 writes,

"The first time children see and hear Scots words being used by the teacher in
the classroom is, I feel, the most important moment in teaching Scots. I have
often thought of this contact with Scots as more of a ritual than a lesson." The
children, the teachers, the parents-everyone knows Scots already. It's just that
Scots has never been formally acknowledged in the classroom environment. It
takes a second to adjust but opening the classroom door and letting in a
language formerly forbidden and banished to the playground is a big step."

Yet, I have seen and heard a busy head teacher of an Aberdeen Infant and Nursery
School quietly and gently comfort a 5 year old child who had arrived at school
late, soaking wet, chilled to the marrow and in great distress on a particularly
horrible winters day when the slush went over the tops of boots. Her SE changed
immediately to the comforting words of broad Scots as dry clothes were found to
replace the sypit ones, and the soothing words her Mam might use were the ones
to comfort this peer, wee, geeled quinie. This was no time for SE; this was a
time for the warmth of the words frae hame.

As a Primary Teacher of the future you have a big responsibility in changing
attitudes within the schools in terms of bringing Scots into the classroom,
where it belongs, alongside Standard English. Why do you not start preparing for
this now? Here are some suggestions which you might like to try when you are
next in school placement. Some of these comments have been influenced by the
work of Marian Whitehead.

* With your family, friends, fellow students,
make an inventory of all the Scots words you
understand and are familiar with. Are there
any regional variations in dialect? Keep
adding to this vocabulary store, particularly
when you go to placement

* Involve parents, extended family members,
carers and minders to add to the language /
dialect inventories

* Invite a Scots speaker in to read and sing
to the children and to share something of
the language and culture. Parents and
Grandparents are often willing to do this

* Acquire a good Scots dictionary, eg The
Chambers Scots School Dictionary, or
borrow from the library.

* Invest in a book of poems/rhymes in Scots.
I would highly recommend JK Annand's three
books Sing It Aince For Pleisure, Twice For
Joy and Thrice To Show Ye and Spik nae Evil
by Sheena Blackhall and Les Wheeler as two
excellent examples to use with enjoyment.
Young children love all rhymes and stories
and the ones found in these books are
wonderful and can be used from nursery stage
right through primary school and beyond.
You can select appropriate rhymes for any
topic in the curriculum.

* Start where the learner is. Listen to the
words the children use and include them in
your conversation as you work with them in
their play and activities.

* As a group make a list of all the Scots
words the children know. Write them down
on large sheets of paper.

* Get the children to illustrate these words
and make a group picture dictionary. Young
children love to be involved and ownership
aids learning

* Have fun with language, rhyme, rhythm, movement.

* Use singing games, finger rhymes in Scots. If
you cannot find any, take an old favourite song
and introduce a few Scots words into it. Once
you have done that, involve the children in
creating additional verses in Scots. If the song
or rhyme is nonsense all the better. Children
love nonsense and relax when they laugh and they
will appreciate being involved and taking ownership.

* Repeat these songs often as young children love
the familiar; they feel secure with the predictable;
they love to make choices and be involved. It also
reinforces the vocabulary, for both you and the

* I always found, if I felt I was losing the control
of the class, quite easy if you are on your own
with over 30 restless five year olds, that sitting
down together as a class group and singing the old
familiar songs, which they chose themselves
defused the situation. This quickly restored the
calm which is necessary for children to feel happy
and secure again. Be sure that you include some
Scots in this situation.

* Singing as a group is non threatening for even the
shyest child as he feels he belongs to the group.
Singing should reflect the cultural background of
the group and physically, as well as cognitively,
socially and emotionally, incidentally and
helpfully, it develops the muscles in the face
required to articulate.

* Choose a range of stories, poems, rhymes and
songs which use words and dialects well known to
the children in the setting you work in.
Introduce some which are less known, perhaps by
listening to nursery rhymes, poetry and stories
recorded amongst yourselves in the range of
dialects and accents you hear from the children
and their families as you meet them each day.

* For children beyond the nursery and infant stages
in school Matthew Fitt in Scots Language in the
Classroom, The Scots Language its Place in
Education, edited by Liz Niven and Robin Jackson,
pp93-97 offers several suggestions:

"The first trick is to identify the words
which children recognise. The second
challenge is to keep it new ... Another
way is to get the bairns to describe
each other in Scots. I usually prime
classes for this by using the Doadie's
Boady exercise developed by Liz Niven
where students are asked to label parts
of the body in Scots. I then prepare a
leet of clothes and throw in a few
physical type words and the results are
very good. They enjoy the opportunity
to 'have a go' at their friends and
before they know it, they are writing

I suggest you either buy this book or borrow
it from the library to gain a greater insight
into the place of Scots in education.

In conclusion I recommend you to have great fun with language and communication
with the children you teach. Your enjoyment of and enthusiasm for the Scots
language will be infectious and will lay the foundations in the early years of
learning on which real skill in the four strands of literacy can be constructed.
More importantly, it can make young Scots speaking children and their families
feel welcome, respected and at ease. The use of Scots in schools can be done at
any time and in any place, for the benefit of all. There is a group of about 35
schoolchildren, now grown up, in deepest Oxfordshire, whose favourite and often
requested songs included "Kitty Bairdie had a coo," "Lingle lingle lang tang oor
cat's deed" and all the verses of "Coulters Candy" all sung tunefully in
flawless Scots. I know because I taught them.

Aileen McEwen
Aileen McEwen, August 2001
Aileen McEwen trained as a Primary Teacher at Aberdeen College of Education,
followed by a year's post graduate study in Infant and Nursery Education,
gaining the Froebel Certificate in Education, at Dundee College of Education.
Eight years were spent in teaching children from nursery age to the upper stages
of primary in urban and rural North East Scotland, an International School in
Germany and in an Infant School in Oxfordshire. Coming back to teaching after a
break to bring up two children, she worked for 17 years lecturing in Childcare
and Education in Aberdeen to Nursery Nurses who are now working mainly in North
East Scotland. Since January 2001 she lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

Language and Literacy in the Early Years (Second Edition), Marian Whitehead
1997, published by Paul Chapman

The Scots Language its Place in Education, edited by Liz Niven and Robin Jackson
1998, published by WatergaW

A Curriculum Framework for Children 3 to 5, Scottish Consultative Council on the
Curriculum, 1999

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