Category Archives: gaelic

Did universal bilingualism give Scots an advantage in the past?

Bilingual
Bilingual.
There's more and more evidence that being bilingual makes you smarter and keeps your brain functioning for longer. Here's a summary from the New York Times (but there's a huge amount of material on this topic out there, as a quick Google search will demonstrate):

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

[...]

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. [...] Individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

It's also a well-known fact that Scotland punched well above its weight inside the United Kingdom. It appears to me that this started some decades after the 1707 Acts of Union and slowly started to fade out in the 20th century.

Interestingly, most successful Scots must have been bilingual (or even trilingual) during this time -- you needed to know English well to succeed, but in Scotland everybody spoke only Scots and/or Gaelic (depending on where they lived). I'm not sure when Standard Scottish English started replacing Scots and Gaelic as the primary language of large numbers of Scots, but it must have been a relatively recent event. For instance, when Norn was dying out around the time of the Acts of Union, it got replaced by Scots, not by English. On the other hand, the vast areas of the Highlands where Gaelic died out after the Clearances ended up speaking English, not Scots.

It's tempting to think that one of the factors that allowed Scotland to punch above it weight was the near-universal bilingualism. If this theory is correct, making all Scots bilingual again by supporting and promoting both Gaelic and Scots will make Scotland a more successful country in the future.

Why I’ll be voting Yes on Thursday

Although I've written hundreds of blog posts over the past couple of years, I've never described my personal journey to Yes. With just a few days to go before the referendum, here it is.

Getting to know Scotland

When I moved to Scotland from Denmark in 2002, I hadn't thought much about Scottish independence, but I was broadly in favour of it. It would be hard not to when you come from a successful independent country the same size as Scotland.

Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally
Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally, a photo by PhylB on Flickr.
However, at first I wasn't really aware of the differences between Scotland and the other UK nations. I think I thought the differences were mainly cultural and linguistic, but I gradually started to notice the differences were much more fundamental than that, that Scotland really isn't just another region of Britain (something which most English people never seem to have realised).

Indeed, surprisingly to foreigners, most Scots seem to consider Scotland to be a country within a political union called the UK. Sometimes believed to be too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, perhaps, but a country nonetheless. This is very different from how the UK is seen abroad. In most languages, 'Britain', 'the UK' and 'England' are used with exactly the same meaning. For instance, I have often received letters from Denmark addressed to '..., Glasgow, Scotland, England'.

The reason that it took me a long time to work out that Scotland wasn't just a region wasn't helped by the media. At first I watched BBC News, Channel 4 News and all that, and it took me some time to realise that half the news stories they were reporting weren't relevant to Scotland. (Thank goodness I picked The Scotsman as my daily newspaper -- I could just as easily have gone for The Independent!) The lack of devolution of the media is bizarre -- it should have been a very easy thing to devolve.

However, once you start to realise that Scotland is indeed a country, a lot of things fall into place. You also start noticing how the native culture of Scotland is considered inferior by many people. For instance, although I had learnt some Gaelic before moving to Scotland, I only really started learning Scots after I moved here. It was very difficult, however, because most people will look at you like you've got three heads when you speak Scots with a foreign accent. It's such a strange situation -- a language that is spoken by almost half of the population but that people treat as an embarrassing dialect. The language of Dunbar and Burns, for crying out loud! It should be celebrated and be an obligatory subject in all schools as far as I'm concerned!

A political journey

During my first few years in Scotland, very little seemed to happen on the independence front. The SNP wasn't getting close to power, and I started to think there would never be a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament (those were the days before Salmond returned to Holyrood), and so I gradually started thinking that perhaps a more realistic solution would be a reformed UK -- a written constitution, proportional representation in Westminster, proper federalism, an elected House of Lords. I even joined the Liberal Democrats, thinking they had the determination to reform the broken union.

However, I rapidly grew disillusioned with the LibDems. I think it started when they refused even to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to explore whether a coalition could be formed. It started dawning on me that their commitment to federalism was just skin-deep, and that their real instincts were pro-Union and pro-Empire.

When the LibDems entered government with the Tories, I was initially hopeful that they would manage to get some meaningful reforms out of it. However, they repeatedly got outsmarted by the Conservatives. The introduction of tuition fees was of course a huge betrayal, but from a Scottish perspective it was even worse that they failed to introduce the AV system and to reform the House of Lords. Clearly the voting system referendum should have been about proportional representation (and not AV) if the Tories were going to be campaigning against it -- AV should only have been accepted if the Tories committed themselves to campaigning in its favour.

More importantly, if the UK political system couldn't even implement such a minor reform, what hope was there of ever enacting the far bolder reforms that I considered necessary?

These political events (on top of the Iraq war and the numerous other scandals that New Labour presided over) convinced me that the UK was a failed state that couldn't be reformed. Many political parties seem quite idealistic when they're far from power, but as soon as they get involved with the civil servants, they become part of the establishment machine and become carbon clones of the previous government.

In the meantime, the SNP had demonstrated that they could do things differently at Holyrood, and as a result they gained an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, which then made an independence referendum an inevitability. I finally realised that I was a member of the wrong party, and I joined the SNP.

A different journey

At the same time I had been pursuing a career at a large publishing house in Bishopbriggs. Every other year, a redundancy round would move more of the best-paid jobs down to London, and I realised that you can only progress so far in your career in Scotland -- at some point, you need to spend some years -- or even the rest of your career -- in London.

This might seem obvious to Scots, but to a Dane like me it was hugely shocking. Unless you want to be CEO of a multinational company, Danes expect they can have fulfilling and rewarding careers without leaving Denmark. If people do move abroad for work reasons, there's not a single destination that dominates -- Brussels, London, Berlin, New York, Oslo and Zürich are all equally likely.

I also fell in love with one of my colleagues, and one thing led to another. With five children in the house, I now see the educational aspect of devolution, too. Because they're at Scottish schools, you can't easily move to England for a couple of years, and you worry whether they can have a good career here. You also notice that the school holidays here aren't in sync with the BBC's school holiday programming and with the back-to-school products in supermarkets. The separate school system is making it hard to move to England and back, but you need to do that for your career. In this regard, the current system gives us the worst of both worlds.

Reforming the UK

If it was likely that the UK would be fundamentally reformed soon, my natural instinct would be to give it a chance. However, given that very few meaningful reforms have happened after more than a decade of Labour governments followed by a coalition government that includes the Liberal Democrats, I cannot see where the willingness to reform the UK will come from.

The main political parties in Westminster don't seriously want to overhaul the system (because it's working exceptionally well for the Westminster and City of London elites), and there's not even a party that can carry the beacon of hope (in the way the LibDems did before 2010). The only untested party that has a chance of gaining power within the next decade is UKIP, and that will most certainly be a change for the worse!

If we have a choice between being part of a failed state or a new, potentially very successful one, the choice is easy.

Some people have suggested that the main diving line between people voting Yes and No is whether they feel Scottish or British. This national identity question is not what makes me a Yes. I don’t feel British in the slightest — I would probably describe myself as a Danish-Swabian-Scottish European, but I'm not against unions per se.

If somebody suggested creating a single country out Denmark, Norway and Sweden, I would look carefully at the proposal. If the new Scandinavian Union could achieve things that the existing countries couldn't do themselves, and if all three countries were going to get a fair share of political power, I might be in favour. If, on the other hand, the Union simply meant putting Stockholm in charge of Denmark and Norway too, making Swedish the official language in all three countries, and the main benefit of the Union was to give the Swedish generals a bigger army to wage wars with, I would most definitely be against it.

The same applies to the UK. I haven't found any area where we're better together inside the UK. Externally, the UK might be stronger than its constituent parts when the country tries to punch above its weight in the UN and on the world stage generally, but unfortunately the result is not anything that furthers peace, democracy and the rule of law elsewhere on the planet, and what's the point then?

Scotland can lead the way

Then what? Nordic Horizons!
It's also very clear that Scotland and the majority of the rUK have very different visions for the future. An independent Scotland would want to retain and improve the welfare state (the Common Weal), whereas the rUK (led by London) is on its way to becoming a terribly unequal global city state. I believe Scotland could even inspire the other Nordic countries, where a certain degree of welfare state apathy has set in, but where Scotland's experiences with living under Thatcher and Cameron will galvanise the resolve to do better.

What I want

I want to live in a rich, egalitarian country. Where my children can have a decent career without moving away. Where a welfare state provides healthcare and education for everybody. Where people get a hand when they're down instead of being kicked further down. Where important rights are guaranteed by a constitution. Where immigrants are welcomed because most families consist of immigrants and emigrants. Where people are focusing on building the best small country in the world, not feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. Where nobility has been abolished, and ideally where the monarchy has been voted out too. A country that is growing at a normal speed, rather than seeing all other countries overtake it. A country that is a happy EU member state, not suffering from the Little Englander syndrome. A politically normal country, where people discuss the economy and foreign policy, not independence all the time.

The choice is simple. It has to be Yes.

(I haven't mentioned the currency of Scotland, the transition costs or anything like this, because those aren't reasons to vote Yes or No to independence -- they're purely practical problems to be resolved.)