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Giving voice to Scotland’s minority language communities
Linguistic Society of America

Cross-posted from Centre for Education and Race Equality in Scotland (CERES)Blog post by Andy Hancock

One element of The Black Lives Matter movement has been to shine a light on whose voices in society are heard and which are being silenced. These include multilingual voices as languages are integral to an individual’s identity and communicative practices. However, we know there are entrenched attitudes about the supremacy of English, at the detriment of other languages, which have their roots in colonial thinking. A recent report in the Guardian of a women’s refuge turning away victims who speak limited English, despite spaces available, is a case in point.

A recommendation in the Scottish Government’s ambitious 1+2 Language Strategy calls for ‘links’ to be developed with ‘language communities’ to support the learning of languages other than English in schools. The Strategy does not tell schools which additional language should be taught when children start school, but it must be a language which children and young people can continue to study at secondary school to the level of a National Qualification. This requirement discounts the majority of community languages with the exception of Urdu and Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin), which were the most widely spoken and studied community languages in Scotland at the time of their introduction as a national examination. Therefore, it is not surprising that the languages on offer in primary schools are dominated by French, Spanish and German. The attachment to this limited number of Western European languages is a result of well-trodden geographical and economic arguments. The latter views certain languages as having market value whereas, the increasing number of community languages used daily in homes across Scotland are seen as lacking any economic worth. This is despite a wealth of research showing the social and cognitive benefits of bilingualism, regardless of the languages learnt (Bialystok, 2011; Woll & Li Wei, 2019). In fact, one of the main reasons cited by English speaking parents for choosing Gaelic medium education for their children is the associated educational advantages of bilingualism.

The status attached to different languages has waxed and waned over time with Japanese and Russian proving popular in 1980s and 1990s respectively. However, Russian was axed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) in 2015 and calls by the Russian community for it to be reinstated have been ignored. Despite having a British Sign Language (BSL) Bill in Scotland in 2015, the SQA are dragging their feet in establishing qualifications in BSL because they claim there is a lack of teachers who are BSL specialists. Like BSL, there are no opportunities within Initial Teacher Education (ITE) to be qualified to teach Urdu, despite the fact that Higher Urdu has been available since 2008. Therefore, Urdu teachers employed in Scottish schools have had to qualify as teachers of other subjects. Polish is the largest non-English speaking group in Scottish schools but attempts by the Polish community to lobby for Polish as an examination subject have been continuously rejected by the Scottish Government. The lack of power by the Polish and other minority community groups stand in stark contrast to the teaching of Mandarin which is being promoted via the ‘soft power’ of China and the creation of Confucius hubs in schools, in addition to funding from private businesses, to support the teaching of Mandarin.

Given the lack of mainstream support for community language learning, the teaching of community languages has relied on grassroots activity and parents from minority communities who have established complementary schools (also known as supplementary or Saturday schools) which operate in the evenings and weekends. Li Wei (2006) believes that the expansion of the complementary school sector in the UK can be viewed as a direct consequence of a system of linguistic apartheid alongside monolingual and assimilationist school policies. Whereas, Nwulu (2015) distinguishes three different types of motivation behind establishing a complementary school: conserving the linguistic and cultural heritage; compensating for underachievement and inadequate mainstream provision and a counter-cultural dimension which seeks to challenge dominant discourses that perpetuate racism and discrimination.

However, little is often known about this type of educational provision outside of the ‘language communities’ themselves, and research conducted by CERES (Hancock & Hancock, 2018) discovered a vibrant and diverse provision but one that lacked financial support and professional learning opportunities for teachers. Furthermore, the findings highlighted a lack of provision for refugee and asylum seeker groups. The research also investigated what links local authorities had made with complementary schools as representatives of language communities as recommended in the 1+2 Language Strategy. The majority of responses indicated no contacts were made between local authorities and complementary schools and where meetings did occur, they were perceived as tokenistic and unproductive rather than educationally driven.

To have sustainable impact, one-off consultations between local authorities and complementary schools need to be replaced by constructive and reciprocal processes with discernible actions to support community language learning. This engagement needs to be conducted in the spirit of respectful dialogue and learning from each otherWhere conflicting agendas exist, these debates can be used as a stimulus for reflection and risk-taking. Those of us involved in anti-racist education know changing historical and taken-for-granted practices is not straightforward. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving for those involved but more risk-taking and boundary pushing is exactly what is needed.


For a leaflet explaining how complementary schools can work with mainstream schools, see

For films about a multilingual digital storytelling project linking mainstream and complementary schools, see 

Further Reading

Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: the benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(4), 229-235.

Hancock, A. and Hancock, J. (2019). Scotland’s language communities and the 1+2 Language Strategy. Languages, Society & Policy.

Li Wei (2006). Complementary schools, past, present and future. Language and Education, 20(1), 76–83.

Nwulu, S. (2015). Beyond the School Gates: Developing the Roles and Connections of Supplementary Schools. London: RSA Action and Research Centre.

Ramalingam, V. & Griffith, P. (2015). Saturdays for Success: How Supplementary Education Can Support Pupils From All Backgrounds to Flourish. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Woll, B. and Li Wei (2019) Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning: Broadening Our Perspectives. London: The British Academy.

Image credit: Linguistic Society of America