I was attracted to your project by the description in today’s Research Professional. I have been affiliated to [university in Scotland] for some 55 years, with gaps, as undergraduate, postgraduate, academic and emeritus staff. I have also worked in England and abroad. I am a lowland Scot and would consider myself as bilingual in Scots and English. People who spoke Scots, when I was a child, had difficulty in distinguishing between English and educated Scots accents: both were regarded as ‘posh’.
Scottish Universities, and [my university] in particular, have a somewhat different history from English Universities with respect to the influence of accent. When I was a student in the 1960s more than 80% of the student population was Scottish, and a high proportion, like myself, lived with their parents and remained embedded in their local communities. This percentage is still substantial, but is no longer a majority. The same was and is true of the technical, administrative and janitorial staff. In contrast, less than 20% the academic staff were and are from Scotland. In the 1960s most of the remainder were English, with similar backgrounds to the academic staff of non-Oxbridge English Universities. Today the non-Scottish academic staff are cosmopolitan.
I have never been conscious of overt discrimination against students on grounds of accent, although covert discrimination is hard to rule out entirely. However as an undergraduate in a large and faceless Chemistry department, I was very conscious that barriers – lack of personal warmth – between staff and students interfered with the learning process, that these barriers were erected more by the students than by the staff, and that they were distinctly reinforced by the pervasive Scots/English divide in speech.
Later, lecturing in Agricultural Chemistry and then in Environmental Chemistry, these barriers tended to disappear in small-group teaching, and language became a less divisive issue even for my English colleagues. However I did meet one other difficulty. The language in which landscapes and their science is described in the literature is quite formalised, and the formalisation has roots in Oxbridge, or sometimes North American, English. Using that vocabulary created barriers for students who had known their own landscapes from childhood, especially if they came from farming families. When you have always known a peatland as a burn, there is an immediate disconnect when your teacher calls it a stream. I had to work hard with my students to connect what they were taught with what they had always known. My English colleagues could not see that problem. My two sons studied in different colleges of [university in Scotland], and it appears that similar but deeper disconnects arise between scientific English and Gaelic.