There are 72 indigenous languages spoken in Zambia. In the classroom, however, pupils are taught in none of them. As a new Scottish film, The Colours of the Alphabet, reveals, English is the language of education in the country.

Current estimates suggest that nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population lack access to education in their own language. It is a problem that is increasingly felt in Scotland too as the country becomes increasingly multicultural.

In Zambia, the film’s Scottish producer Nick Higgins points out, teaching in English is something of a colonial hangover. It also is a result of an impoverished education system that can’t afford to produce material in indigenous languages. But he hopes the film will also raise questions about our own attitudes towards language in schools in Scotland and beyond.

“The more we’re able to communicate in different languages the more the world opens up and the more we have a rich pluralistic culture,” Professor Higgins, who is also the Director of the UWS Creative Media Academy, said.

“There is clear evidence now that a bilingual education has greater results than a monolingual education so whether that’s Gaelic or Spanish or Punjabi or Urdu it doesn’t really matter.”

The Zambian experience has echoes of Scottish history. In the past, Gaelic-speaking children were forced to learn in English. Even today there is a cultural cringe still surrounding the use of Scots dialect in the media and the classroom, points out former makar Liz Lochhead who will introduce the film at the Glasgow Film Theatre tonight at the start of a short Scottish tour.

“I’ve heard in primary schools kids say ‘Oh that’s not poetry, that’s just slang,’ about Burns. Creativity is possible in all languages. It’s about validating people’s rights to speak in their own tongue.

“I would love people to add something to themselves when they learn English. I would like it to be both/and not either/or. But it seems to be difficult without negating or obliterating confidence in the original language and that’s a great pity.”

The experience of Hansa McMenemy may be a case in point. She came to Scotland from Uganda when she was just six-and-a-half. Her family were one of the many families expelled by the dictator Idi Amin. She had been taught English at school in Kampala and when she came to the UK she was naturally taught in English at school.

Soon, she and her seven brothers were only talking English at home, leaving their parents who could only spoke their native Gujarati feeling isolated. “If you spoke your mother tongue you’d feel silly,” she recalls. “So we started speaking English to each other.”

Mrs McMenemy, who now lives in Falkirk, speaks with a strong Scots accent now. She can still speak Gujarati but there’s no one else to talk to. “My 23-year-old daughter is not interested. I feel quite sad. I would love to speak in my own language to somebody.”

Meanwhile, back in Zambia, Mr Higgins is now working with an NGO to generate educational material in the languages the children speak. “We’re going to be taking the film to Africa in the new year and we’re looking into translating it into 50 indigenous languages.”

Colours of the Alphabet screens at the Glasgow Film Theatre tonight at 6.15pm. For tickets and more information on subsequent screenings visit: