Tuesday December 23, 2003
Scotland’s ancient language is making a comeback,
explains Tracey Taylor
As children, Mary Galbraith’s grandparents were belted if they were overheard speaking Gaelic in the playground, even though it was the language they spoke at home. Even as adults they never properly mastered English. Just two generations later, Galbraith’s commitment to her grandparents’ native tongue is such that although she doesn’t speak it herself she sends her two daughters, Seona and Moire, to a school where the entire curriculum is taught in Gaelic.
Glasgow Gaelic school (Bunsgoil Gáidhlig Ghlaschu) is Scotland’s only dedicated Gaelic-speaking school. Children have all their lessons in the language and only start some lessons in English after they have been there three years. However, across Scotland more than 5,000 children learn Gaelic, many of them from homes where neither parent speaks the language.
What motivates parents to have their children learn a minority language? Gaelic is in decline – 99% of Scots don’t understand a word of it and, if the number of speakers falls below 50,000 (it now stands at around 60,000), Gaelic will be officially dead. Nevertheless, the Scottish Executive invests more than £3m a year in Gaelic education. A Gaelic language bill, currently in draft stage, is due to be introduced to parliament next summer with the aim of securing the status of Gaelic in Scotland.
For Mary Galbraith the answer is straightforward: “I wanted to give my children an opportunity that wasn’t there for me. I never learned Gaelic. The girls were looked after by a Gaelic-speaking childminder so they were already bilingual. It made sense that they continued with a Gaelic-medium education.”
Reconnecting with one’s roots and cultural heritage is clearly a significant factor. Gaelic was the main language in most rural areas of Scotland until the early 17th century, but it was outlawed by the crown in 1616, and suppressed further after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. “For hundreds of years, and until fairly recently, Gaelic was seen as a second-class language,” says Margaret Maciver, educational officer at Comunn Na Gáidhlig, a body set up to promote Gaelic.
Bringing up children to be bilingual has been shown to offer other, more general advantages including enhanced creative thinking, improved test results, higher self-esteem and greater tolerance. For this reason it is not only those with Gaelic ancestry who are rediscovering Scotland’s mother tongue. “We see families who have moved from England who are having their children taught Gaelic as it is the ‘local’ language,” says Donald John McCloud, Gaelic education advisor for the Highland council which, along with the Western Islands, embraces the Gaelic heartland.
These facts are not lost on Caroline Stewart, mother to seven-year-old Alexander, who also attends Glasgow Gaelic school. “My older daughter spent a year at school in France and has spoken French since. Children who speak more than one language have been shown to have better cognitive skills. I wanted Alexander to be bilingual so I was looking for a school that taught a second language. The fact he was learning Gaelic rather than another language was secondary at first. But now I am pleased: the more I learn about the history of the language the more important I feel it is to preserve it.”
Gaelic now features at all levels of Scottish education: pre-school, primary, secondary, further and higher education, and as part of teacher training. In 2002-2003 there were 1,928 primary-level and 375 secondary-level children in Gaelic-medium education. Another 3,000, approximately, learn Gaelic as a second language, usually in special Gaelic-language units within schools. The number of Gaelic-speaking teachers graduating in 2003 was 25 (for primary school teaching), an increase of eight on the number qualifying in 2002.
These are not big numbers and, despite the avowed support of Peter Peacock, Scotland’s minister for education and young people, who has said his aim is to ensure Gaelic “survives and thrives”, the Gaelic lobby faces a struggle. Obstacles include a lack of Gaelic-speaking teachers, a paucity of teaching materials and a drop-off in the provision of Gaelic education at secondary level. Detractors also point to the limited usefulness of Gaelic compared to, say, a modern European language in the increasingly globalised career market.
Boyd Robertson, senior lecturer in Gaelic at the University of Strathclyde, which trains Gaelic teachers, says the teacher-shortage problem needs to be solved urgently, particularly within secondary schools. “At the primary level there is something of an equilibrium between supply and demand, but the numbers of secondary school teachers are not growing in the way that is required.”
Supporters of Gaelic tend to look for inspiration to Wales, where concerted efforts since the 1930s have resulted in census figures that show that 26% of people under the age of 35 can now speak Welsh, which has been included in the national curriculum since 1988. One in five primary pupils are taught in classes where Welsh is used either as the main medium or for teaching part of the curriculum; one in seven secondary school children are taught Welsh as a first language, and four in five learn it as a second language.
One technique used to accelerate the take-up of Welsh has been “immersion education”, a concept that is now being put into practice in Scotland. The idea is for children as young as nursery school age to “plunge” into a language completely speaking, reading and writing it all day.
In order for Gaelic to have a good chance of reproducing itself, at least a third of under-25-year-olds need to speak the language. Scotland is a long way off achieving this. The Scottish Executive, which earlier this year set up Bórd na Gáidhlig, a development body to promote Gaelic, has given itself a target of a 5% annual increase in the number of Gaelic medium-educated primary school children. Privately, however, civil servants admit they would like to see a much higher take-up. “To be truthful, we are very jealous of Wales,” says one.
The pupils at Glasgow Gaelic school can take credit for a small victory in the crusade. Fed-up that they couldn’t read about their favourite fictional character in Gaelic, this summer they sent dozens of letters to Bloomsbury, publishers of Harry Potter. As a result, a Gaelic edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone looks set to appear next year.