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Mind your tongue

The historic language of Scotland has been dying out for a long time but serious efforts are being made to revive it before it is too late. Helping enthusiasts' cause is a report that being bilingual can promote learning and use of language in a range of subjects. Douglas Blane reports

Two myths about Gaelic are often used to justify the inaction that perpetuates its marginal status in modern Scotland. The first is that Gaelic has always been spoken by only a small minority of Scots. The second is that it is not the language of an indigenous culture but was imported by Dark Age immigrants from Ireland. It is time both these myths were scotched, as there is no good evidence for either.

No matter how fanciful, old stories have a tenacious appeal, but the Gaelic-speaking Scots who gave their name to the entire country when they gradually spread out from their west-coast kingdom were probably descended from people who had lived there for thousands of years.

"There is almost no archaeological evidence to support the traditional view of migration from Ireland," says Glasgow University's Dr Ewan Campbell. "All the evidence points to a continuity of the population in Argyll."

Evidence also points to Gaelic having been spoken not just among Scotland's rulers but throughout the country when its southern border was first established, and for a long time thereafter. The decline from being the dominant language to one spoken by only 1.4 per cent of Scotland's population - with the 2001 census expected to show a further fall - has been long and may be irreversible.

A recent study commissioned by the Scottish Executive (Revitalising Gaelic: a national asset, September 2000) concluded that "Gaelic is in a precarious, even critical, condition and that without significant Government support it will not survive beyond the middle of the 21st century".

Yet the survival of the language at all after 1,000 years of political and educational repression - in living memory schoolchildren were beaten by teachers for speaking Gaelic - is something to note. There are also a number of tantalising signs that the prospect of halting the decline may not be improbable. There is a cautious feeling of optimism among those working to generate a resurgence of Gaelic language and culture.

Comunn na Gaidhlig is the agency set up by the Government in 1984 to co-ordinate Gaelic development at a national level and act as the main channel for the views of the Gaelic community. The agency's education officer, former teacher Margaret MacIver, is keen to emphasise the positive aspects of recent developments and, like most Gaelic enthusiasts, has no patience with talk of a lost cause or a dead language.

"There are still problems, of course, but it is a good story in Scottish education. Parents can now choose to have their children educated through the medium of Gaelic. Not long ago, no matter how much they wanted it, they simply couldn't.

"One of the biggest strengths in all that's been happening recently is that it has been a grassroots movement; it came about because the parents wanted it."

Since 1985 when units offering education in Gaelic first opened in Glasgow and Inverness primary schools, opportunities have grown steadily. There are now 60 units in primary schools in 14 authorities throughout the country teaching 1,859 pupils. There are also 14 secondary schools offering a variety of subjects, such as history, geography and mathematics, in Gaelic. Many more schools teach the language as a specific subject.

Many parents of pupils being taught in Gaelic are not fluent Gaelic speakers but have parents or grandparents who were and they talk of their feelings of having missed out on a cultural heritage that their children can now recover. Political activists speak of the urgent need to replace an ageing population of Gaelic speakers by at least equal numbers of youngsters. But neither of these is a good enough reason for providing an education that might handicap a child in a competitive, increasingly English-speaking world.

Perhaps the most significant event in Gaelic education in recent years was the completion of a study, financed by the Scottish Executive and led by Professor Richard Johnstone of Stirling University, that demonstrated that the attainment of Primary 7 pupils who had gone through Gaelic medium education was similar to, or higher than, that of their English-medium colleagues. Remarkably the higher levels of attainment were found in English.

"Our research was designed to look at outcomes, rather than to unravel the mystery and come up with an explanation," says Professor Johnstone. "But, based on international research in this area, what I think is happening is that the children are not just becoming fluent in two languages, they are also learning to read and write - they are becoming literate - in both. This seems to develop an underlying competence in language itself, which drives forward their subsequent learning and use of them."

It would appear then that efforts to revive Gaelic are worthwhile not just because it is a beautiful language with an oral and written culture that is part of the heritage of all Scotland. Giant strides still have to be made.

Whereas Comunn na Gaidhlig's education officer talks of the progress made at grassroots level and the growth in Gaelic teaching posts, the organisation's vice-chairman paints a gloomier picture and highlights the urgent need for a cohesive national strategy.

"I'm not saying the Scottish Executive has been inactive," says Boyd Robertson, senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde. "But it has not been sufficiently pro-active. The major issue is the lack of a national policy.

"There are individual initiatives which are very welcome, like the setting up of the Glasgow Gaelic School, but there is not much evidence of joined-up thinking nationally. The irony is that the Executive now requires schools and local authorities to produce development plans for Gaelic but they themselves haven't yet produced a national plan."

Mr Robertson emphasises the importance of securing the status of the language with a Gaelic Language Act similar to the Welsh model, a proposal endorsed earlier this month by 20 different Gaelic organisations. The Scottish Executive is giving no indication that it considers this a necessary or even useful measure. It is expected, however, to make an announcement in the near future on the formation of a Gaelic Development Agency, which will focus the efforts of the large number of Gaelic interest groups, and should also devise the national strategy.

Scottish Executive officials maintain that demand for Gaelic education places does not appear to be increasing more rapidly than the growth in supply. They point to the sharp rise in annual government funding for Gaelic, from pound;61,000 in 1979 to more than pound;13 million now.

Mike Watson, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport with responsibility for Gaelic, says: "We recognise that for Gaelic to survive young people must be encouraged to learn the language. This is most effectively achieved through the provision of Gaelic medium education I Supporting this provision the Executive has provided pound;2.8 million funding for GME this year alone, compared with pound;1.6 million in 1992-93."

The supply of teachers is widely regarded as a major limitation on expansion. Lord Watson says: "The shortage of Gaelic medium teachers is a priority for Scottish Ministers. Funding has been provided to Comunn na Gaidhlig to attract students into Gaelic medium teaching. In the current academic session an additional 10 places were funded at Strathclyde University for the PGCE (primary) course in Gaelic medium education, resulting in a significant increase in the amount of Gaelic medium teachers who will be qualifying in the summer. It is forecast that a total of 24 students able to teach in primary Gaelic medium education will qualify at the end of the academic session 2001-02.

"Funding has also been directed to in-service conversion courses to allow English medium teachers to transfer to Gaelic medium education."

In Mr Robertson's view, one particular type of course has the potential to make a "huge impact" on the recruitment of teachers. This is the full-time immersion course, offered at present by just a handful of colleges, which aims to turn adult learners into fluent Gaelic speakers in one year.

"We need to encourage more people into these courses by giving them financial aid because at the moment they have to take an enormous gamble. A small investment in the courses themselves would also make an enormous difference to their viability to the colleges.

"We've had a handful of students who have come through these immersion courses and are now out in the field teaching at primary and secondary level. That small spark needs to be fanned into a big fire."

Comunn na Gaidhlig education officer Margaret MacIver, tel 01463 234138, www.cnag.org.uk

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