A reality check on the future of Gaelic

10th February 2006 at 00:00
The odds are stacked against survival and the school system cannot save a lost cause, says Fred Forrester

Su Clark's report (TESS, January 20) shows that an extraordinary amount of time and energy, and considerable sums of public money, are being devoted to maintaining Gaelic as a living language. It is sad to see that so many prominent Scottish educationists, whose work in other fields is rightly respected, are involved in promoting what is essentially a lost cause.

The attitudes of Scottish lowlanders towards Gaelic are driven by a mixture of nostalgia and guilt. Nostalgia for a way of life that many feel is admirable but few would adopt in practice. Guilt, perhaps largely misplaced, over the clearances and their legacy in the movement of Highlanders to the industrial lowlands and across the English-speaking world.

Such attitudes begin to be positively harmful when they work their way through into public sector policies. The pursuit of Gaelic-medium education in our major cities is a prime example. Gaelic is far from being the largest minority language spoken in Glasgow, but the city council, with financial support from the Scottish Executive, has established an all-through 3-18 Gaelic-medium school with the intention that, eventually, all subjects will be taught through Gaelic. Edinburgh has a Gaelic-medium primary unit and is going through the motions of making similar provision at secondary level.

Not long ago, Glasgow's council leader, Steven Purcell, was a member of a Scottish delegation to Dublin, led by former Scottish Office Education Minister Brian Wilson. The delegation looked at the development of Irish Gaelic-medium schools - gaelscoileanna - outside the Irish-speaking areas of the Irish Republic.

What did they find? While such schools are favoured by the parents, they are dogged with a range of problems. They have difficulty in recruiting teachers, especially in areas such as science and business studies.

Deficiencies in the teacher training system mean that many of their teachers have not much more than a smattering of Irish. This is despite a salary supplement of up to 1,000 euros per year and higher increments for "language-rich" subjects.

There is a shortage, described as "dreadful" by the principal of a large Irish-medium college in County Dublin, of Gaelic textbooks and teaching materials. Furthermore, many of those that exist are regarded by the same principal as inferior to the English language versions. Some are actually translated from Irish into English before being used.

This reflects the experience in the Scottish Western Isles where there is a fair penetration of Gaelic-medium teaching in primary schools but very little in secondary schools. The mind boggles at the problems involved in teaching mathematics, science and computer studies in Gaelic.

The saddest aspect of the whole thrust towards Gaelic and Irish-medium teaching is that it is almost certain to fail in maintaining the languages as a means of everyday communication in the modern world. This is presumably the underlying motive of the Gaelic-medium movement.

For a minority language to survive, there must be a number of favourable background factors. There must be a critical mass of speakers of the language within a defined geographical area. Second, the language must be the language of everyday life among those speakers. Preferably, a proportion of the speakers should be monoglot. Third, the competition from other languages must not be overwhelming. Scottish Gaelic fails all of these tests. Its speakers number about 58,000, almost none of them monoglot. It is not the language of everyday discourse, even in Stornoway.

If French and Italian are under pressure from English, what hope is there for the Celtic languages?

I doubt if Gaelic, Irish, Welsh or Breton will still be spoken languages after about 2025. Unlike some languages of the past that were never written down, they will not be "dead". They will have a continued cultural life in the Mod, the Eisteddfod, the Fest Noz and also in poetry and music.

Enthusiasts will still learn them, as is the case with Cornish and Manx.

Once we recognise the reality of this prognosis, we can decide how best to cater for Celtic cultural traditions within our education system through the teaching of literature, history, music and dance and, for those who wish it, the teaching of Celtic languages in modern language departments.

Gaelic-medium, Irish-medium and Welsh-medium teaching will be seen in retrospect as expensive and socially questionable diversions that were never going to achieve their underlying objectives. These tokenistic movements are another example of political correctness, where the immediate aims are to win votes or to enhance careers, in the knowledge that the inevitability of failure will not be recognised until some future date.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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