Endangered language boost

20th June 2008 at 01:00
When crofter's daughter Christina Walker went to primary school in Lewis in the 1960s, there was hardly a Gaelic story book in sight
When crofter's daughter Christina Walker went to primary school in Lewis in the 1960s, there was hardly a Gaelic story book in sight.

She came from a home where Gaelic was spoken all the time - but at school everything was in English. And at some of her friends' homes even Gaelic-speaking parents were beginning to insist on English at home as well, to help their children get on.

"We never spoke anything but Gaelic at home, then suddenly you went to school and our native language was devalued because you were immersed in English," says Mrs Walker, whose father was a weaver of Harris tweed.

It's a little ironic that she's now surrounded by Gaelic story books - encouraging storytelling to help children from predominantly English-speaking homes to learn Gaelic, as part of her role as lecturer in Gaelic-medium education. This afternoon, Mrs Walker is hearing how children at Gilcomstoun Primary in Aberdeen are progressing with their language. These P1 and 2 children are learning Gaelic through immersion - they learn every subject in Gaelic and their progress is even surprising their teacher Jessie MacNeil.

"They come here without a word of Gaelic in Primary 1 and I speak to them in Gaelic all the time. It's just amazing how they pick it up. They pick up my accent and everything - sometimes I think I am hearing myself because they speak exactly like me," laughs Mrs MacNeil, who is originally from Barra.

Mrs Walker is a lecturer in the University of Aberdeen's School of Education and the newly-appointed project co-ordinator for a new joint honours degree in Gaelic and education. It's the first qualification of its kind in Scotland and is being delivered by Aberdeen University in partnership with the colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Students can study at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Skye, or at Lews Castle College in Stornoway, with the education component studied by distance learning. By the end of the degree, they are qualified to teach Gaelic.

"There is a huge shortage of Gaelic teachers, particularly at secondary level, and this will go some way to addressing that. It will allow students to study both Gaelic language and education simultaneously, so they qualify in four years with a degree and a qualification to teach Gaelic," Mrs Walker explains.

The current shortage of teachers means primary pupils who have had their whole curriculum delivered in Gaelic lose the benefit of immersion, either because they revert to studying Gaelic as a subject in secondary schools or because there's no Gaelic teacher available, in which case they may begin to lose the language altogether.

"It is an endangered language and if children like these youngsters don't use it - they'll lose it," says Mrs Walker.

She delivered a seminar on the importance of using stories for learning Gaelic language to a continuing professional development conference held during the Word Festival at Aberdeen University last month.

"It's very important that storytelling is seen as a crucial vehicle for bringing forward linguistic skills and not just reading skills. Every single story provides opportunities for listening, talking, reading and writing.

"It's done almost through osmosis. They're listening to the story and, while that's happening, there is this almost accidental acquisition of words, of phrases, language structure and sentence structure and new vocabulary," Mrs Walker explains.

"They also develop empathy with other people and with the characters. And they always want to know what's going to happen next - so there's a touch of problem solving.

"Repetition is also vital, especially for children who are learning a new language. It's so important to use repetition of words and phrases so that they get the chance to be reminded of what they've heard and remember it," Mrs Walker says.

But the most important thing, she insists, is that stories should be enjoyable and not end up completely switching children off the tale and the language.

"Don't read a story that's boring - there's no point. They won't remember anything but the title and the fact that it was exceptionally boring. You are expecting children to participate actively and you're looking for an emotional response to what's happening to the characters.

"Children love having their imagination stimulated and they've got a fantastic imagination. You've only got to listen to the way they tell lies to know they've got great imagination," she laughs.

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