The future of Gaelic has gone from bleak to bright

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
I used to doubt that the language had any real future, but fortunately I have been proved wrong

Do you believe in a Gaelic revival - or are you sceptical about the bilingual signs appearing across Scotland and the millions being poured into Gaelic education? Two years ago, I wrote an editorial in TESS expressing doubts about the prospect of any real future for the language. The problem, I believed, was that however much children were immersed in it at Gaelic-medium schools, and however much they spoke it coming out of the school gates, it would be dropped the minute they bumped into their friends from home. Today, I have changed my tune.

The number of pupils learning Gaelic is still small. At the last count, in 2011-12, there were 730 attending Gaelic nurseries, just over 2,400 attending primary Gaelic-medium education (GME), more than 1,100 fluent speakers and 2,643 learners taking Gaelic in secondary, according to Bord na Gaidhlig's latest report. That's a total of about 7,000, or 1 per cent of the school population - a drop in the ocean, you might say.

What's more, a recent article in The Herald announced that only 6 per cent of the Scottish government's target to double the number of students entering GME (from 400 to 800) had been achieved one year into its National Gaelic Language Plan for 2012-17.

There are, however, promising signs. Figures for the crucial early years (three- to five-year-olds) showed a 16 per cent rise in GME and entries for this summer's Higher Gaelic (Learners) were up 10.8 per cent and Higher Gaidhlig (fluent speakers) up 24 per cent. About 500 learners and fluent speakers took Standard grade Gaelic or Gaidhlig and another 250 or so took Higher.

But more striking is the growing momentum now in the communities around the schools. As part of a pilot community initiative this summer, the University of Glasgow's Centre for Open Studies has been running fast-track Ulpan courses in Gaelic for adult learners. The Ulpan method, used in Wales to help drive up the number of Welsh speakers, was devised in Israel to teach Hebrew to adult immigrants after the Second World War. It has been adapted for Gaelic by a company called Deiseal and the results are remarkable.

After six consecutive days of total immersion, everyone at the end of level 1 had been exposed to a range of language equivalent to Intermediate 2. With the emphasis on the rhythm and sound, their accents and confidence were good, and their enthusiasm even better. Their next step, to practise what they have learned, is to meet for regular "Gaelic coffee" sessions and engage in simple conversations, and some will be pursuing further Ulpan courses as soon as possible (there are six levels in all, leading to functional fluency).

Among the adult learners were a young mother from Australia, with one child in a Gaelic playgroup and another at the Glasgow Gaelic School - she wanted to read to her children and help at the playgroup; a teacher from North Lanarkshire, who had done a Gaelic for Learners in the Primary School (GLPS) course but wanted to improve her own - she came away with new ideas for classroom games and resources; and the manager of the Celtic Connections festival, who wished to use Gaelic in her job - she was topping and tailing emails in Gaelic by the end of the week. Others had native Gaelic-speaking parents who, classically, failed to pass on the language 40 or 50 years ago when bilingualism was frowned upon.

Reasons for attending the course varied, but everyone thrived on the instant gratification that Ulpan gave them by enabling them to start using the language immediately. Mixing with staff, tutors and students in the university's Gaelic department, there was the sense of a movement within the community that anyone could be part of. And the Ulpan students, unlike most modern language learners, had the benefit of a national Gaelic television channel with programmes for children and adults.

In 2008, Michael Russell, before he was education secretary, wrote in TESS that "Ulpan could deliver up to 1,000 fluent Gaelic speakers a year - a vastly higher number than is being achieved by all the current schemes put together". Theoretically, with biweekly classes, that could happen. About 200 tutors have undertaken the eight-day training in the past six years, some 2,600 learners signed up for Level 1, asnd former students are starting to become trainers. It's like a production line, says director Daibhidh Grannd. But more course providers need to commit to the national plan and lay on courses to turn it into a reality.

Meanwhile, the University of Glasgow, for one, is pursuing its own five-year Gaelic plan, raising the profile of the language with bilingual signage, campaigns and free access to Gaelic courses and conversation circles for all staff and students. It is also promoting its Gaelic residency scheme to secondaries, running outreach community courses in Glasgow and beyond, and two evenings a week of Ulpan in the new session.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, there would have been few jobs for these learners. Today, as I was reminded recently by a former dean of education from Lewis, there is a growing demand for council workers who speak Gaelic; islanders can remain in their communities and get work as academics with the University of the Highlands and Islands; and there is an urgent need for more Gaelic teachers. Am I convinced? I am.

Gillian Macdonald, Education journalist, is a former editor of TESS.

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