GAELIC-MEDIUM schooling is the last chance to save the language from the grave in 20 to 30 years, campaigners have warned MSPs on Holyrood's education, culture and sport committee.
They are demanding a statutory place for Gaelic in the current education Bill, something ministers have so far been reluctant to concede, preferring separate "secure status" legislation to protect its future.
But Alan Campbell, chief executive of Comunn na Gaidhlig, the national development organisation, has warned that failure to strengthen the place of the language in education legislation would jeopardise its future. "The number of Gaelic speakers is at a dangerously low level and we have very little time to win this battle or lose it completely. We have got 20 to 30 years to turn this situation around," Mr Campbell said.
Gaelic-medium education was "an important milestone and fundamental to Gaelic development" and had to be part of mainstream schooling if the language was to survive and prosper.
John MacLeod, convener of Comann nam Parant, the parents' organisation, said:
medium education is the most important initiative within the framework of the development of the Gaelic language."
Contrasting Gaelic in Scotland with the stronger position of Welsh in Wales, Mr MacLeod said the campaign was about the rights of parents, equality and continuity of education. "We do not want to force Gaelic education on anyone, it's a voluntary system. But where there is a reasonable requirement for Gaelic education it should be supported."
Mr Campbell said placing the language at the heart of the Bill would provide the equality of opportunity missing so far.
"This would make local authorities listen to parents so that they cannot turn their back where there is a reasonable demand. There is a lot said about lack of teachers and small numbers and that is used as a reason not to mak progress. But if you give us secure status for Gaelic-medium education, a lot more parents will take advantage of it."
He continued: "Once Gaelic-
medium education is secure in law, a lot more teachers will come into the system because they see they can make a living through it. All these things hang together."
Many Scots were "embarrassed and sad" at the failure of the 1872 Education Act to encompass Gaelic. Mike Russell, SNP Gaelic champion, blamed the 128-year old legislation for the language's demise. "This should not be repeated a second time," Mr Russell stated.
Fionnlagh MacLeoid, chief executive of Comhairle Nan Sgoiltean Araich, the Gaelic playgroups' association, said Gaelic had been "practically quashed". Local authorities were able to dismiss demands for Gaelic-medium units and schools because there was no reference in education legislation.
Mr MacLeoid said 20 years ago there were only four Gaelic playgroups. This had risen to 140 groups and 2,500 pre-school children. But an indirect result of the Scottish Executive's pre-school drive was the loss of three-quarters of the three to five age-group.
Ministers should learn from the Basque country where 500 teachers were learning Basque on a two-year course, paid for by the Spanish government and Europe.
Mr MacLeoid also appealed for different curricula in pre-school for children learning Gaelic: one for those who come into nursery with the language and another for those who are just picking it up.
It took 2,000 hours of learning to gain fluency, over roughly two and a half years, but this might be cut using new teaching methods, based on self-motivation, to one and half years and perhaps lower. Full details of the new approaches would be available in the autumn, and lessons could be learnt by other language teachers.
Ministers are likely to give their view on the campaign next week.