Gaelic's back but what do we do with it now?

7th October 2011 at 01:00

Who would have thought 10 years ago that there would ever be a Gaelic television channel? Or that there would be growing schools with children speaking Gaelic from Primary 1 right up to sixth year? It is quite remarkable how the prominence of Gaelic in everyday life has grown.

In the 1930s Gaelic was being beaten out of children who dared to speak their mother tongue in the school playground. It was the language of the home, but not of education. In the 1960s the young people in the islands could understand Gaelic, but they wouldn't be heard speaking it; it was the old "cailleachs" in their black widow's weeds who would speak it to you. In the 1990s only 1.4 per cent of the Scottish population could speak it. Now, we are waiting to see in the results of the latest census whether it is even 1 per cent (News Focus, p12).

But as the old speakers die off, there's a new generation growing up, of pupils in classes around the country learning to speak Gaelic. What's strange is that it has become the language of education, not of the home. Many of these children do not come from Gaelic-speaking families, or even a Highland background. For them, this is an acquired language, like French or German.

So will they go out and talk it with their classmates in the street? They might, until they meet another friend who doesn't speak it, and then they'll switch to English. Will they go home and speak it to their parents? Many won't be able to - which surely makes it academic.

The success of Gaelic schools has been impressive. But, as Matthew MacIver, former chairman of Bord na Gaidhlig, now chair of the court at the University of the Highlands and Islands, points out, it tends to wane in secondary and that's the challenge. Many parents, like Highlanders before them, will want their children to pursue subjects that enable them to compete for careers in an English-speaking world.

So there needs to be, as he says, a co-ordinated approach across primary, secondary, further and higher education. That is very difficult to achieve when Gaelic teachers are hard to find - headteachers are hard to find, never mind Gaelic-speaking ones. So whether it can actually materialise remains to be seen.

Maybe Donalda McComb, head of the Glasgow Gaelic School, is right, that it could take 20 years to build a full complement of teaching staff in a school, as it did in Wales (where 21 per cent of the population speaks Welsh).

But even if the Scottish Government's Gaelic plan succeeds in turning around the decline of the language, are these new speakers going to live and work in a Gaelic-speaking world, or is this purely about preserving a culture?

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