This may be our last great hope for Gaelic

1st September 2006 at 01:00
If Scotland is to have the taste of the tongue still in its mouth it should look at Hebrew, says Michael Russell

ne of the major growth markets since we got our own parliament has been the production of glossy documents. Every national body and every government department produces such things and the latest to cross my desk has been the national plan for Gaelic, drawn up by Bord na Gaidhlig. Published in mid-August, it is now out for consultation.

I plead guilty to having been involved in building a structure which envisaged such a plan as an essential element in the revival of Gaelic. It was meant to help other public agencies devise and implement appropriate and effective strategies for using and promoting the language. By that means, Gaelic would re-enter the mainstream of Scottish life.

Unfortunately I was wrong, for now the whole concept of national planning for Gaelic is likely to founder on a basic difficulty. Unless we rapidly create a new generation of fluent Gaelic speakers, there will be nothing to plan for. The fact is that Gaelic is on its last legs as a living language.

Put brutally, more Gaelic speakers die each year than are born, and the shortfall is not made up by Gaelic-medium teaching at primary level, still less by Gaelic education in school, at university or in the community.

Mortality tells the true story, not government ministers.

The national plan may encourage an ever-growing number of Gaelic speaking bureaucrats and add to the ever-growing number of Gaelic broadcasters. But there is nothing in it that will secure a massive increase in the numbers of those who are learning the language beyond basic competence. Without such a massive increase, the bureaucrats will have less and less to administer, and the broadcasters will speak to a smaller and smaller audience.

In the end, those who speak the language will be a tiny state-subsidised and state-employed group, a mafia whose interest is in mere self-perpetuation. At that moment, Scotland will no longer be able to claim that it has the taste of the tongue still in its mouth.

There is nothing inherently wrong in the plan, but its failure to place education at the heart and soul of Scotland's approach to Gaelic fatally undermines all the other wide-ranging and often rather vacuously expressed intentions. "Education, education, education" is, despite the tarnished image of the mantra, exactly what is needed. Measured by that imperative, the proposed modest increase in Gaelic-medium learning is largely irrelevant given the scale of the problem. The lack of an intention to provide Gaelic teaching in every secondary school is a serious omission and the misrepresentation of immersion learning as having to be full-time is inexplicable.

There is also no mention of something which could make all the difference, even at this late stage: the introduction of the "Ulpan" method of teaching the language. Ulpan is a programme of flexible courses used in Israel to teach Hebrew to fluency within a remarkably short period of time. They were of huge influence in that country, for they bound together a disparate group of immigrants into a nation. For the past four decades, they have been used in Wales, to the great benefit of the Welsh language. It is flourishing while our Celtic heritage continues to decline.

Now Daibhidh Grannd, a Scot who learned Gaelic, and Guto Rhys, a Welshman with strong experience of Ulpan, have established a new commercial company, Deiseal Earranta, which is seeking start-up funding to bring the courses to Scotland, developing them to give varied learning opportunities ranging from occasional to intensive. Many existing teachers and tutors are enthusiastic and lots of learners want to be involved. The scheme would be ideal for those bodies which must devise and implement Gaelic plans yet have no Gaelic speakers in their employment.

However, although Highlands and Islands Enterprise is showing commendable keenness for the concept, some establishment Gaels are turning a stony face. Deiseal Earranta has recently been turned down by the Highland 2007 cross-community fund, which is meant to be encouraging innovation. Clearly someone in that body is scared of new thinking, and particularly new thinking which would quite unashamedly give the opportunity for ordinary Gaelic speakers to earn money teaching their own language, once they were trained to do so.

Even at the early stages, Ulpan could deliver up to a thousand fluent Gaelic speakers a year - a vastly higher number than is being achieved by all the current schemes put together. In addition, experience from Wales shows that once the market develops, the numbers of those wanting to take part rises quickly.

Consequently, it would not be impossible to envisage, within a decade, a rapidly growing and geographically widespread community who were using Gaelic every day, bringing up their children in the language and pressuring local authorities to establish more and more Gaelic-medium schools at primary and secondary level.

Within a generation, the number of fluent speakers in Scotland could be back to a sustainable level, Gaelic would once more have a lively and living future and Gaelic communities would have earned money in taking their language to that point. The language - in the person of thousands more fluent Gaelic speakers - would also have a place in every part of our national life.

The production of the national plan has held up consideration by Bord na Gaidhlig of an application by Deiseal Earranta for commercial start-up funding. Curious as that sense of priority is (fiddling while Rome burns, some might call it), it is now make your mind up time. If the bord members back Ulpan, then they will be making an investment in Gaelic's last great hope - the renewal of the language by the renewal of those who speak it. If they don't, then the loser will not just be Deiseal Earranta, but also the prospect of any part of the bord's glossy plan coming to fruition.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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