Renaissance of a living language

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Growing numbers of Western Isles pupils are learning Gaelic or are in Gaelic-medium education

But goodwill for the language still seems to dissipate as children grow older

Gaelic is in rude health, or so it seems to anyone living in the central belt. Feature films are made in the language, and last year brought the first Gaelic television channel to our screens. The language has even leapt out of its heartland in the Highlands and islands. "Failte" say the signs at international airports, and Glasgow is home to Scotland's first Gaelic-medium school.

Travel to the Western Isles, however, and things become less clear-cut. Growing numbers of children are learning in Gaelic, yet some teachers fear privately it is in its "twilight". In the late 1960s, they say, TV led to a tipping point where English supplanted Gaelic in the playground, perhaps forever. Elderly people brought up speaking nothing but Gaelic, when addressed by a child in the language, reply in English, so ingrained is the idea that this is the language of young people.

Teachers are, on the whole, more pragmatic about Gaelic heritage and language, and embrace both traditional and contemporary approaches.

At the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, the only S1-6 secondary in Lewis, there has been much demand for a trial project in which pupils use state- of-the-art recording equipment and software to create music aping - in Gaelic - the genres they listen to in English. "Why shouldn't you have Gaelic rap?" asks music teacher Calum Mitchell. A few miles away at Back School (nursery through to S2), children can be found in a room during lunch, stretching their arms around unwieldy accordions, playing more traditional music.

The pragmatism extends to Gaelic-medium education. There are those who believe English words should be banned and demand an entirely Gaelic lexicon, but the teachers on the ground say it's futile to translate technical language and modern cultural references, such as "the internet" - it sounds contrived, and only alienates young people.

"We have to be flexible and realise that we use both languages," says Iain Sinclair, principal teacher of history at the Nicolson Institute. "You can't be restrictive - if you really want to have 100 per cent Gaelic medium, you have to have a 100 per cent Gaelic-medium school."

At Back School, where Gaelic is promoted as a living language, depute headteacher Angus Maclennan argues: "If they haven't invented a word for macaroni in English, then why invent it in Gaelic? Then it would have become a language purely for use in school."

At the Nicolson Institute, the studying of Gaelic is compulsory in S1-2, and Gaelic-medium education is provided for 60 pupils in the first two years (just under a quarter), except in art and music. But it has been more difficult to sustain courses for older age groups, where success stories, such as Gaelic media studies, have had to rely on additional funding, in this case from Schools of Ambition.

It can be counterproductive to expect total immersion in these classes as it is difficult to find staff who are fluent and overly-stringent demands would put courses at risk.

The Nicolson headteacher, Kevin Trewartha, wants to encourage more staff to teach in Gaelic, including those who lack confidence in the language. Parents, he believes, are realistic enough to welcome that approach, "as long as they're seeing progression with what we're offering".

Despite growing numbers of Gaelic-medium pupils arriving from primary, he finds that enthusiasm for the language has often "peaked" by S3 or 4. Gaelic medium has "developed slowly" at secondary level, compared to the primaries. Less than half the school carries Gaelic - for speakers or learners - into Standard grade. Yet he is optimistic for the future in the latter years of school. He predicts that in 10 years' time, there will be classes in Gaelic for most subjects at most levels.

A few miles away at Back School (pupil roll 200), Gaelic-medium education has made huge strides since it was introduced as a "unit" with five pupils 20 years ago. Now half the primary pupils are schooled chiefly in Gaelic.

Care is taken, however, not to segregate the two language groupings. The idea of a separate unit has been ditched and replaced by "functional bilingualism". In other words, there is a natural flow between the languages, and pupils are not browbeaten into speaking one or the other at given times. A pupil repeatedly speaking English in a Gaelic-medium class might be gently reminded to try again in Gaelic.

Gaelic is the language of the corridors. If teachers are greeting pupils, asking them about their day, or complimenting a piece of work as they pass, it is always in Gaelic. The children chatting away with each other in English slip easily into Gaelic with teachers, including one girl with an English accent. The point is to expose children to the language, not set aside times for "doing" it. "It's not just a classroom activity," says depute head Angus Maclennan.

Gaelic resources are expensive, and the quick turnaround of translations can lead to inferior quality, although inventive minds are coming up with solutions: online geography materials for S1-2 are reducing the strain on school resources.

Often the burden falls on staff. "I sometimes grumble at the time I've been spending on preparing materials in Gaelic when I should have been preparing my lessons," says Netta Macleod, the P3-4 Gaelic-medium teacher.

But progress has been made. Principal science teacher Peigi Nicholson recalls "a huge number of parents who were very antagonistic" when the first Gaelic-medium cohort started, with her daughter, Eilidh, one of the five pioneers. Now, Gaelic has considerable cachet.

S2 pupil Annabel Maclennan says a lot of her English-medium peers wish they had done Gaelic. She smiles with pride as she remembers an impressive performance by the girls' football team at a tournament in Edinburgh, where opponents complained about them talking tactics in Gaelic. It's also useful, she says, for learning other languages: French words for "a thousand" or "church", for example, have close matches in Gaelic (millemile and egliseeaglais).

Often the most enthusiastic backers of the language are parents with no roots in the Western Isles, who want their children to appreciate the heritage of their surroundings. The chef at an Indian restaurant, who recently became a father, has told Mr Maclennan that he may put his child's name down for Gaelic medium. An after-school club for children from non-Gaelic-speaking homes, funded as a trial project by development agency Bord na Gaidhlig, has ensured the momentum continues after school.

A council report last year showed there were 505 primary pupils in Gaelic- medium education in the Western Isles, over 25 per cent of the primary population. In P1, it was over 33 per cent, rising steadily from 24.6 per cent in 2003-04.

That trend, however, is still undermined by evidence that the goodwill behind Gaelic dissipates as children get older. Not all children attending Gaelic pre-school will enrol in Gaelic-medium education. Some sign up because the Gaelic nursery is closest to home; they will not bypass a school to take up Gaelic-medium primary education. And the report found there was not the same demand from secondary parents.

"It may be that the main driver for parents is that pupils become fluent in Gaelic, and when they see their children reaching a high level of fluency and literacy at the end of P7, they may feel that continuing with it as a subject in secondary, along with access to Gaelic in the community, will be sufficient," says acting education director Catherine Dunn.

It is a constant battle to keep interest high. The council and other bodies have come up with imaginative promotional drives, including leaflets for new parents in hospitals and a home-visiting scheme. A website with chatroom, Gaelic4parents, has had a steady if unspectacular response: 150 repeat users in different parts of the country, or about 10 per cent of the estimated 1,250 families with children registered in Gaelic-medium education.

The language continues to face another struggle in recruitment of Gaelic- speaking teachers. An advertisement for a post at the Nicolson Institute listed Gaelic as "essential", yet most candidates could not speak it; the job was re-advertised, with Gaelic this time listed as "desirable".

Short-term funding boosts and imaginative marketing can only do so much, but Mrs Dunn has high hopes of A Curriculum for Excellence. She believes it could provide a lasting leg-up, by enabling staff to work with other subject specialists on inter-disciplinary projects.

Back School has shown the way for Gaelic-medium education to escape compartmentalisation. Rather than gearing it purely to the demands of traditional classroom subjects, Mr Maclennan says Gaelic has to be a tool which children can use to talk to their grannies. As his head, Mr Maclean, puts it: "Gaelic has to work its way through the whole fabric of the school life, and of the whole community."

Parents' survey

The case for a Western Isles school teaching entirely through Gaelic was bolstered by a survey of parents, described by acting education director Catherine Dunn as "encouraging". Council officers believe a school with three or four teachers in the centre of Lewis could co-exist with Gaelic- medium education in other schools for parents who did not wish to opt out. The future of some provision would be uncertain. The survey found:

  • The number of pre-school parents who support making their local school Gaelic-medium - andor a new Gaelic school in a central place - exceeds opponents.
  • The same for parents of children in P1-6 of Gaelic-medium education.
  • Most parents of pre-school children intend to enrol their children in Gaelic-medium education.
  • While a number of pre-school and primary parents are prepared to travel 5- 10 miles to a central Gaelic school, the percentage prepared to travel over 10 miles is low.
  • Response from pre-school parents in catchment areas for Back School and the Nicolson Institute, indicates there will be a healthy stream of children entering Gaelic-medium.
  • Some 14 out of 22 parents near the Nicolson Institute intended to enrol their children in Gaelic-medium education. Around Back School, 14 out of 18 pre-school parents wished to do so.
  • Two decades after the "hostile" reaction to Back School's Gaelic unit, 24 of 48 respondents in the area supported the idea of turning it into an entirely Gaelic-medium school.
    • Of 940 questionnaires issued, 268 were returned.

      Gaelic information

      • 80,978 Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 1961, when television influence started to grow
      • 58,652 Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 2001 (1.4 per cent of the population)
      • 23,447 Gaelic speakers in the Western Isles in 1981
      • 15,723 Gaelic speakers in the Western Isles in 2001
      • 1,978 Gaelic speakers aged 3-15 in the Western Isles in 2001
        • Figures taken from the 1961 and 2001 censuses, and from Sgrud research for Bord na Gaidhlig.

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