Wales can show us the way

6th February 2004 at 00:00
For the past four years, all pupils aged 5-16 in Wales have been compelled to learn Welsh, but not necessarily through immersion or partial immersion in primary or secondary. A few lessons a week is a standard format for many and the language has blossomed since it was given legal status. In Scotland, the Gaelic lobby has been vocal, influential and successful since the arrival of our Parliament and is shortly to win the same legal status.

It is a long way short of the Welsh situation, which it envies, and a far cry from winning compulsory Gaelic in schools. Indeed it is doubtful if it will ever gain that level of community support.

Legal status, however, is predicted to mark a turning point. But as key figures have repeatedly insisted, any further revival hinges on attracting enough teachers. So far, the principal focus has been on Gaelic-medium education. At last, some refreshing honesty is emerging. There simply are not the students available, ready to commit themselves to careers in Gaelic teaching. Places on university training courses remain unfilled and a mere handful of secondary Gaelic specialists emerge each year. Different approaches to training may yield more but don't hold your breath for mass recruitment.

What we can do is borrow again from Wales. An impressive one in four primary pupils in Wales learns through bilingual education and one in five secondary pupils. That leaves the clear majority in English-speaking schools but with Welsh as a second native language. The emergence in Scotland of existing teachers willing to learn Gaelic and impart their new-found knowledge to pupils in primary marks a significant change in thinking. It is a more limited approach and will not produce fluent speakers but it might open minds and help to establish the "critical mass" that the language needs.

Significantly, this is a teacher-driven initiative and that matters.

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