To what end teaching Gaelic language?

25th July 2008 at 01:00

What does a country's attitude to teaching languages say about its political priorities and where it sees itself in the world? You reported on July 11 that Aberdeen University is to offer a joint honours degree in Gaelic and education to help revive the language by tackling the shortage of qualified teachers.

Contrast this with last year's decision to launch the first postgraduate diploma in Chinese Mandarin at Edinburgh University. With perfect timing, these new probationers are due to start teaching Chinese this August as the interest of the world, and the pupils, will be on the Olympics staged in Beijing.

Not only could these languages not have come from parts of the world further apart, the political thinking behind the decisions to invest in the teaching of these languages is also equally distant. Encouraging the teaching of Chinese in Scotland is responding to a demand from pupils, parents and the business community, arming Scots with the necessary tools to work in the new world economy where it will be important to speak the language of a new global power.

Encouraging more teachers of Gaelic, on the other hand, seems inward-looking, maintaining a language on the strength of patriotism rather than on educational value to the learner. It is almost as strange as planning to have Scottish football matches broadcast with commentary in Gaelic to an audience of mainly non-Gaelic speakers. Languages shouldn't need artificial resuscitation to keep them alive; they die out for a reason.

Not that I think, or hope, Gaelic will. It will be preserved in the way it has been for hundreds of years; passed down from family members, spoken in the home and listened to in songs, poems and stories.

The number of Gaelic speakers is falling rapidly, by more than 10 per cent since 1991 to below 60,000. Yet the number of pupils learning the language is on the increase - to what end? The real reason is to maintain a sense of cultural difference from the rest of the UK, which is not a great tool to take with you into the job market - unless you are going for a job in BBC Scotland.

Gordon Cairns, Haggs Road, Glasgow.

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