Why are we stuck on the Celtic fringe?

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
To keep Gaelic alive requires legislation on broadcasting and education, says Michael Russell.

The media thrives on anniversaries. Last year marked 80 years of broadcasting in Scotland, and the BBC was not blate at blowing its own trumpet. Now the Celtic Film and Television Festival - which still styles itself as the "premier gathering for film and television professionals in the Celtic countries" - is celebrating its quarter century during these first few days of April, with a wide-ranging series of events taking place in Dundee.

Having been in some way responsible for starting this jamboree off, I am looking forward to attending the event and in particular to the gala dinner on the last night which will bring together many of those who have worked on the festival as it developed over what seems (to me at least) like a lifetime. But, celebration aside, that evening might also be the right occasion not only to look back, but to look around and discover if the situation of our own Celtic language has improved much over the years.

In the early 1980s, there was a widespread belief that the influence of an English-dominated media - and particularly television - was a major factor in the erosion of Gaelic. More production in Gaelic was seen as being a vital counterweight to such pressure and the original festival in Iochdar in South Uist was an important step in bringing to bear on Scottish minds views of this topic from other places that were also experiencing language attrition.

The first festival was followed - a year later - by one in Harlech in North Wales and then a third in 1982 in Wexford. By this stage Wales was well on the route to establishing a full-time Welsh language television service but it took almost another decade until the Gaelic Television Committee was set up, with pound;9.5 million of public money and a legislative guarantee that programmes produced with the money would be seen on prime-time television.

The festivals continued. Ireland got its own dedicated channel before the end of the 1990s and even Brittany has followed suit. But whereas the language has flourished in Wales, and at the very least bottomed out in Ireland, things are much less rosy in Scotland. The fall in the number of Gaelic speakers continues, even if the pace of that decline has slowed a bit. The number of children in Gaelic-medium education has risen, but there is still no legal right for parents to choose such education and the number of schools in which Gaelic is made available as a second language has actually declined - a neglected but essential element in any overall package. Gaelic-medium teachers are as rare as gold-dust.

Of course, we still do not have a full-time Gaelic television channel.

Certainly investment in minority language broadcasting has been half-hearted - the money available is in real terms about a fifth less than it was 10 years ago - and the administration of the fund has been bureaucratic and narrow. The legislation was deeply flawed, with mainstream broadcasters quickly shrugging off their responsibilities.

But the presence of a minority language channel is only one factor in language revival and a report last week from the Council of Europe, which is monitoring UK compliance with the Charter on Minority Languages, asserts that the Scottish Executive is failing to meet its obligations to Gaelic (and Scots) across the board. Wales has an effective language Act, backed by government. Scotland still does not. Wales also has a flourishing Welsh-medium school sector in secondary as well as primary: Scotland's Gaelic-medium secondary sector is tiny and its primary sector constrained by bad government planning and complacent self-satisfaction about what has been achieved to date.

Modern methods of teaching adults a minority language to fluency are also largely absent in Scotland. Experience throughout the world shows that, for example, language-medium education can be much more effective if parents are taught as well (many children going into Gaelic-medium education have non-Gaelic-speaking parents).

The revival of the Hawaiian language - which was virtually extinct - was greatly aided by a regulation that required parents seeking Hawaiian-medium schooling for their children to agree to sign on for lessons themselves.

Such is the peril in which Gaelic finds itself that it will never be enough simply to create a new generation of speakers through the schools: there will have to be a revival among adults as well. But there is no government thinking on this matter at all.

In terms of bangs for bucks, the most benefit in language revival comes from education and then from radio. Television lies a distant third, but that is no reason to reduce the amount of television: quite the reverse.

Television can be used for education and to provide a more varied set of career and development opportunities for aspiring media professionals.

None the less, without a substantial boost in education, the money spent on television may just be wasted. I hope that in Dundee the film and television professionals who gather to celebrate their own long-running event will take at least a few moments to mull that fact over. A declaration from them that increased resources and increased effort in education would benefit their own profession as well as the languages they serve would be greatly helpful at the present moment, as the Executive considers responses to its draft Bill and puts together the final legislation.

That legislation presently mentions neither education nor broadcasting and, without attention to both, it will fall far short of what is required.

Should such a Bill be the Scottish Executive's final offering then - 25 years on from here - the 50th festival will still be talking about the decline of the language in Scotland, and still comparing our situation unfavourably with that which pertains elsewhere. Meanwhile we will have even less of the language to save.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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