It was announced recently that the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) Council will automatically enrol primary school children to be taught in Scottish Gaelic unless parents specifically opt to have their child educated in English only.
Gaelic Medium Education (GME), which sees pupils taught primarily in the language, is currently a popular choice in the Western Isles – nearly 40% of children already attend GME. The Council’s decision represents a change in attitude towards an increased promotion of Gaelic and the benefits of a bilingual education.
In lowland Scotland, too, Gaelic Medium Education is expanding rapidly as more and more parents use their right to request GME for their children. In Glasgow, there are currently three GME primary schools and plans to build a fourth, as well as a long-established secondary school. There is one GME primary school in Edinburgh, with plans for another and a secondary school.
At the same time as the expansion of GME, interest in learning Gaelic as a second language has soared. More than 170,000 people are using the new Gaelic Duolingo course since its launch in late 2019. This represents a far larger number than the reported 57,600 speakers of Gaelic in Scotland at the most recent census.
Maintaining this interest and increasing the number of speakers will be crucial for Gaelic to continue as a living and breathing language of Scotland. Census figures have shown a decline in speaker numbers, although this did plateau in the 2011 data and even showed an increase in the youngest age group.
My research on GME pupils and adult second language users of Gaelic has shown that these streams can be successful in enabling speakers to become fluent. For example, in some aspects of speech GME pupils who do not come from Gaelic-speaking households cannot be distinguished from pupils who have two parents who speak Gaelic. Many of the important positions in Gaelic development and politics are held by adults who learnt Gaelic as an additional language and have become language experts.
As well as strengthening Gaelic in its traditional heartlands of the Western Isles and Highland areas, the availability of GME and language revitalisation strategies in lowland Scotland has led to new linguistic variation. Lowland Gaelic speakers develop their own unique ways of using Gaelic as it adapts for the 21st century. For example, the distinctive rising intonation of Glasgow English is also used in Glasgow Gaelic.
While many of Scotland’s parents, second language learners, Gaelic speakers and Gaelic planners support Gaelic and expansion of the GME system, that support is not universal. Last week, a member of the Scottish parliament remarked that GME might harm a child’s educational progress due to the comparative lack of English in the early years curriculum.
These comments have been shown to have no basis in fact. Academic research demonstrates that GME pupils have at least as good and often higher attainment in all subjects – including English. Moreover, the Gaelic secondary school in Glasgow is regularly among the highest-achieving state schools in Scotland.
Comments such as these stem from two sources. The first is the historical persecution of Gaelic language and culture, which has its roots in medieval Scotland due to changes in court language, religion and political loyalties. Marginalisation of Gaelic continued throughout the industrial revolution, and as recently as the 20th century children were punished for speaking Gaelic in school.
The second source of this negativity is the misconception that a bilingual upbringing may harm a child’s linguistic development. Multiple studies have now shown that bilingualism does not hold back a child’s educational attainment. While linguistic development trajectories will differ in monolingual and bilingual children, overall outcomes are excellent.
Gaelic Medium Education provides not only an opportunity for children to become bilingual – and access multiple employment opportunities in both their languages – but also the chance to become bicultural. Bicultural individuals are able to negotiate the social practices of both their cultures and may be at an advantage in understanding different perspectives. This is surely an asset in a globalised world.
Gaelic is unique to Scotland and those acquiring the language have an unrivalled opportunity to access Gaelic culture through the language’s long literary and musical traditions. Those who learn Gaelic may become more aware of the languages’s significance in Scotland’s history such as the Gaelic-speaking clans, the Jacobite rebellions and the Highland Clearances.
Even Scotland’s name originates in a word referring to Gaelic speakers. This unique cultural heritage is not only of benefit to those acquiring Gaelic, but is widely recognised as an economic asset for Scotland.
The Western Isles Council has made a clear shift of perspective in deciding to automatically enrol children in Gaelic Medium Education. Their decision reflects prevailing parental opinion, and also provides young people with the valuable opportunity to become bilingual and bicultural citizens.