Last week a report was published which claimed that Gaelic is rapidly headed towards extinction in its remaining heartlands. This isn’t news to anyone who has been following the linguistic literature on language endangerment. Reports of the imminent extinction of the Gaelic language are not new, in 2000 a study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands claimed that Gaelic, along with all other minority languages in Europe with fewer than 100,000 speakers, would be extinct by the end of this century. In the 2008 book The Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages by Christopher Mosley, a comprehensive listing for linguists of languages which are threatened with extinction, Scottish Gaelic was listed as ‘definitely endangered’. Back in the 1970s, the respected linguist WB Lockwood wrote in his book Languages of the British Isles Past and Present that Gaelic would die out during the 21st century.
The most recent report into the viability of the Gaelic language comes from University of the Highlands and Islands Sciences Institute and is entitled “The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic”. A summary of the findings of the report is available here – http://www.soillse.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/Research-NoteGe%C3%A0rr-BEURLA.pdf The report sparked off apocalyptic headlines claiming that the language would be extinct by the end of this decade and that it only had 11,000 elderly speakers remaining, but that’s not quite what it said exactly.
What the report found was that there is a crisis in the maintenance of Gaelic among those communities where until recently the language remained a majority language. In those communities there remain just 11000 people who habitually use the language in the traditionally Gaelic speaking communities of Staffin in Skye, the Western Isles, and the Isle of Tiree. The number of people who actually speak the language is far higher, but most of those people do not use the language as their primary means of expression and communication.
The report confirmed what observers of the language have noted for a long time. There is a marked reluctance among native Gaelic speakers to use the language, especially the younger generations. This is a product of many generations of the language being deprecated, insulted, abused, underfunded, and at times actively persecuted. Scotland has not invested the social capital into the language which is required for its survival as the daily language of a distinct geographically based community.
These days when you visit traditionally Gaelic speaking areas, places where very recently the language was spoken by a substantial majority of residents, you often scarcely hear the language being spoken at all. On a trip to Islay a while ago, I didn’t hear anyone speaking Gaelic. The same happened on trips to Skye during the past couple of years. This is very different from a visit to the Welsh-speaking heartlands in the north and west of Wales. When visiting Caernarfon a couple of years ago, the Welsh language was widely spoken on the streets and when going into a shop the staff would naturally address customers in Welsh, only switching to English when it was clear I didn’t understand. That would never happen even in those remaining communities where Gaelic is still the language of the majority. Gaelic speakers never assume that a stranger speaks the language.
Some years ago a Welsh speaking friend was involved in a nursery school project in Scotland to establish immersion classes in Gaelic in nursery education. The idea was to introduce the Gaelic language to young children through play, the way that kids normally pick up their native language. The project employed a number of nursery teachers who were either native speakers of Gaelic or had native level fluency. My friend was shocked to discover that although the nursery teachers used Gaelic with the children in the class, on breaks they spoke English among themselves. This kind of experience is not unusual in the Gaelic speaking world.
There is a surge of interest in the Gaelic language in Scotland nowadays, however that surge has yet to translate into a substantial body of fluent speakers who are committed to passing on the language as a native tongue. The sad fact is that Scotland simply has not invested sufficient social capital in the language in order for this to happen.
In terms of language maintenance, social capital means a number of different things. Firstly it means education about the language and its importance. This is fundamental. You have to give people a reason to want to learn and use a language. Personally I have never been in favour of compulsory Gaelic classes, but it should be compulsory for Scottish schools to educate children about the linguistic history of Scotland and the role that Gaelic, Scots and other languages have played in this country. That would mean at least we’d hear the end of people from towns and villages with clearly Gaelic names popping up and claiming that “Gaelic was never spoken here”. When there is a substantial group of people in a country who reject the historical truth that the language was once actually spoken across the great majority of Scotland, Gaelic is at an immediate disadvantage.
Education about the history of language in Scotland would mean an end to the “Polish klaxon”. Again whenever Gaelic is discussed someone pops up to claim that Polish has more speakers in Scotland than Gaelic does, and is therefore more important and deserving of institutional support. This ignores the obvious. Polish has millions of speakers in Poland, where the demographic and cultural heart of the Polish language lies. Polish speakers in Scotland can and should be encouraged and supported in efforts to maintain their language, but in order to do so they can make use of resources produced in Poland. There are books, movies, TV shows, music, internet sites, radio, podcasts, etc etc in the Polish language, all of which are available to the Polish community here in Scotland. Gaelic (and Scots) stands or falls by what is produced for it here in Scotland.
This brings us on to the most important form of social capital, resources in the language. Gaelic still lacks many fundamental and basic resources which are necessary for a language to survive and thrive. English has hundreds of TV channels, Gaelic has one part time one. There are few Gaelic novels. There are few Gaelic drama series. Gaelic language movies are all but non-existent. There is no Gaelic daily newspaper. Gaelic music is typically restricted to more traditional or traditionally influenced genres – that’s not going to appeal to a Gaelic speaking teenager who is in love with hip hop.
A capitalist system isn’t going to produce these resources for the Gaelic language. There simply isn’t profit in it. The only way to produce them is with massive government investment. It’s only when Gaelic speakers are able to access through the medium of Gaelic everything that their English speaking counterparts can access that we can hope to reverse the drift from Gaelic to English as the everyday spoken language. However in order to ensure that investment will not encounter protests from those who claim “but Polish!” or “Never spoken here!” there first needs to be investment in education about the importance of the language. The problem is that we’re running out of time to save Gaelic as a community language. Sadly, it’s probably already too late.
The good news is that Gaelic is not going to become extinct within the next decade. There will still be native speakers of the language, and there will still be people who have native or near native levels of fluency. There will still be families who are bringing their children up as Gaelic speakers. However what the language is going to lose, indeed what it’s already lost, are geographically based communities where it is expected that a majority of local residents are fluent in the language.
If we want to ensure that the future of Gaelic is something more than a heritage language which is only used symbolically, or that it has a future as a language with a large and confident body of speakers, it’s going to take a lot more assertiveness from the Scottish Government about promoting the language, and a greater willingness to challenge the wilfully ignorant who claim that Gaelic is a dead language and who are hell bent on ensuring that it does die out. The fate of Gaelic is in our hands.
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