The threat to the future of Gaelic

What's the Gaelic for ''can of worms''? Because it's time to open one up by asking tough questions of the Gaelic lobby. Number one is why are we failing to save the language and failing badly in spite of massively increased resources?
In 1991, when the census figures revealed a drop in the number of Gaelic speakers from around 79,000 to 67,000, there was consternation. Government had to do more, it was said, to save the ancient language which held the key to understanding the hearts and minds, the songs and poems, of our Celtic forebears.

The amount of money handed out to a range of Gaelic organisations was increased from about (pounds) 1.5m in 1991 to around (pounds) 12m the next year, continuing to rise slightly to almost (pounds) 13m last year. Within that a growing amount was handed over to education – (pounds) 3.5m last year.
That substantial figure does not even include the cost of running Scotland’s 59 primary and several secondary Gaelic units, of transporting pupils, hiring teachers, and employing Gaelic development officers to boost numbers. That is underwritten by local authorities.
Although the Scottish Qualifications Authority has denied planning to axe the two Gaelic Highers, the numbers taking one of the examinations has fallen to a paltry 460. Now it appears the 2001 census is likely to reveal that the slippage in Gaelic speakers has continued at roughly the same rate as before, with a figure of 55,000 or fewer expected, according to Donald Martin, chief executive of Comunn na Gaidhlig.
It is legitimate to regard this figure as extremely disappointing. We need to ask now, have mistakes been made? Are there tests to assess the effectiveness of resource allocation, or has the debate been settled according to who has the loudest voice?
Whereas Celtic neighbours like Wales and Ireland have succeeded in turning around their language slide, it seems that Gaelic in Scotland is more and more the property of a small self-selecting elite, almost a private club. Non-native speakers are referred to as ”learners”, however fluent they may be, and complain they were not even represented on the Macpherson committee, whose report to the Scottish Parliament was torn apart by Gaelic academics Alasdair Maccaluim and Wilson McLeod. They called it ”less than adequate” and said ”the taskforce’s recommendations are unacceptably vague and ambiguous and the argument and factual information . . . are sketchy and inadequate”.
After the failure of the Macpherson report another task force led by Professor Donald Meek was set up, and its report is due out next month. It is likely to call for a law to protect the status of Gaelic and an increase in resources. But is there any evidence this would be effective?
Has there been an over-emphasis on Gaelic-medium education? It has become a dogma among Gaelic activists that this is the only way to produce fluent speakers. They quote the example of French and German teaching in school, not famous for its effectiveness. Nevertheless, this kind of teaching was the basis for the revolution in Ireland, where a first generation achieved familiarity with the language in mainstream school with immersion teaching in summer schools long before Gaelic- medium units really took off.
The current situation in Scotland is that for children whose parents don’t take the decision to educate them in Gaelic at five, there is very little opportunity to study the language. There were high hopes for Gaelic medium 10 years ago when the first units were opened. But the numbers have stabilised at well under 2000. Despite having a full-time Gaelic development officer, Aberdeen admitted only seven children to primary one last year; Perth, which also has a Gaelic officer, gained one. Two new units are opening in the Highlands – but neither can muster even the four children which Highland Council policy says is the minimum.
Activists cite a shortage of teachers – but this is not the full story. Most of the units in Scotland have spare capacity which is not being filled. A careful scrutiny of the numbers also shows that if you trace each year going up through each unit, a sizeable proportion are dropping out – 71 last year, almost 5%. There is no follow-up as to why they are disappearing. The Gaelic lobbyists put it down to families moving house.
But a debate in the letter columns of an Edinburgh evening paper recently turned up several families who had removed their children because they had concerns about how they were coping, mostly families who had little or no Gaelic. They were attracted to the idea of a broad educational experience with small classes, and by a report showing children doing better in some subjects. But another less-publicised report, by the General Teaching Council, raised concerns such as the problems of teaching native speakers and non-speakers together.
For whatever reason, many of the small number who start are withdrawn, and there are fewer than 20 students in Edinburgh’s secondary Gaelic unit. Even in the Western Isles only 30% of children are sent to Gaelic-medium schools. Glasgow has the first separate school, which cost (pounds) 300,000 to set up. Numbers have increased there – but only by about 20.
Is it right to spend so much on such a tiny number while tens of thousands of children in mainstream education have little opportunity to learn Gaelic? A way must be found to prise open the tin can which is the self-sufficient and sometimes insular Gaelic community in Scotland and open it up to the nation’s children. It has to be a heritage which every Scot can lay claim to or it will not survive.

The Scottish Herald
May 1st 2002