GAELIC should be preserved and taught in Scotland as learning different languages can improve mental performance, according to an expert from the University of Edinburgh.

Campaigners and Gaelic activists have backed the comments made by the languages professor, calling for further investment into the teaching of the Celtic language.

Professor Antonella Sorace is currently investigating the benefits of studying minority languages, and has claimed recent tests show just how much of an effect learning a new language can have.

Loading article content

Previous studies in bilingualism have shown that learning two languages can improve learning ability and attention span and slow down long-term mental decline.

In the recent study, Sorace looked at a group of retired people undergoing a one-week intensive course in Gaelic on the Isle of Skye.

The professor, who founded the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh, found that compared with other individuals not doing languages courses, the group showed improvements in tests of attention and thinking.

Sorace explained that although the people in the study did not become fluent in Gaelic over the following year, the novelty of the task and the effort applied led to their brains responding well.

“Many of these languages are not valued and so they are not supported,” the professor said at a US-based conference.

“People think they are useless, so people don’t speak them to their children. If we can find a way of persuading people that these languages are actually a resource, rather than a problem, or folklore, or something that belongs to the past, then we can help these languages to survive a little bit longer and children can have the benefits of bilingualism.”

Since the turn of the 20th century, the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has been in a steady decline, with only 1.1 per cent of the population able to speak Gaelic in 2011.

MSP and pro-Gaelic campaigner Mike Russell welcomed the latest study, but said investment in Gaelic teaching was crucial to the development of the language.

Russell said: “All the studies I’ve ever seen show the benefit of bilingualism, and if this study confirms that yet again then quite clearly we want to get very serious about making sure children throughout Scotland get the benefit of a second language.

“Gaelic is very useful, as is learning any language. We need to train more Gaelic teachers to help encourage the learning of Gaelic, allowing people to get involved with things such as Gaelic television. There are lots of opportunities and I would be very keen to see it expand, and the way to make it expand is to carry on investing in Gaelic-medium education."

The National’s Gaelic columnist Calum Macleoid supported Russell’s calls for greater teacher numbers, but said that education was not a “silver bullet”.

“I think they should [increase teacher numbers], and more could be done to incentivise Gaelic speakers leaving education to consider teaching for a few years at least,” Macleoid said.

"However, education alone is not the answer. I went to a Gaelic- medium primary and a secondary that offered a number of courses in the language, and yet the number of my classmates who are still capable of using Gaelic, let alone using it on a daily basis, is very low.

“I think it is obvious that we have to normalise the use of the language at all levels of life in Scotland, and also create spaces and opportunities which are uniquely and solely Gaelic.”