“Educating pupils in Gaelic could harm academic achievement say Scottish Tories” - Scotsman tweet January 23, 2020


THERE are no plans for compulsory Gaelic-medium education – only that P1 pupils in the Western Isles should be taught in Gaelic as a right and that all pupils will be bilingual after P4.

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Bilingualism is an advantage, not a disadvantage.


ACCORDING to Liz Smith MSP, the Scottish Conservative shadow education spokesperson, children’s education could suffer when Gaelic becomes the de facto main teaching language for all P1 pupils in the Western Isles this summer. Smith describes the new policy as a “deeply troubling step and one that could put children in the Western Isles at a distinct disadvantage to their peers”.


SMITH is factually wrong on several counts. To start with, Gaelic is not being imposed on any pupil. The change in policy only switches the onus for opting out. To date, parents had to opt into Gaelic-medium education (GME) on the islands, where lessons in English were the default. But the steady rise in demand for GME has reached the stage where a majority want to opt in.

The National: Gaelic street sign in CumnockGaelic street sign in Cumnock

As a result, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) has decided to switch to GME as the default P1 teaching language and ask parents to opt out – it is the only council to do so. However, P1 pupils will still be instructed mainly in English if their parents request it. For all pupils, instruction in English will be introduced at P4 with the aim of giving children a bilingual education.


WILL the policy of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to make children bilingual in Gaelic and English result in any disadvantage for pupils? On the contrary, more than half of all people on the planet – estimates vary from 60 to 75% – speak at least two languages. The benefits of bi- and multilingualism are obvious: extended cultural awareness, improved job prospects, ease of travel and numerous cognitive gains ranging from better memory and defence against dementia.

Though the benefits of learning a second or more language seem intuitive, is there in fact any scientific proof it is so? The answer is yes. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh published the results of a major study into the cognitive effects of learning one or more extra languages in 2014. The researchers looked at a group of 853 people who had been given intelligence tests in 1947 at the age of 11 and were then retested when they were in their 70s. Almost a third of the cohort spoke a second language.

The Edinburgh University researchers found that people speaking two languages (bilingual) performed significantly better than predicted from their baseline cognitive abilities at the age of 11. The strongest associations were seen in tests of general intelligence and reading. The researchers concluded that their results suggest a protective effect of bilingualism against age-related cognitive decline independent of childhood intelligence, including in those who acquired their second language in adulthood.


IS learning Gaelic a disadvantage over, say, learning any other language? Certainly, the global Gaelic-speaking community is small in comparison to other language groups. According to the 2011 census, there are 57,000 native Gaelic speakers, while some 87,000 people in total claim some knowledge of the language.

On the other hand, Gaelic is a growing language community. Between 2014 and 2018, GME has grown from 3583 pupils 
(5.3 per 1000) to 4343 pupils (6.3 per 1000). GME is already taught in dedicated Gaelic primary schools in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Portree in Skye, Inverness and Lochaber and in units within English-medium schools across Scotland. Edinburgh Council is to open a second GME primary school in 2023 and a secondary GME in 2024.

Gaelic also has a vibrant written and performed culture and represents a distinct Scottish historic community that has influenced the entire Scottish nation.

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From that perspective, no-one can possibly be “disadvantaged” by knowing Gaelic. Speaking Gaelic did not disadvantage people such as the banker Sir Iain Noble, former energy minister Brian Wilson, former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, President Trump’s mother Mary Anne MacLeod, Donnie Munro of the band Runrig, novelist Alistair MacLean who sold 150 books in English despite that being his second tongue, iconic cartoonist Ewen Bain, Karachi-born TV presenter Ali Abbasi and famous poets Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean (above).


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