SCOTLAND should follow the lead of other countries on minority languages by making Gaelic compulsory in all schools, an expert has argued.

Dr Riitta-Liisa Valijärvi, a principal teaching fellow at University College London, said the move would ensure children enjoy the benefits of learning another language.

She pointed to the example of Finland, where all children are taught “a little bit” of Swedish even though it is spoken by a minority in the country, as well as Ireland and Wales which have compulsory learning of Irish and Welsh in schools.

The issue of Gaelic language is under the spotlight after it was announced last week that children starting school in the Western Isles this summer will be taught in the language unless their parents opt out.

Tory MSP Liz Smith provoked a furious reaction after branding it a “deeply troubling step” and claiming it could put children at a disadvantage. Her comments were dismissed as “ignorant” and “offensive” by SNP and Green MSPs.

The National: Liz SmithLiz Smith

Valijärvi, who has worked on Sámi languages which are spoken in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, as well as Greenlandic, told the Sunday National there was an “unfortunate attitude” questioning the need to learn other languages in English-speaking countries.

She said: “But if you make it obligatory, you can learn so many languages as a child – it is not time wasted and little extra effort for children.

“It is very good for you, it has been shown that bilingual kids have better results in maths and other subjects, as it is really good for your cognition.

“I would say [make Gaelic obligatory] across the whole of Scotland – why not? It doesn’t need to be five hours a week.

“What they do in Finland is start at the age of 13 with Swedish, but it is a little bit every week.”

She added: “They do it in Ireland and Wales – everyone has to learn a bit, so why not in Scotland?”

Valijärvi will be one of the speakers at a discussion organised by The Finnish Institute on preserving minority languages in Scotland, Finland and Sweden, taking place in Glasgow on Friday.

Earlier this year, it emerged that double the number of people in Scotland who already speak Gaelic have signed up to learn the language on the popular app Duolingo.

There have been more than 127,000 sign-ups, 80% of which come from Scotland.

Valijärvi said raising the status of a minority language in society could have a positive impact on its use in the home.

“This has happened, for example, currently in Sweden where it is almost trendy to be of Sámi heritage or Finnish heritage and there is a lot of positive media coverage,” she said.

“Having very positive coverage, with lots of TV and radio programmes in the language and digital resources, increases the desire for young people to learn and it becomes natural to speak it in public. Whereas perhaps before the parents’ generation or grandparents’ generation were ashamed and didn’t want to use it or were even punished for using it.”

Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University, who will also be speaking at The Finnish Institute event, said there was a belief that some languages are more important than others.

The National: Antonella SoraceAntonella Sorace

She said: “My mother, for example, was from Sardinia where they speak Sardinian, but she never spoke it to me because she thought I had to learn English.

“It is the idea that if you have Sardinian in the brain – a ‘useless’ language – you don’t have enough space to develop other things, which is exactly the opposite of what research shows.

“What actually matters is having more than one language in the brain, not which languages these are and how many people speak them.”

She added: “There is a culture behind each language so of course maintaining linguistic diversity also means maintaining cultural diversity and we should all be really interested in that.”