SCOTTISH Gaelic is at a crossroads. The language will likely reach a point of no return soon if there isn’t a radical change in policy.

In the Western Isles, Staffin and Tiree, just more than half of residents reported an ability to speak Gaelic in the 2011 census. However, in these areas less than 4% of preschool children were reported to understand Gaelic at a “fluent native” level, according to a study by the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Gaelic simply doesn’t have the demographic resources to survive as a communal language without a dramatic, community-focused shift in public policy before the end of the decade.

Many Gaelic advocates have recently placed hope in Gaelic Medium Education (GME) as a method of revitalising the language. Indeed, in Ireland, Irish Medium Education (IME) is often hailed as the Irish language movement’s greatest success.

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While GME has grown substantially in recent years, its development is modest compared to its Irish equivalent. In 2021, there were 5066 pupils enrolled in GME in Scotland. In contrast, more than 63,000 pupils attend IME in Ireland. This difference is even more acute at secondary level.

The vast majority of secondary schools providing GME only offer a limited number of subjects in Gaelic through internal Gaelic language units. In Ireland, 21 secondary schools in the Gaeltacht regions (where Irish ostensibly survives as a community language) are legally mandated to operate fully through Irish. Some 31 secondary schools outside the Gaeltacht also function fully through Irish, and 17 schools operate Irish medium units.

Immersive education at secondary level is particularly important for language retention as students gain a connection to the language as they enter adulthood. Studying a wider variety of complex subjects also enriches their vocabulary. While the achievements of IME are undoubtedly impressive, the sector still faces many obstacles which ought to be considered by Gaelic activists.

The education system

The education system as a whole has a massive effect on how immersion education functions. In the Republic, Irish is a compulsory subject for all students, with certain exemptions. While this measure enjoys broad public support, the methods used to teach the language are often criticised for being ineffective.

Still, Irish enjoys a much higher status in the education system compared to Gaelic and is a reasonably popular university subject. This in turn increases the number of potential teachers in IME.

While recruitment is still a massive challenge for the sector in Ireland, the problem is far more difficult in Scotland. Regardless of demand, it is unrealistic that GME could operate at an Irish scale in the short- to medium-term due to teacher supply.

In fact, the sector is struggling to maintain its current scale. Last year, a study authored by Dr Michael Foxley and Professor Bruce Robertson calculated that 225 new teachers would be needed to meet demand over the following five-year period. However, only 25 new teachers qualified that year. The paper also predicted that the situation was likely to get worse, with schools in rural and island communities being hit the hardest.

As such, the Scottish Government needs to develop radical new strategies to train teachers in Gaelic at both primary and secondary level. The present training system is only open to those with at least an intermediate level in the language. Given how few Gaelic speakers there actually are in the system, this is not a viable model.

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It might be worth developing a specialised intensive course aimed at potential teachers, even if they have no Gaelic. Many short intensive courses, such as those developed for missionaries of the Mormon Church, prove that it is possible to obtain high proficiency in a language in a relatively short time.

Indeed, the US military’s Language Institute models its programmes on the Mormon system. While this may sound like a dramatic step, given the tenuous nature of the situation there may be few alternatives.

Policymakers should also recognise the potential pitfalls of expanding GME. While emphasis is often placed on enrolment numbers, expanding the franchise without properly training more teachers will only place further stress on severely limited resources, ultimately undermining the system.

At present, many students technically enrolled in GME don’t actually attend Gaelic classes due to teaching vacancies. Many teachers also express frustration at their own proficiency in the language, citing a lack of support. This is particularly common in internal units where teachers can’t practise their Gaelic with other staff.

The curriculum

The curriculum itself also has a massive effect on language proficiency. All students in Ireland study the same curriculum for Irish regardless of what language is spoken in school.

As such, students in IME preparing for university may study Shakespeare and Yeats in their English classes but are still awarded marks in their Irish exams for being able for being able to say the bare minimum, such as: “My name is X, and my exam number is Y.”

This has a devastating impact on the standard of spoken Irish. In some Gaeltacht regions, community organisations are forced to facilitate resource classes for struggling native speakers whose educational needs are not met.

Outside the Gaeltacht, students in Irish-medium schools don’t achieve their potential either. Students learn nothing about Irish language phonetics and pronunciation, and little attention is given to how native speakers actually speak the language.

Most students and teachers in this setting tend to speak Irish using heavily Anglicised speech patterns, and often encounter difficulties when conversing with native speakers.

If GME is to achieve its potential in the context of language revival, it is imperative that the curriculum is flexible and attuned to the needs of both native and non-native speakers in the system. For non-native speakers, it would be extremely beneficial for Gaelic phonetics, elocution, and grammar to be incorporated into the curriculum so students can truly understand and articulate correct speech patterns.

IT may also be worth emulating Irish summer colleges. Every year in Ireland, thousands of teenagers stay with host families in the Gaeltacht to attend Irish classes and other cultural pursuits. Something like this could both provide students in GME with a valuable link to native speakers and also give an economic boost to communities where Gaelic is strongest.

Community Matters

While GME can play an extremely valuable role in strengthening Gaelic, it is important to recognise that the education system alone cannot revive the language.

The vast majority of students who attend GME will rarely feel compelled to use Gaelic once they leave school. It is crucial that the sector co-operates with other Gaelic organisations to imbue students with a sense of belonging to a linguistic community. Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in Northern Ireland. For a variety of complex historical and political reasons, Irish language activists there have traditionally had a difficult relationship with the state.

Emphasis was therefore placed on developing independent grassroots initiatives to promote the language. In recent years, many of these initiatives have benefited from infrastructure projects aimed at developing community facilities with an Irish language ethos.

In West Belfast there is now a vibrant urban Irish-speaking community. Several arts centres, music venues, youth clubs, sports teams, and community festivals in the area operate through Irish, and students in IME benefit from this.

Access to a community provides a social incentive for students to continue using Irish after they leave school. Today, there are far more opportunities to order a coffee or a pint through Irish in Belfast than in Dublin, despite the former having a far more modest intake of IME students.

It is worth remembering that most of this success stems from the initiative of independent activists, who did not require permission from the state. Virtually all concessions won by the Irish language movement in recent decades have come from community-led grassroots activism, not the government. Indeed, the Gaelscoil movement, which manages IME schools in non-Gaeltacht areas, was established in response to government unwillingness to support Irish in the education system.

Emotional difficulties

Feelings of inferiority, awkwardness, disillusionment, and uncertainty often negatively affect speakers of minority languages. If Gaelic is to thrive, these feelings need to be addressed.

While it is important to be positive, real positivity does not mean that difficult, painful, or contentious issues are ignored. Such issues should be tackled with honesty, mutual understanding, and respect.

Among both Irish and Gaelic and speakers, accusations of “snobbery” and “elitism” are not uncommon and often result in shame and resentment. A few years ago, a young journalist who previously attended IME made headlines in Ireland for criticising the “elitism” of those who disparaged her “Dublin Irish”.

She insisted she was “gonna speak Irish the way that I learned it”. In a subsequent interview, she also criticised the prominence of people from the Gaeltacht in Irish language media, stating it was “difficult to understand them” – l=Tuairisc

It is useful to consider this incident from a variety of perspectives.

It is wrong to chastise people for making mistakes in any language. The journalist was expressing real and valid frustrations experienced by many non-native Irish speakers. However, it is also valid to point out that languages have rules that can’t simply be ignored. With regards to learners of French or German, it is uncontroversial to suggest that they should strive to understand and adopt the speech patterns of native speakers. Why should Irish or Gaelic be any different?

The best way GME can develop confident, empowered Gaelic speakers is by enabling students to achieve as high a standard as possible in the language. Knowledge is power.

The reality of the situation is that the journalist in question was criticised for lacking linguistic skills that are simply not taught at school, and rarely taught at university either. This does not create the conditions for developing self-assured speakers who can interact with native speakers.

Even if it is sometimes difficult, it is imperative that minority language advocates are willing to critically evaluate all aspects of the education system and honestly identify certain blind spots. If the state and universities can’t provide sufficient support, it may be necessary for activists to independently develop informal educational resources. It is not elitist to strive for high standards in a language, provided such standards are made accessible.

The author of this article would like to thank Dr Kerron Ó Luain for his valuable insights and assistance.

Dr Ó Luain is an expert on the history of Irish Medium Education and an Irish Research Council Fellow at Dublin City University