Examining the sudden popularity surrounding a once dying language.
In July of this year, The Guardian released an article casting a very gloomy cloud over the Gaelic speaking community, titled “Scots Gaelic could die out within a decade.” The article went on to describe how Gaelic is only used routinely by a “diminishing number of elderly islanders.” This kick-started a series of articles by different newspapers and news outlets, claiming that the death of Gaelic was on the horizon. Sadly, it seems that articles and headlines as such are nothing out of the ordinary to Gaelic speakers and the Gaelic speaking community. As a Gaelic speaker, who funnily enough isn’t an elderly islander, I’ve grown up already aware of the prejudice that was associated with Gaelic both historically and in our current society today. Of course, what was once a very popular and widely spoken language here in Scotland is not in the healthy state that it once was. However, is Scottish Gaelic truly taking its last living breaths? Or is the language facing a steady revival, slowly but surely making a comeback?
Gaelic language and culture has, of course, had to leap many hurdles in its time. A cruel combination of colonisation, clearances, and both the Acts of Proscription of 1746 and the Education Scotland Act of 1872; which not only saw Gaelic language banned in Scottish schools, but also outlawed the wearing of kilts/tartan, and the playing of bagpipes. These ultimately led to a progressive decline of the language, from being a principle tongue in Scotland to a UNESCO endangered language. However, despite Gaelic’s unfortunate past, a small number of speakers managed to resist oppression and persisted onto paving a new future for the language in Scotland. In 2005, the Scottish parliament passed an act that set out to protect Gaelic as one of the national languages of Scotland. And since the passing of this Act, there has been a large increase in young people learning the language through Gaelic Medium Education (GME). Here in Glasgow, there has been a massive demand for GME with multiple Gaelic primary schools cropping up over the city after The Glasgow Gaelic School, or Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu’s, success in educating children from primary school all the way through to their final year of high school. The Glasgow Gaelic School sits just a stone's throw away from our Gilmorehill campus and is existing evidence that Gaelic can exist and thrive in our Central Belt schools and communities once again. It is through this encouraging appetite for more Gaelic medium education for young people in Glasgow that our city has earned the unofficial title as the mainland capital of Gaelic. Glasgow is rich in Gaelic culture and language, from both past and present, and examples of our language, music, and traditions can be seen flourishing across the city today.
The launch of Scottish Gaelic on the popular language learning app Duolingo was also a massive accomplishment for the language that is only spoken by approximately 60,000 people today. Scottish Gaelic launched on Duolingo in November of 2019 and recently celebrated a magnificent milestone of half a million course users. This platform has provided Gaelic with a global stage and allowed for it to be placed on a pedestal similar to its related Celtic languages like Irish and Welsh which have also proved to be very successful on Duolingo. Most importantly, the accessibility of the app has meant that people from all backgrounds and experiences can be encouraged to learn some of the basics of Scottish Gaelic and get a grasp on the language through an extremely user-friendly and interactive app.
So why are we still seeing negative articles and headlines about the progression of Gaelic?
In their aforementioned article, The Guardian notes that in a study carried out by the University of the Highlands and Islands, it was discovered that only 11,000 people were habitual Gaelic speakers. As a Gaelic speaker, I have to hold my hands up and say that when I am not at University with Gaelic speaking friends, that the habitual use of the language is not high up on my priority list. However, I don’t actually see a problem with this number. To me it seems absurd that there is immediate pessimism over the language due to how often it's spoken in our daily lives. Shockingly, the world and society around me favours English, and if I were to walk into any shop, pub, or restaurant speaking in Gaelic, I probably wouldn’t get very far. For myself, and many other Gaelic speakers, we come from families who are still dealing with the years of language oppression, and the same prejudice they faced in their schools and communities. Many of whom, my parents included, were not educated through Gaelic due to the false stigma created in an attempt to ensure its decline over the years. In Glasgow now, around 80% of families who send their children to Gaelic schools do not have any previous knowledge or connection to the language, meaning that habitual use of the language is usually not an option.
However, does this really have to be as negative a picture as it’s often painted to be? I personally see this as a huge success for the language, as it proves that Gaelic Medium Education is accessible and appealing to families from all walks of life, especially those who have no previous ties to the language. The first-generation Gaelic speakers that we’re seeing today are creating a brand new image for what it means to be a Gael, and are paving the way to revive Gaelic language and culture in a modernised fashion that can co-exist and thrive in a multi-cultural and diverse Scotland.
Perhaps I am biased, and I’m looking at the current state of Gaelic, and its future, through rose tinted glasses. However, I truly believe that the Gaelic speaking community is due some optimism about our future, which at times can feel bleak. I refuse to read another article claiming the imminent death of our beloved language, for we owe it to every Gael who fought against their language being stolen from their lips, to carry the same optimism for the language that they did. The recent news of Gaelic´s success on Duolingo, and the evident increase and demand for Gaelic in our schools pave a very exciting and bright path for the future of Gaelic and its speakers. Gaelic’s not dead or dying, and it's just as alive as the people who speak it – Suas Leis a’ Ghàidhlig!