By Paul Kearns MCIL CL
On Saturday 17 November, members of the Scottish Society were delighted to meet to hear a presentation on ‘Gaelic Education and Language Planning’ by Andrew O’Halloran, a modern languages teacher with more than twenty years’ experience and author of the Dumfries and Galloway Gaelic Language Plan. The presentation started by explaining the extent to which Gaelic was spoken in different areas of Scotland having arrived from Ireland before Christianity.
The speaker highlighted factors that sustained Gaelic as a national language, which existed alongside Scots, such as the political structures at the time, crofting and fishing as well as the church. However, political, economic and demographic changes eventually meant that the influence of Gaelic was slowly undermined.
Despite this, the Gaelic language was embedded in Scottish society in a unique way - it was interesting to learn that you could effectively travel across Scotland without a map but navigate the country’s geographical features just by knowing the origin of place names, which are often a mixture of different linguistic roots describing the country’s topography. Some examples included ‘Inverness’ from Inbhir Nis (Confluence of the River Ness); ‘Dundee’ from Dùn Dèagh (Dùn meaning a fort and there you have the Law Hill); ‘Drumchapel’ from Druim a’ Chapaill (Ridge of the Horse) and many of us in attendance could easily recognise some of these features.
Andrew then went on to explain some of the linguistic aspects that Gaelic shares with other languages, including two separate forms of the pronoun ‘you’ (to show either familiarity or respect) and two distinct verbs for ‘to be’. The presentation then looked at the work of various scholars whose research on bilingualism, language planning and education have influenced the drive for Gaelic Medium Education during recent decades and some of this research was used as a foundation for the passing of the Gaelic Language Act 2005 and the creation of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, a public body established by the Scottish Government and tasked with improving the status of the language.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig has created a national Gaelic language plan which sets the direction for local authorities and public bodies to develop and implement their own action plans across the country, and this has taken place with varying degrees of enthusiasm and levels of success. Logically, this has also led to the creation of educational plans to try and increase the number of Gaelic speakers and in many parts of Scotland Gaelic is treated as another modern language as well as a mother tongue language for new and existing speakers.
Andrew mentioned that there has been some progress within education to develop and expand Gaelic medium education but as is so often the case, a lack of resources (both financial as well as human) is often a stumbling block to progress. As linguists we tend to be enthusiastic about any and all languages, but Andrew reminded the audience that any language operates in a social and political context and plans to invest in Gaelic medium education and language planning have been met with a mixture of vociferous opposition, apathy and enthusiasm. However, one thing is true – by the end of the presentation we were all enthusiastic to learn more and pleased that we had been able to attend such an interesting presentation.