Gaelic Revival – What Gaelic Revival?
With the 2011 Census results nervously awaited, even Bòrd na Gàidhlig agrees that the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers will continue. Surely there is now a need to completely re-evaluate the way we approach the problem of language-shift in Scotland.
In this essay I want to address the question of whether it is possible for organisations constituted on the current top-down model to really achieve anything in reversing language loss in Scotland. I have explored some of these issues before, in Gaelic, in a paper presented to 2009’s “Cleachdadh na Gàidhlig” conference, available here.
Firstly, the Gaelic revival organisations seem to be in deliberate denial about the reality of language death in the former Gaelic heartlands, where whole islands, along with vast areas of the North and West mainland, have now lost their last ageing native speakers. It seems likely for example that Alick George MacKay, who passed away last year, was the last surviving native speaker of MacKay Country Sutherland Gaelic, the Gaelic of Rob Donn, although no-one seems to know for sure.
Yet this has not led to any sense of urgency creeping into the discourses of the Gaelic organisations, discourses which often seem to have completely parted company with reality.
For years it was fatally easy for all of us living in the North and West, and faced with language death on our doorsteps, to kid ourselves that the language was still holding its own over there, on the next island … but the Shawbost Report of 2011 -(http://www.gaidhlig.org.uk/Downloads/The%20state%20of%20Gaelic%20in%20Shawbost.pdf) – scotched any such comforting wishful thinking. Gaelic is not holding its own anywhere.
What Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s position is on this ongoing disaster would be difficult to say; their annual report of that year (2011-12) briefly cited the Shawbost report in a self-congratulatory way, as “a significant community language research project …” commissioned by the Bòrd, without mentioning that the report’s main conclusion was: “The passing of Gaelic from one generation to the next – intergenerational transmission – has all but ended in Shawbost”. The Bòrd’s official publications are relentlessly self-congratulatory in tone, a tactic mirrored by all top-down initiatives where the language is routinely described in such terms as “vibrant”, “thriving” and “forward-looking”.
In 2008, when Gaelic was in the process of being downgraded from “vulnerable” to “definitely endangered” (definition: children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home) by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, the Bòrd’s acting chairperson, Arthur Cormack, stated in the annual report: “… it was a good year for Gaelic”.
Concomitant with this disconnect is estrangement from the language as still spoken by native speakers. The subtle, infinitely-nuanced Gaelic of the dying traditional language communities is being replaced, in the usage of the revival organisations, by a clunky, impoverished construct based on English idiom. As so few speak the language in Scotland today, and those in the surviving traditional communities tend to have low levels of Gaelic literacy due to past education policies (a problem which Gaelic organisations have done little if anything to rectify) and so have little contact with the output of those organisations, this linguistic colonization goes largely unremarked.
Secondly, the avoidance of use of the language as a means of communication is widespread and entrenched, in a wide range of domains from cultural events which are “Gaelic” only in the most shamelessly tokenistic way, to the proceedings of the organisations who claim most to be promoting its use. Chief among the offenders are Bòrd na Gàidhlig themselves, again, whose annual reports are all too obviously written in English and then translated into an unreadable, mistake-ridden form of the language which has no existence in the real world, as if the Bòrd thinks that no-one would ever want to read the Gaelic versions.
This is language-revival suicide. What kind of message is it giving out to the dwindling Gaelic-speaking world, and the wider English-speaking world? And how can the Bòrd possibly expect us to take its plans for a Gaelic Language Academy seriously?
Thirdly, Gaelic medium education (GME) – is it as great a success story as the Gaelic lobby claim, taking into account that overall provision is tiny (a total of 2,418 primary pupils in 2011-12)? The few studies to be carried out agree that GME primary pupils are not speaking the language outside the classroom, and anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that the Gaelic linguistic abilities of the majority of GME pupils are extremely limited.
It was impossible to find evidence for this essay that GME is growing as its proponents say it is. Figures are hard to obtain, and the only evidence in the public domain suggests that numbers entering primary one have remained pretty static since 2007-08 (387 in that year, 406 in 2011-12). In its latest five-year plan, the Bòrd has set itself the fairly modest target of doubling the current annual intake into primary one to 800 by 2017. (A previous over-optimistic target of 4,000, specified in the 2007 five-year plan, has long since been quietly dropped). Even if met, and assuming that pupils in GME primary education (from where transition into secondary education varies from patchy to non-existent) can be classed as speakers, this target will not reach the replacement level necessary to achieve stability for the language as older speakers pass away.
And where is the evidence that GME is producing long-term and committed speakers of the language in any numbers? Again, research is totally lacking.
Fourthly, and perhaps most profoundly, the Gaelic revival industry suffers under the persistent delusion that government money is all-important, and that language revival can be planned like a soviet-style command economy, complete with five-year plans (and with similar results).
A look at those results reveals over half a million wasted on the Bòrd’s devoid-of-content social networking site mygaelic.com, since quietly scrapped, and over £700,000 spent on the Ùlpan language learning system for adults on the basis of no evidence that it actually works (and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary).
These numbers are meagre in the greater scheme of things, but it is hard to avoid the impression of dysfunctionality when we learn from the annual report that in 2012-13 over 25% of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s expenditure was spent on the Bòrd itself, on salaries, pensions, running costs etc.
When you are dealing with something as subtle, close to the heart, and as close to an individual’s sense of identity as the language people speak, top-down interventions involving government agencies simply cannot be effective in reversing language shift, no matter how well-intentioned. This has long been uncontroversial in the field of sociolinguistics. Why are we still putting our faith into this discredited model in Scotland, when we should be taking grass-roots, collective action?