Out of the bog and onto the Cuillin – Shifting the Gaelic Debate Forward
This isn’t a “the place of Gaelic in modern Scotland” article, or a even “why Gaelic is relevant” one. I’ve read enough of those, and written a fair few. I doubt I’ll bother with one of them again. If you’re advocating the extinction of a language, due to utility, expense or whatever else, then you can go join the irrationality club with advocates of pre-Copernican astronomy and Galenic anatomy. On you go. Let the rest of us have a meaningful conversation on how to support and revitalise minority languages; retain the languages of our immigrant populations and strengthen Scotland as a multilingual country.
For all its technocratic jargon, best practice language policy is fairly simple: encourage one generation to speak Gaelic to the next generation, and to their peers. This is a fundamentally empowering statement: if you want to help secure the future for the language the first step you can take is to speak it, pass it on or learn it if you haven’t already. There’s no need for a Gaelic messiah, nor do we need government and its quangos to provide all the answers – but seeing as we pay them splendidly, they should certainly provide a few.
This guiding principle of intergenerational transmission helps to tackle the fairly intricate webs of competing ideas and interests that make up the Gaelic world. If we invested nearly as much in community work, and supporting Gaelic in the family, as we did in broadcasting then the language would be in much finer shape. In Northern Ireland one of the strengths of their language movement is the use of community groups which provide tuition or coaching to young people in whatever they express an interest in, via the medium of Irish. After the Giro d’Italia had its initial stage in Belfast one of the groups set up an Irish-language cycling club who are flourishing on the back of the interest from young Gaeilgeóiri occasioned by the event. That’s decidedly not to say that getting a funding board of 50-year-olds, or even 30-year-olds, to decide what young people want and then providing it in the medium of Gaelic will benefit the language. If you want young people to use the language, ask them what they want, and use the language to provide it for them.
To be fair, Comunn na Gàidhlig and other groups have been promoting Gaelic outwith the classroom, but not with the level of support or recognition that grassroots work deserves, nor with a focus on the intergenerational, community aspect. If we get the older generation involved too – even passing on traditional skills and knowledge – then we’re reducing isolation for the old folk and broadening the linguistic abilities of our youngsters. This isn’t a return-to-the-golden age fantasy – many youngsters on the West Coast go to sea or make a livelihood from fishing or aquaculture. Others make their living from the Highland landscape as tour guides or conservationists. In either case you have over a millennium’s worth of knowledge in the language waiting to be passed on. Give me a network of youth and intergenerational groups up and down the West Coast, ahead of another £2million in Gaelic broadcasting any day of the week.
I say Gaelic broadcasting, but it is ironic that one of the few organisations without a discernable Gaelic policy, at least for its output, is the Gaelic broadcaster MG Alba. The campaign that’s been calling for improvements in this regard is led by some of the most important Gaelic cultural figures – including Aonghas MacNeacail, Ailean Dòmhnullach, Lisa Storey and Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul. Some programmes are 80% in English – which I’ve only heard justified using a misunderstanding of the 80-20 rule. Such an all-encompassing amount of the majority language on a minority language channel has been defended in terms of viewing figures – in which case they’d be as well to invest the channel’s budget in rights for the next series of Game of Thrones, show that once a week and be done with it. The money is invested to secure Gaelic as a community language for the future. If the programme makers can’t justify their use of burnt-on English subtitles; 50 minutes of English interviews topped and tailed with subtitled Gaelic and much more besides, then they would be as well to give the money back. There are no experts in language policy in the world who have backed BBC Alba’s current model. It is clear that just because you’ve been involved in broadcasting for 30-odd year, you can’t be expected to be up to speed on language revitalisation… and why would you be? BBC Alba should be a Gaelic public sphere for discourse and reflection. At the moment it is nothing of the sort.
If we keep our eyes on the prize of a secure future for Gaelic as a community language then we automatically prioritise that which leads it to that end. Arts and broadcasting, my own field of literature, I’d happily see them all take a step back in terms of the fairly restricted public funding, if we invested in the linguistic abilities of the next generation of Gaels. We know from the Fèis movement how successful and attractive Gaelic language activities can be – and if we take a lead from the young people themselves, providing the activities they want in the medium of Gaelic, we develop and secure the language’s place outside of the classroom and the pupil-teacher relationship. If you are interested, as many quite rightly are, in Gaelic music then you can be fairly well catered for. But outside that, and the voluntary provision of hard-pressed teachers, the opportunities to use the language outside the classroom remain limited.
In arguing for more community development, and more funding if necessary, let’s get used to Gaels using the language of rights and equality as is common for minority languages throughout the world. There are three-year-olds being brought up with the Gaelic language as their first language; as a country I think we are mature enough to agree that that child has a right not to see their native tongue disappear off the face of the earth as a community language during their lifetime. The more Gaels assert and demand they have a right to exist, and to continue to exist, and see their language supported and developed, the more the language question will be recognised as a fundamentally moral issue. Let’s leave the circular “use it or lose it” minority-blaming hokum to the hacks and put forward a clear case of justice for one of our minority communities.
It’s clear that a rights-based approach is fast becoming the most feasible option for public sector reform. With an appropriate deadline of, say, 2021, there is no reason that every Scottish public body should not recognise our national languages. At the moment, with the constant stream of Gaelic plans under the 2005 Act we are converting every car in the street one by one, instead of bringing in new emissions regulations for the manufacturers.
We must support our other national languages and our immigrant languages too. It is surely common sense that all parents whether via the health visitor, the nursery nurse or national information campaigns, are told of the benefits of bilingualism. Scotland’s delightful linguistic diversity does not need to disappear once an immigrant community reaches its third generation. A desire to integrate should not lead to a rush to the monolingual bottom – and the state should advocate the benefits of having New Scots being brought up fluent in the languages of our immigrant communities. This approach would benefit the Gaelic community too: too often there are households where there is one fluent parent who isn’t encouraged to pass on the language, and the child misses out. That’s a missed opportunity for the entire nation – whatever the language.
Gaelic funding is not an either/ or, given the levels are hardly extravagant at the moment. But it is surely self-evident, that if you want Gaelic to survive as a community language it has to be supported, fundamentally, as a language of community use. By focusing on usage and intergenerational transmission we create a virtuous cycle, of young people with increased confidence in the language, who won’t need a Gaelic degree to have developed their language skills ready for the world of work. It also would strengthen the language as a peer group language.
Let’s keep focussed on the fundamentals then, and let the flat-earth society advocates of a one language Scotland whinge away into irrelevance. The next generation will find it odd indeed that Gaels felt the need to continually “argue the case” for Gaelic. Odder still that this was still occurring, post-referendum, in the second decade of the 21st Century. Perhaps most bemusing of all, looking back, they will discover that the there was a cluster of indignant articles written in early September 2015, in response to the ill-founded, anti-Gaelic rhetoric of a pro-independence website.