A Child Eye’s View of Language Revitalisation: Hope and opportunity for the future of Gaelic in Scotland
As part of our ongoing series about Gaelic in Scotland we ask: What could we learn from research in Ireland about how to support language regeneration?
The announcement last week that Gaelic is predicted to perish as a community language within the decade hardly came as a surprise to me—as others have pointed out, those living in the islands or involved in Gaelic development and research have been working against this background of terminality for years now, especially since the excellent but very sobering Siabost Report in 2011. It also came as no surprise to me as a former Soillse research fellow who used to live in Stornoway and who collected part of the data for the community study of Scalpay. Although from the various responses I have seen on social media, news of the imminent demise of Gaelic appears to be the proverbial dousing of cold water that some people have needed, I too am wary that this ‘death discourse’ as Dr. Emily McEwan-Fujita described it a number of years ago may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, I wish to add my voice to the growing call to see this sombre news and the attention it has gained as an opportunity, not a death sentence.
As someone who has been working with Gaelic-speaking families in a research capacity for over a decade now, I have been encouraged by what appears to be increased attention to the importance of family and child-centred Gaelic development, a line of inquiry and advocacy I have been developing with valuable insights from other researchers, particularly Dr. Timothy Currie Armstrong and Dr. Sìleas L. NicLeòid, whom I had the great pleasure of working with during my time with Soillse. I would like to use this space not only to reflect on some of the suggestions that we have put forward in various publications over the years, but also to reflect on how taking a child’s eye view gives us a unique perspective on what can be done to turn the tide of language shift.
First, it is important to understand the complex realities faced by families who are using Gaelic in the home and to valorise their efforts and experiences. I spent eight years wrestling with the question of why the children in my case study of three generations of a family on the Isle of Skye didn’t speak much Gaelic. It was clear after all that many of the relatives—especially the children’s grandmother and their mother—were making an enormous effort to speak Gaelic to the children. The children also attended Gaelic Medium Education (GME). It would be tempting from this basic info to simplify and say ‘It must be something that the caregivers are doing ‘wrong’’ or that ‘The school isn’t enough.’ My work over the years has shown me that there is very rarely—if ever—one particular factor to explain why children may or may not speak a particular language. Families do not exist in vacuums after all and speaking the language to the child is only ever half the battle. Children after all have their own agency and are influenced by a myriad of factors both internal and external to the family. Thus, despite overcoming many obstacles, Gaelic language use in this family continues to be an uphill struggle.
By the time I embarked on my next big project in 2016, I wasn’t very optimistic about the prospects of continued intergenerational Gaelic language transmission in the home in traditional Gaelic heartland areas. The new project, funded by the Irish Research Council, centred on three families in the Western Isles—one in Stornoway, one in Siabost, and one on Scalpay—and three families in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht. Even though the study in many ways confirmed the perilous state of intergenerational transmission the Western Isles, I also felt a renewed sense of hope. One reason for this renewed hope was witnessing what Gaelic-speaking families are doing to stem the language shift. In the Siabost family for example, the mother was making a conscious and deliberate effort to help her own mother (the children’s grandmother) speak Gaelic to the children. The grandmother was a fully fluent Gaelic speaker but simply wasn’t used to speaking Gaelic to children. With the daughter’s support, however, the mother spoke Gaelic to her grandchildren, therefore providing them with critical language input in a community characterised in the 2011 report as one in which the language could be moribund within the next two generations.
The second reason that I felt a renewed sense of hope was in seeing what a comprehensive family-community support programme could look like. This came from my work in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht and continued involvement with the family development programme Tús Maith (‘A Good Start’). Corca Dhuibhne was chosen as the focal point of comparison because it shares many similarities with the Western Isles, including a marked decline in intergenerational transmission. Now, Irish is still very much a community language there and nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than by the fact that the children I worked with always spoke Irish to me, even when it was clear that I didn’t understand them when I first set foot in Corca Dhuibne. In other words, Irish was these children’s default language. Thus, the community has in many ways successfully maintained the language, and a large part of this success lies in the efforts of Tús Maith.
One of the key reasons for Tús Maith’s success has been the bespoke programme of ‘home language visitors,’ who meet with families each week in their homes and support these families with their individual language goals. Families range from those who speak very little Irish to those who are fully fluent but feel they need more support. A similar programme could greatly benefit those parents who are learning or re-remembering Gaelic as ‘Gaelic in the home’ is rarely, if ever, integrated into formal learning opportunities. As I describe in a recent paper with Dr. Sìleas L. NicLeòid, this home-based approach also helps in the following ways:
- Build parents’ confidence in using the language, as many parents in the Western Isles especially may have spoken Gaelic when they were younger but may lack the confidence to do so now
- Counteract the years of negative attitudes towards the language, as in engaging in enjoyable activities with their children, parents may become more likely to associate Gaelic with bonding with their children than with other negative views of the language
- Help get other fluent-speaking caregivers, such as grandparents, used to speaking Gaelic to the children
Another reason for Tús Maith’s success has been that they have truly taken a child’s eye view of language revitalisation. They have taken multiple approaches to helping the children experience their worlds through Irish and crucially, for those experiences to be very positive ones. This has included producing children’s books, CDs, games and most recently during lockdown, a new Youtube channel. If there’s one thing that I have learned in taking a child’s view of language revitalisation, it is that everything counts. Things that may seem trivial to us as adults can make a significant impact on the relationship the child has with Gaelic and thus, the more the child positively experiences her or his world through Gaelic, the more likely he or she is to use the language. Therefore, initiatives that on the surface seem more geared towards supporting the arts and media actually have a significant role to play in supporting intergenerational language transmission—for if it weren’t for the efforts of these writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers, children wouldn’t have these positive experiences in their minority language.
Another reason for language maintenance in Corca Dhuibhne has been an inclusive outlook and the understanding that successful language development is predicated on everyone playing a part, regardless of their background. It doesn’t matter whether you have lived in the community all your life, or if you grew up in the US to parents who emigrated from Corca Dhuibhne years ago, or if you’re someone like me, who has no heritage connection to the language but is eager to learn and use it every chance I get— you are important. Language planning does not have to be one strategy or perceived group at the expense of the other—or for example, family and community versus GME and institutional support. We should strive towards an approach where all families are supported and where everyone has access to Gaelic. As I said before, the family does not exist in a vacuum, and everyone can have a role to play in language revitalisation, from the parents making Gaelic the language of the home right down to the Duolingo learner who says ‘ ’s e do bheatha’ to the child in a shop, thus, in a very small way showing the child that it is indeed ‘normal’ to speak Gaelic.
To close, I would like to say that we as language activists, researchers, policy makers, and speakers of the language of all types should also practice the same type of resilience that I have witnessed in the many families I have worked with. Sure, language revitalisation often feels like with every one step forward, you actually take two steps backwards, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying or throw out initiatives that don’t seem to be producing results immediately. After all, we are working against centuries upon centuries of oppression of the language and its people. I am certain though that if we take a child’s eye view of the present initiatives—and take this view le chèile (‘together’)—we will arrive at a much brighter future, one in which the children of today will speak Gaelic to the children of tomorrow.
Here you will find a brochure Cassie made in 2017 to help support parents using Gaelic in the home:
Please feel free to distribute widely …