2007 - 2020

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:

BrochureGaelicFamilies

 

Please feel free to distribute widely …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (17)

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  1. James says:

    Ilka scuils shud be teachin twa leids, aither English & Gàidhlig or English & Scots. Bit like Ireland’s bi-leid system.

    An those tha dae Scots shud learn bits o Gàidhlig and those tha dae Gàidhlig shud learn bits o Scots.

    1. Cassie Smith-Christmas says:

      Certainly- the more multilingual experiences children have, the better!

  2. Linda Diane Smith-Christmas says:

    Well said.

    1. Cassie Smith-Christmas says:

      Thanks!

  3. Seo says:

    A fantastic article thank you Cassie – really interesting research and shows the difference support in the communities will make if we use that Irish example, and others I’m sure, here in Scotland. We’re not alone and can learn much from other minority languages across the world – but the main thing is actual implementation of what we know to be helpful and needed.

    For Bella Caledonia – the link to the brochure doesn’t seem to be working if this could be remedied as I’m sure that resource would be of interest to many!

    1. Cassie Smith-Christmas says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words! Yes, implementation can be tricky- but if there’s another thing I’ve learned from my experiences with individual families and also Tús Maith, where there’s a will, there’s a way, as the saying goes. The work of a few dedicated individuals can go such a long way in getting something off the gournd and sustaining it.

      Thanks again!

  4. Maglocanus says:

    A strong network of geographically dispersed ‘activist families’ will certainly form the core of 21st century vernacular Gaelic. Anything sociolinguists and language policymakers can do to support these families is to be encouraged.

  5. Des says:

    Link to brochure gives 404 error

    1. Yeah we’ll try and fix that Des

  6. Floradh Laura Chamshròn-Leòdhais says:

    Great piece, and really constructive proposals.

    1. Cassie Smith-Christmas says:

      Thanks so much, Floradh!

  7. Fiona C. Lunn MA(Oxon) says:

    Thank you, Cassie, for a balanced and informative article.

    I was particularly interested to read a child’s eye view of language revitalisation is key to its success. I totally agree! Language is evolving all the time and for a language to stay alive, evolve and indeed flourish, it must be spoken by the children. Their engagement with Gaelic should be spontaneous not coerced, natural not false or under duress, and most of all it should be FUN.

    The approaches to help children experience their worlds through Gaelic must include children’s books, music, games, TV and radio as well as family involvement and schooling. As you say, “everything counts and 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.” I totally agree!

    You also state, “…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.” I use this discussion as an opportunity to let you know that I am pioneering a new way of teaching young children about nature through stories. Each story is written in English and translated into Gaelic Scottish and Celtic Welsh as part of my mission to offer new material to help engage children with these languages and enable the stories to be read by ALL not just those who can read English.

    Good luck to you and all who are engaged in ensuring the beautiful Gaelic language of Scottish lives on for many generations to come!

    1. Cassie Smith-Christmas says:

      Dear Fiona,
      Thanks so much for your kind post- and I am so excited to hear about your children’s book project! Looking forward to seeing that, for sure.

    2. Finlay Macleod says:

      If you wish to Anglicise Gaelic then translate books from English. Not a very good idea unless done by an experienced translator who knows the idioms in both languages. This is one of the surest ways of Anglicising Gaelic there is and from the start of the child’s life.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I would just say that this is the missing article that addresses a lot of my areas of inquiry. It is the intergenerational activities that can be led by child, grandparent, teacher, and so on, that surely will make the difference. That may require older and younger generations to develop various literacies (broadly, digital literacy) first, or at least as they go along.

    With certain skills, some computer games allow you to create your own additional language packs, so you might be able to add Scottish Gaelic to a favourite game. There may even be software to help you do this. Of course, games vary an awful lot. In some there is little or no text, and in others there are masses of voice files. I don’t know much about this aspect of ‘modding’ (as game customization is called) but I think there are translation platforms that use volunteers, and maybe Scottish Gaelic was added to popular game Minecraft this way:
    https://crowdin.com/project/minecraft/discussions/4302/0/home/search/gaelic
    I imagine there needs to be a strict protocol for quality control, so that poor or obscene material is not unwittingly uploaded. This may be the kind of activity that Scottish Gaelic fans may like to get involved in at some level.

    1. Cassie Smith-Christmas says:

      That’s a great point, thanks for mentioning it! Digital literacy is also very important, especially now that our lives are increasingly mediated through digital devices. I myself haven’t done much work on digital literacy and language, but there is a very cool project on digital literacy and multilingualism in families going at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland if you’re interested: https://www.jyu.fi/hytk/fi/laitokset/kivi/en/research/research-projects/research-projects-other/whatsinapp

      Again, thanks for point that out!

  9. RonyMac says:

    My father, brought up as a Gaelic speaker in the 40s and 50s in Lewis, was given “the strap” in school for not communicating in English. My mother was not a fluent Gaelic speaker, however sang in Gaelic. We were not brought up speaking Gaelic, and I think that my father’s experience in school had much to do with this. I now live in Glasgow, where the Gaelic language continues to grow and expand throughout the education system.

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