Cànanan Màthaireil: Scottish Gaelic is making a comeback

Forget road signs. Thanks to AI researchers and social media influencers, the Celtic language is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Dè do chor? For the uninitiated, that means how are you?” in Scottish Gaelic, a language understood by just 87,056 Scots at last count, with experts suggesting that it may well go extinct within the next decade. If you’re among Scotland’s five million residents, you’re statistically unlikely to actually be able to speak the language, but its influence reaches far and wide, from bilingual road signs to a host of words like loch and cèilidh.

Growing up north of Dundee in the early-2000s, the main contact I had with the language was also cultural, through hours spent glued to the TV. With only four channels available at the time, Gaelic-only programmes would show on BBC One – like Dòtaman, an all-singing kids show that ostensibly hoped to harness the power of broadcast media to get a new generation of Scottish youth speaking Gaelic.

That didn’t necessarily go to plan. While I picked up a smattering of words, I won’t be having an in-depth cabadaich any time soon. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one. Without compulsory education in most Scottish schools (a more common practice in Wales and the Republic of Ireland), the efforts of things like Dòtaman have been unsuccessful. The number of Scottish Gaelic speakers aged three to 17 has declined by more than 3,000 over two decades in areas such as the Western Isles, where the language was formerly a mainstay.

But even with all the doom and gloom predictions from researchers, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, culturally, many Scottish people’s relationship to their native language is in a process of change. With the independence movement gaining steam, overt demonstrations of Scottishness have lost some of the cringe factor that previously had young Scottish people playing down their culture in favour of English assimilation. Comedians like Paul Black have found an audience by embracing the Scottish vernacular and the dialect has found a unique, authentic platform on Twitter. Could Gaelic be about to begin a similar trajectory?

At the moment, Gaelic is taught in about 10 per cent of Scottish secondary schools, heavily concentrated in the Highlands. For most people living in central Scotland, there’s no access”

DR WILSON MCLEOD, PROFESSOR OF GAELIC AT EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY

Anecdotally, Gaelic phrases like saor alba (“free Scotland”) and alba gu bràth (“Scotland forever”) have increasingly popped up in online discourse around Scottish independence. And recently, a new wave of young Gaelic language advocates have emerged on social media. Among them is Jennie NicDhonnchaidh, a Scottish musician who uses platforms like TikTok to raise awareness of Gaelic culture, whether it be the language or the music attached to it, introducing her followers to folk and waulking songs.

NicDhonnchaidh’s grandad speak Gaelic, but she was taught a phrase or two as a child. Reconnecting with the language has been an important aspect of her adulthood so far. If I have any kids, I want to pass it onto them, so it will only have skipped a generation in my dad [who doesn’t speak Gaelic] and it won’t be lost in the family,” NicDhonnchaidh explains.

For her, there’s been nothing but positivity attached to her Gaelic language advocacy online – something she connects to its rise in visibility in the media. The population in Scotland and even the world are more interested in Gaelic now,” she explains. Even things like Outlander, which I know a lot of people cringe at, have increased the awareness of the language and its importance in Highland and Island culture overseas.”

For NicDhonnchaidh, Gaelic isn’t just a language; it represents people, a culture, a history,” a stance that made it all the more disconcerting when negative trolls came for a fellow Gaelic advocate within her friendship group on social media. There are people who say that it’s a dead language and that we should just leave it to die, talking about how things like bilingual road signs are a drain on the economy,” she notes. It’s interesting, as Gaelic seems to have become a very polarising thing, even though it’s inherently not anything political.”

NicDhonnchaidh is right. Gaelic isn’t innately political, but it is closely associated with ideas of Scottish nationalism. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Gaelic language promotion is often met with criticism suggesting that the language is being imposed upon the Scottish populace, as part of some sort of nationalist propaganda campaign cooked up by Nicola Sturgeon.

This is a preconception that Dr Wilson McLeod, professor of Gaelic at Edinburgh University, both notes and believes to be strongly devoid of sense. At the moment, Gaelic is taught in about 10 per cent of Scottish secondary schools, heavily concentrated in the Highlands. For most people living in central Scotland, there’s no access,” McLeod explains. One of the things I find ironic or enraging, depending on how I’m feeling, is when people talk about the idea that Gaelic is being shoved down people’s throats.”

For many, there hasn’t been enough Gaelic access at an institutional level for many years. As a response, those looking to keep the language alive are driving a renewed focus on education at a more grassroots level. Such is the case for Lauren Ferguson, a Gaelic language influencer and advocate who learned the language herself as a child through Gaelic Medium Education (a system where the school curriculum is taught in Gaelic to promote bilingualism). She’s now a Gaelic primary school teacher herself.

From her perspective, Gaelic isn’t being forced on the Scottish populace from the top down. Instead, due to a groundswell of organic interest in the language, the Scottish education system can’t keep up with the demand from parents. I teach in Glasgow now, but there’s a problem in the city because Gaelic [education] is oversubscribed,” Ferguson explains. Lots of parents want to put their children into Gaelic education, which is great, but unfortunately there aren’t enough spaces at the moment. However, there are plans to improve this going forward. There will also need to be a drive for Gaelic teachers to meet demand, because not every Gaelic speaker wants to be a teacher.”

Young potential Gaelic speakers might look at their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and consider Gaelic to be a language of the past”

DR WILLIAM LAMB, SENIOR LECTURER IN SCOTTISH ETHNOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH

While teachers like Ferguson are working to preserve and pass on the language to today’s Scottish youth, other important steps are being taken to keep Gaelic alive, particularly within the world of tech. In September, a new, wide-ranging, multi-faceted learning brand” SpeakGaelic will be launched to help encourage adults, not just children, to use, develop or learn Gaelic from scratch. With an on-demand learning website, and programming on Gaelic language television platform BBC Alba and its corresponding YouTube channel, the development comes relatively soon after DuoLingo launched its Gaelic course in 2019, attracting over half a million learners in one year. With this new suite of modernised resources, Gaelic is being brought into the 21st century after years of being associated solely with Scotland’s folkloric past, rather than its living, breathing communities.

We all know that languages must adapt and transform to survive, and McLeod’s colleagues at the University of Edinburgh are taking this modernisation process a step further. Working across artificial intelligence and linguistics, a research group is developing a Gaelic-speaking voice assistant that could eventually morph into a Gaelic Alexa or Siri.

According to Dr William Lamb, a Senior Lecturer in Scottish Ethnology and the project’s leader, technology like this will help Gaelic develop increased longevity and appeal to new speakers. When you look at young potential Gaelic speakers, they might look at their parents, grandparents or great grandparents and consider Gaelic to be a language of the past,” says Lamb. What we’re trying to do is say, Look, it’s a language like any other language. It just depends on how it’s used.’

It’s about presenting possibilities of interacting with technologies and just doing things that generally seem pretty cool for people growing up today. It gives people a better hope for the future.”


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