Fluent or Native?

This is an English translation of the original piece: Fileanta neo Native?

One of the things you can’t avoid as a Gaelic speaker is your fluency in the language.  Without doubt the same thing exists in English – you think differently of people depending on their different abilities in the language – but with a language with as many learners as Gaelic, and with the big role they are playing in revitalising it, it’s very obvious within the Gaelic community.

Even though different levels of Gaelic are considered in education, policy, planning and the arts – there is nothing in the way of agreement on what these levels actually mean or what properties make a speaker fit a specific level.  And this personally leaves me, and I’m sure many other speakers, with a question: am I a fluent or native speaker of Gaelic?

Because there are different ways of learning the language and the levels to which they learn can be different, it’s not hard to understand why this problem exists.

There is a separation between people who have learned the language at home, especially among older people, and those who have gone through Gaelic medium education.  Often the spoken Gaelic of those who learned at home is more fluent, but it is also slightly more inaccurate while learners are better at writing and have “cleaner” Gaelic because they have learned it in a way that’s more ordered and more structured.  However, these people often tend to have less confidence in their spoken ability.

Not many would go as far as to say the Gaelic of the “natives” was wrong, but with the amount of code-switching (using English words naturally in a conversation) in comparison to a learner, it is harder to be sure which group is speaking the “better” Gaelic.  I wouldn’t say my Gaelic was “clean” at all, and I’m certainly not quite as fluent in Gaelic as I am in English – but on the other hand it doesn’t faze me at all to have a conversation in Gaelic or to write it.  On this issue, I’m in the middle of the two camps as it were.

Another point is that Gaelic medium education has created a generation of speakers of the language that have used it almost all their lives but perhaps have never used it outside of school.  I started, as I’m sure hundreds of other students across the country did, speaking Gaelic at nursery – and now I have used it at school and university for almost eighteen years.  But because I didn’t ever use it regularly outside of school, with my mother only having a little Gaelic, I don’t ever think of myself as a “native” of the language – even though I’m classified as such at university.  Again I’m on both sides of this argument, and I don’t feel there’s any specific level that applies to me.

If we want to look at the subject academically, again there is no real agreement.  In linguistics, we have two types of language learners – L1, “native” and L2, learners as a second language.  This seems clear – but it isn’t still doesn’t quite capture every speaker.  In another way, used in research by Marsaili MacLeod “The Meaning of Work in the Gaelic Labour Market” in 2008 the types are – native, semi-native, cultural inheritors and cultural migrants.  Again it’s a good way of categorising how people came to the language, but it’s still not clear at what level their language is.

Maybe it’s just that there is no easy way of categorising Gaelic speakers, because we are a deep and diverse community, but so that we can aim to create policies to widen this community and provide programmes to make Gaelic livelier we need to have a better idea of the groups within Gaelic and what they need to develop.

I don’t have a short answer to the question of whether I’m a “native” of Gaelic or not.  But I will say this, no matter what I say about my Gaelic, other people would say something else.

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