Petition sparks fierce debate on future of Gaelic education

A Change.org petition to call on the Scottish Government to introduce Gaelic as a “core and compulsory subject” for 3 to 12 year-olds has attracted a lively debate online as to whether it is the correct course of action to promote Gaelic education.

To take a look at why there is such a discussion, first of all it helps to know more about how Gaelic education sits at the moment.  It is widely considered to be the focal point of Gaelic revival efforts, as it is by far the easiest way of introducing new speakers to the language, and it comes in different forms.

In 1985, the first children went into Gaelic medium units in schools, where the vast majority of primary learning is delivered through Gaelic.  The programme began with 24 students in 2 schools, but has grown exponentially from there; according to Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the Government’s non-departmental public body for the language, in the 2012-13 school year there were 989 nursery, 2,500 primary and 1,104 secondary students studying in Gaelic medium education.  The popularity of Gaelic medium education has far outstripped expectations and this has created a demand for both Gaelic teachers and Gaelic schools.  In the last decade dedicated Gaelic schools, rather than just units, have been (or will be) built in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Portree.

There are other methods in which Gaelic is taught.  There were 2,703 students studying Gaelic as learners in secondary school in 2012-13.  Another method is Gaelic Learners in Primary School (GLPS), which aims at providing Gaelic language training in much the same way that French and other European languages are taught in primary schools across Scotland at the moment.  The programme is at an early stage, as I’ve already discussed in another article, but I believe it has incredible potential for pupils and the language.

It is this form of GLPS learning that I’d envision is the aim of the author of the Change.org petition, Callum Wilkie.  Although it doesn’t produce fluent speakers, it will give children a good flavour of the language and its’ culture so that they can choose if it is something they are interested in.  Gaelic being a subject taught in schools across Scotland may seem like a jolt forward from its’ current level, but it would be fantastic.  Making it compulsory for all would be significantly more effective than the current GLPS programme and would bring positive change for Gaelic much faster.

The Scottish Government has already committed to introducing a 1 + 2 language learning model in primary schools, whereby pupils learn two languages in addition to their native English.  Gaelic could be a perfect fit for this system.  The Report into the policy, an SNP manifesto commitment from 2011, suggest that Gaelic is as vital an option for pupils as modern European languages, “languages of the strong economies of the future” and “community languages of pupils”.  Therefore, the petition to provide Gaelic as a core and compulsory language is not fully necessary, as Gaelic is already a key part of the Government’s vision for the primary curriculum.

Despite the petition’s growing signature list there are some that question its’ worth.  A common argument is that the rapid expansion of Gaelic education may hurt the language’s reputation.  By “forcing unmotivated people” to learn the language, in the words of a Redditor VinzShandor, it could “create resentment and undo years of outreach and hard-won goodwill for the community”.  Many also point out that making the language mandatory is a step normally reserved for languages with large speaker-bases that can only be communicated with in their native tongue, with English being such a language across Europe.  Doing so for Gaelic produces less “efficiency” in educating.  And of course there is also the ever present argument about the necessity of funding Gaelic when it is spoken by so few.

I don’t think these issues trump the benefits of Gaelic, though, despite their validity.  I believe that children would enjoy learning Gaelic as much as they’d enjoy learning about any other subject in school; with plenty of activities that children can learn from and actually enjoy.  Children love to sing songs or take part in drama – two activities which Gaelic excels in being able to make accessible to all.  It would undoubtedly see the number of pupils taking Gaelic in secondary education increase and would also go some way to solving the problem of alienation that many pupils in Gaelic medium units feel as they learn in a different way to their peers.

Despite Gaelic’s status as a minority language, there are myriad transferable skills to be gained from learning the language that go far beyond just Gaelic.  It can easily be the first step in learning other languages, as many of the skills and techniques required to do so are the same across languages.  It also allows you to tap into a wealth of culture that is hidden otherwise, and it is a rich culture that stretches back centuries: our culture.  Gaelic is a beautiful and expressive language that has produced fantastic works of literature, drama, poetry etc. that can only be fully enjoyed with first-hand understanding.

Gaelic won’t and doesn’t need to become the dominant language in Scotland again, but it is a fantastic additional skill which helps people to get more from the world around them.  This can be as simple as enjoying some songs or as major as a career.  Anyone that learns even a little Gaelic can get some benefit from it.

I’ve personally signed the petition as I believe that anything that gives Gaelic more coverage, recognition and attention, in particular amongst MSPs, is good for the language as a whole.  I believe that Gaelic could eventually be a core subject in the Scottish curriculum alongside English and another language, although it will take some time to train the number of teachers required to do this – even in the fast-tracked way that many GLPS teachers are at the moment.

I believe Gaelic should be taught to all children in Scotland.  The benefits of bilingualism, or even just learning part of another language, in terms of cognitive ability and academic achievement are huge and well documented.  Gaelic is also a crucial part of our social and cultural heritage, something that I believe that all the people who live in Scotland should be aware of and enjoy.  In order to preserve this “unique and precious treasure”, in the words of one signee, we need to give people the opportunity to learn the language and use it.  Even better, Gaelic is a vibrant language.  All these point considered, I believe that Gaelic is perhaps one of the most beneficial subjects all-round for school pupils and we should be letting every single child in Scotland the chance to have this enriched and enlivened academic experience.

It remains to be seen whether this petition will have any real impact for the language.  Being on an unofficial platform rather than the Scottish Government’s website and having, at last check, only 180+ signatures means that there is unlikely that there will be an official response to this attempt.  However, it has uncovered the depth of feeling that some feel for and against compulsory Gaelic education and, if nothing else, we can take these responses going forward to hopefully craft a brighter future for Gaelic, no matter how it is achieved.  At least that is something that we can all agree on.

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