Scottish Gaelic/Sustainability

Usage of Scottish Gaelic


Past usage


Prior to the Statutes of Iona and the religious Reformation in the sixteenth century, Gaelic was the main spoken language of the northwest half of Scotland and Lowland Scots was the main spoken language of the southeast half of Scotland. From around that time, up until relatively recent times, successive governments sought to discourage the use of Gaelic and the language went into decline.

Present day usage


By the 1970s the Gaelic language was largely confined to the northwest islands of Scotland but most families in the Western Isles continued to use it as part and parcel of everyday family life. Since then many families in the Western Isles have stopped speaking in Gaelic and many parents there are no longer passing their native language on to their children.

Many Gaelic speakers have great difficulty in understanding some Gaelic radio programmes (especially news and current affairs programmes) because their knowledge of Gaelic vocabulary is to some extent limited. Additionally, many Gaelic words have fallen into relative disuse and Gaelic speakers often cannot understand all of the words in traditional poems and songs without the aid of a dictionary.

A large percentage of Gaelic-speaking people are, relatively speaking, socially isolated from fellow Gaelic-speakers and seldom have the opportunity to make use of their skill in Gaelic. Many Gaelic-speaking people live outside of the Gaelic-speaking areas such as in the cities, for example, and in such areas the social networks of Gaelic-speaking people are relatively poor.

Recently, however, the government and the education system have become more favourable towards Gaelic, and some schools in Scotland offer to educate children in Gaelic. Many of the children in Gaelic schools and Gaelic units within schools, however, tend to confine their use of Gaelic to school hours and tend to speak English at home, particularly in families which are not in frequent contact with other Gaelic-speaking families.

Although more people are now learning Gaelic, and attitudes towards the Gaelic language are gradually improving, relatively few learners of Gaelic are achieving fluency. As a result, very few learners of Gaelic are passing the language on to their children or grandchildren.

Looking to the future


Recently the government set up a department in Scotland called Bòrd na Gàidhlig whose responsibility is to encourage the increased use of Gaelic. Bòrd na Gàidhlig has laid a strong emphasis on consultation with the Gaelic speaking population - giving some room for optimism for the future continued use of the language.

Understanding the signs indicating whether the language is likely to recover and increase in usage is a complicated matter and requires a good understanding of the principles of language revival (see Wikipedia:language revival).

While it has to be said that a high proportion of Gaelic speakers are now socially isolated from other Gaelic speakers, giving them few opportunities to avail themselves of their skill in the language, there are increasing opportunities to learn Gaelic, and some of the Gaelic learning groups and societies encourage learners of Gaelic to speak in Gaelic as much as possible in order to make the learners feel more comfortable when speaking Gaelic.

In recent years there was a tendency at Gaelic arts festivals for people to speak in English rather than Gaelic. For instance prizegiving at Mòd competitions started to become conducted in English rather than Gaelic. In recent festivals, however, it is said that the usage of spoken Gaelic has increased again and that some of these festivals are becoming, once again, social occasions where people are encouraged to use the language not only in poetry and song recital but in general conversation as well.

With such mixed indications it seems that the future of the Gaelic language hangs very much in the balance.



In our world, where English is used and understood by roughly a quarter of its entire population, it is becoming increasingly the case that local languages such as Gaelic can subsist alongside global languages such as English without one negating the importance of the other. Indeed the use of English has increased enormously in recent years despite the fact that, as a proportion of the world's population, its number of mother-tongue speakers is actually decreasing. Global languages facilitate international communication and business while local languages provide community cohesion, social stability and confidence as well as access to local forms of literature and culture. A global language and a local language can live side by side provided they are each given specific roles or niches and provided each are afforded due respect. Providing people with adequate opportunities to learn both a local and a global language and ensuring that such persons can be given the opportunity to be well integrated into the societies that use these languages is, in my view, a small price to pay for securing the personal, social and economic benefits of being sustainably and confidently bilingual. The global and the local both matter and language is part-and-parcel of each.

Making Gaelic sustainable


The number of people with an ability to speak, read or write Scottish Gaelic has declined in the past few centuries and the number is now about 50,000. Many of the people who are able to speak Gaelic are not in the habit of using it and many Gaelic-speaking parents are not in the habit of speaking in Gaelic to their children. Many of those who are able to speak Gaelic are scattered and effectively isolated from other Gaelic speakers and they seldom obtain opportunities to avail themselves of their skill in Gaelic. There are also few occasions or situations where people are positively encouraged or required to use Gaelic. In addition, some Gaelic-speaking people have a negative attitude towards their language and prefer not to make use of their ability to speak it, and discourage others from speaking it too. This raises long-term questions about the sustainability of the language. Wikipedia has useful information on language revival relating to the sustainability of languages like Scottish Gaelic (see Wikipedia:language revival).

Research into sociolinguistics and related fields suggests that the following could be helpful towards the promotion and well-being of a lesser-used language:

  • people in the dominant community have positive attitudes towards (and speak well of) those people who regularly use the lesser-used language
(for more detail see David Crystal's book, Language Death)
  • the community who regularly use the lesser-used language are relatively free from dangers such as war, persecution, famine, epidemics, poverty and crime
(for more detail see David Crystal's book, Language Death)
  • there are schools available which teach using the lesser-used language AND the use of the lesser-used language is also reinforced outside of school hours
(for more detail see Joshua Fishman's book, Can Threatened Languages be Saved)
  • the people who regularly speak the less-used language are also able to read and write in the less-used language
(based on writings by both Joshua Fishman and David Crystal)
  • the people who regularly use the less-used language are also able to make use of electronic (e.g. computer) technology
(for more detail see David Crystal's book, Language Death)
  • there is a general awareness of the potential benefits of being bilingual, including in particular the cognitive benefits and the potential benefits to the person's self-esteem and confidence
  • there is some degree of general awareness of the social consequences of language shift (see Wikipedia:language shift)
  • those who have a working knowledge of the language have a strong presence in the education system
(for more detail see David Crystal's book, Language Death)
  • there are opportunities for people to enter into Gaelic language apprenticeships
(for more detail see the research by Jon Reyhner at the University of Northern Arizona)

Social consequences of language shift


For the sustainability of a language it may be helpful if there is a general awareness of the consequences of language shift.

Language shift can be detrimental to at least parts of the community associated with the language which is being lost. Sociolinguists such as Joshua Fishman, Lilly Wong Fillmore and Jon Reyhner report that language shift (when it involves loss of the first language) can lead to cultural disintegration and a variety of social problems including increased alcoholism, dysfunctional families and increased incidence of premature death.

For example, Ohiri-Aniche (1997) observes a tendency among many Nigerians to bring up their children as monolingual speakers of English and reports that this can lead to their children holding their heritage language in disdain and feeling ashamed of being associated with the language of their parents and grandparents. As a result of this some Nigerians are said to feel neither wholly European nor wholly Nigerian.

  • Ref: Ohiri-Aniche, C (1997) Nigerian languages die. Quarterly Review of Politics, Economics and Society 1(2),73-9.

Advantages of being able to communicate in more than one language


For the purposes of making a lesser-used language sustainable it is probably helpful for people to be aware of the benefits of being able to communicate in more than one language. There are several advantages in being able to communicate in more than one language. It broadens a person's experiences, provides cognitive advantages and, provided each of the person's languages are afforded due respect, can contribute to a person's self-esteem and confidence.

People who are able to communicate well in more than one language can have a greater breadth of experiences, and often a greater tolerance of cultural differences. A person who is communicative in more than one language is often accepting of those who are culturally different and is often welcoming of those who speak other languages and have different customs.

People who are fluent in more than one language get to know which language to use with which person in which situation. Through this experience they appear to learn how to be more sensitive to the needs of listeners than people who can only communicate in one language.

People who can read and write in more than one language are able to enjoy two or more literatures, opening up different literary traditions, ideas, ways of behaving and ways of thinking. The pleasures of reading poems, novels and magazines and the enjoyment of writing to relatives and friends are all increased for people who have the ability to communicate proficiently in more than one language.

Where parents have different preferred languages, children learn how to communicate in each parent's language. This can allow a close and special relationship with each parent to develop.

Having two or more words for every object and idea can be an advantage to creativity. Sometimes corresponding words in different languages have different associations or connotations. When slightly different associations are attached to each word, the person with two or more languages may be able to think more creatively.

Reversing language shift


Joshua Fishman proposes an eight-stage model for reversing language shift and recommends that efforts should concentrate on the earlier stages until they have been consolidated before proceeding to the later stages. The eight stages are as follows:

  • Acquisition of the language by adults, who may effectively act as language apprentices (recommended where most of the remaining speakers of the language are elderly and socially isolated from other speakers of the language).
  • Create a socially integrated population of active speakers of the language, thereby creating a community of people who use the language frequently (at this stage it is usually best to concentrate mainly on the spoken language rather than the written language).
  • In localities where there are a reasonable number of people habitually using the language, encourage the informal use of the language among people of all age groups and within families and bolster its daily use through the establishment of local neighbourhood institutions in which the language is encouraged, protected and (in certain contexts at least) used exclusively. (At this stage it may be useful for speakers to be aware of the personal advantages of being bilingual).
  • In areas where oral competence in the language has been achieved in all age groups encourage literacy in the language but in a way that does not depend upon assistance from (or goodwill of) the state education system.
  • Where the state permits it, and where numbers warrant, encourage the use of the language in lieu of compulsory state education. (at this stage it may be useful for speakers of the language to be aware of the benefits of bilingual education).
  • Where the above have largely been achieved encourage the use of the language in the workplace (lower worksphere).
  • Where the above have largely been achieved encourage use of the language in local government services and mass media.
  • Where the above have largely been achieved encourage use of the language in higher education, government etc.

This model of language revival seeks to avoid conflict and is intended to direct efforts to where they are most effective and to avoid wasting energy trying to achieve the later stages of language revival when the earlier stages have not been achieved. For instance it is probably wasteful of effort to work on the later stages of language revival if few families are in the habit of using the language among themselves.