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Gaelic-medium education outcomes in Scotland – Stuart Dunmore


[The following is a guest post by Stuart Dunmore, Soillse PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh.]

The future of the Gaelic language here in Scotland is a matter of considerable uncertainty. While it was the first language of the Kingdom of Scotland (Alba) when the country was formed in the medieval era, Gaelic has receded in geographical and demographic terms over the centuries, withdrawing further north and west under the influence of the Scots language and, later, English. The results of the 2001 UK national census revealed that 58,652 people over the age of three reported the ability to speak Gaelic in Scotland, amounting to less than 1.5% of the total population, with approximately 45% of all reported Gaelic speakers now living outside of the Highlands and Islands (PDF)

Many Gaelic speakers now live in urban contexts in central Scotland, including the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, although nowhere here do their proportions exceed 1.5% of the local population. Even in the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar) which have traditionally been regarded as the heartlands of Gaelic language and culture, language shift to English continues apace. Gaelic language planners, academics and activists are currently awaiting the publication of the results of last year’s (2011) national census, although a further decline is widely expected. Gaelic speakers therefore constitute a minority (or ‘minoritised’) linguistic community in modern Scotland.

As has been widely documented in the sociolinguistic and anthropological literatures, minority language cultures cross the world are struggling in the early-21st century to maintain and revitalise their traditional modes of communication and culture in the face of language shift to more ‘powerful’, majority language varieties.

Minoritised cultures in economically developed, urbanised western societies are no exception in this regard. In many instances, education has come to form a significant, if not the central focus of language revitalisation efforts, and in contexts as diverse as Friesland, Hawaii, Wales, Ireland, New Zealand and the Basque Country (to name only a few) the use of a minoritised language as the medium of instruction in primary and secondary education has been seen as a vital means of transmitting that language to new generations of speakers.

Some sociolinguists have cautioned against an over-reliance on the school as a tool for revitalising endangered languages and cultures, however. Joshua Fishman (2001) in particular stresses that school-based revitalisation initiatives will inevitably fail, unless the endangered language can also function as a living medium in society at large, above and beyond the domain of formal education. The danger is that the school may become an environment of (partial) language acquisition alone, while failing to provide any measure of socialisation into habitual use of the language, or into any of the sociocultural norms traditionally associated with it.

Nettle & Romaine (2000) emphasise that the transmission of endangered languages in the home, secured through ‘bottom-up’ initiatives at the community level, is the most crucial goal of language maintenance, rather than (as is often assumed) persuading policy-makers and governments to act on behalf of the threatened language.

Similarly Fishman (1991) stresses that even where official provisions for minoritised languages have been attained (as is the case in, for example, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) they must be accompanied, supported and re-enforced by habitual use in the home and natural, inter-generational transmission. Provision at the official level within the spheres of education, work, the media and public services will do nothing for the minoritised language that has not been reproduced organically in the home.

At least, that’s the theory.

Gaelic-medium education (henceforward ‘GME’) in which the majority of taught material is delivered through the medium of Gaelic, began in Scotland in 1985. GME grew quickly through the late 1980s and 1990s, and is now established, chiefly at primary level (ages 4-11) in throughout the country. GME is generally delivered in ‘units’ – Gaelic-medium classes within English-medium schools – and provision at secondary level (11-18) is relatively sparse. Furthermore, staff shortages and the failure to recruit sufficient numbers of teachers qualified to teach through Gaelic, have been seen as a threat to the very survival of GME. It is seen as a matter of regret that the potential to secure a fully bilingual generation has gone largely unrealised, due in part to the lack of enough teachers to sustain GME even in the rather limited capacity it currently occupies (MacKinnon 2007)

In recent years debate regarding Gaelic language policy, has, to a significant degree, focused on the importance of developing GME in Scotland. Given this, as well as the limitations of and challenges facing GME generally and the theoretical literature I have referred to, my PhD research is directed at uncovering the mid- to longer-term impact that GME may have on the language practices, ideologies and attitudes of adults who received GME in the first 8-10 years of its existence in Scotland.

Relatively little research appears to have been done on the life trajectories of adults who received a bilingual or immersion education (although see Woolard 2007 for a seminal example from the Catalan context). The focus of my PhD research is therefore to determine the longer-term effects that the bilingual classroom has on such individuals’ relationship to the minoritised language, after formal education is fully completed. What sets of beliefs about the Gaelic language do former GME students profess having embarked on adult life? What role, if any, does it play in their day-to-day lives, and sense of self? And how do these ideological and affective stances impact upon their actual language practices, and upon future prospects for language maintenance and the transmission of Gaelic to future generations?

A crucial first stage in my methodology was delineating the informant cohort and target group for my research. As I have pointed out, Gaelic-medium education expanded quickly in its first decade. For instance, while there were only 24 people enrolled in GME in the academic year 1985-86 (people who will be 31-32 years old in 2012) there were 1,258 in GME by 1994-95 (all of whom will be 22 or over this year).

Since determining prospects for the intergenerational transmission of Gaelic is central to my research aims, I’m limiting my pool of informants to people who are 25 and over, and therefore closer to the national average age for childbirth (c.29). The overall number of former-GME students in this particular cohort (25+) is 614, scattered throughout Scotland, the UK, and in some cases much further afield. I’m trying various things to make contact with these potential participants, including using various social media, as well as more traditional ‘snowballing’ techniques and word-of-mouth survey dissemination.

To approach my principal research questions I am employing a dual methodology, combining an online bilingual questionnaire, which is directed at uncovering language practices and language attitudes, with a number of semi-structured, qualitative interviews. It is hoped that an in-depth analysis of both quantitative data from questionnaires, and fine-grained, discursive data from interviews will allow me to address these issues in more depth, and provide a nuanced, detailed and instructive set of data on Gaelic language attitudes, ideologies and usage among former GME students.

Crucially, the possibility for communication to continue in either Gaelic or English is made clear at all points of contact with potential informants. Previous sociolinguistic and anthropological studies of Scottish Gaelic have suggested that researchers’ choice to conduct research through the medium of English alone serves to increase the hegemony of the language.

To this juncture, comparable numbers of questionnaires have been returned in Gaelic as in English, and most interviews have been carried out in Gaelic. I have conducted a number of face-to-face interviews with former GME students in locations throughout the country, and hope soon to arrange telephone interviews with participants now based further afield, from the south of England to the western United States and even Australia. It will be instructive to discover in what ways former Gaelic-medium students in such diverse contexts engage with the language today, if at all.


Fishman, J. 1991. Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters).

Fishman, J. 2001. Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Reversing Language Shift Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters).

MacKinnon, K. 2007. ‘Gaelic-medium Education 1985-2007’, Powerpoint presentation, available online: <> [accessed 10.2.2012].

Nettle, D., & S. Romaine 2000. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Woolard, K. 2007. ‘Is There Linguistic Life after High School? Longitudinal Changes in the Bilingual Repertoire in Metropolitan Barcelona’, Language in Society, 40: 617– 648.

[Above is a guest post by Stuart Dumore.]

Stuart Dunmore is Soillse PhD Candidate in Celtic and Scottish Studies at The University of Edinburgh. The language-identity nexus has been central to his academic and research interests. His doctoral research on the Gaelic language is funded by the Soillse initiative, an inter-university network to enhance research capacity for the maintenance and revitalisation of Gaelic language and culture in Scotland.

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