Tuesday, 14 May 2013

There was an article in yesterday's

Scotsman saying that 48% of parents surveyed for the study believed that their child should have access to Gaelic language medium classes. A friend, knowing my interest in both the language of my forebears and endangered languages, sent me the link
I must say that 48% seemed rather high to me and the article was a little short on details of the actual research. Nevertheless I can well believe that 48% of parents might believe that Gaelic should be taught in Scottish schools. I believe Gaelic should be taught in Scottish schools - and not just because of some romantic idea that the language spoken by my great-grandparents should be preserved.
There was a time when Gaelic was considered seriously endangered - and perhaps it still is. There are, I believe, only about 60.000 Gaelic speakers. Even if there were 600,000 speakers the language would be struggling. 
What puzzles me is the way that so many people say, "It's a dead language" and "Why bother? Nobody uses it" or "What's the point? Everyone speaks English anyway."
While those sort of remarks are being made there are, here in Australia, quite a number of projects going on which are designed to "save" or "revive" any number of indigenous languages. These are languages which, if there are spoken at all, are spoken by tiny numbers of people - often just a few dozen older people. They are often bound up with all sorts of tribal taboos. In many cases it is simply not possible to get an accurate record of the language. What is being "saved" is what older people are prepared to give the next generation or the researchers. What is being "revived" is often what was collected by missionaries - and much of it is notorious for being inaccurate. 
The languages in question do not have the concepts for living in the 21st C. Those who spoke them did not these ideas. They needed other ideas. Their vocabulary for things like kinship and direction and the natural world are much more extensive because those things were important to their survival. They did not know about modern transport, medicine, computers or the rest of the world. Their languages have not developed to include these ideas. Many indigenous languages do not even have what we would consider to be basic mathematical concepts. They did not need them. English has taken over in order for the speakers of these languages to cope with the world around them and the languages have sometimes disappeared altogether. There is no written tradition which might have helped to preserve the language.
The reality is that we cannot be at all sure what it is that is actually going on in indigenous language research. Those doing it will claim that their work is important and that they have safeguards to ensure accuracy - even when they know that is unlikely. They claim it is important for indigenous Australians to feel proud of their language and learn it - even when there is no guarantee that what they are learning is what it is claimed to be. There is, and will continue to be, an insistence that this work is important and that the languages should be saved, revived, taught and even used.
And so, to go back to Gaelic. It is a language with a much more diverse 21st C appropriate vocabulary, one that has grown over the years despite the small number of speakers. There is a written and oral tradition. It has never completely died out. It is, in very small numbers, still spoken outside Scotland and has a close association with Irish Gaelic. There are much more extensive resources for its preservation and the teaching of it than there are for Australian indigenous languages. 
And any language is another way of thinking, another form of creativity, and a way of viewing the world. It adds a particular diversity and particular experience to the lives of those who learn it. It is, just like the indigenous languages of Australia, part of the human experience. Saving Gaelic is important for that reason alone. 


jeanfromcornwall said...

Apart from any other considerations, the is a point to cherishing Gaelic - there are so many beautiful songs that would sound so wrong if translated, or even sung by someone who was not a fluent speaker, since the "flow" of the words matches the music so well.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the above comment. I also think we should be doing everything we can to nurture the language back to full health. It has a rich literary tradition which could easily be lost. That does not mean losing sight of English as an international language of extreme importance and one we should all be fluent in. It does mean making sure that those of us who live here can also speak the language of our ancestors and understand and respect our history. There has been too much political wrangling over this issue. It is time to acknowledge it "must" be taught, not "might" be taught. The resources must be made available. Iain Henderson from Aberdeen