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Preventing the Death of a Language

21 Oct

Catherine Dekeizer

This summer I found myself on a long and bumpy ferry trip to the Isle of Lewis in the north-west of Scotland. While I was on the ferry, I heard people around me speaking in a language that I did not understand and had never heard spoken before. It wasn’t French, or German or even Spanish, it was Gaelic. Gaelic (pronounced GA-lek, not GAY-lik) is a Celtic language that was at one point the predominant language in Scotland, but today is only really spoken in remote areas of the northern and western Highlands. There was a time when Gaelic appeared to be going extinct, with few schools teaching it and little interest in learning it – English having become the lingua franca of Great Britain. But in the past 50 years or so there has been a huge resurgence in interest in the language. In 2006 a school that taught solely in Gaelic opened in Glasgow, and in 2009 the Scottish government pledged nearly £1.5 million to double the number of schools teaching Gaelic as an elective. Alongside this increase in teaching, there has been a large boost in spending for the BBC Gaelic language services such as BBC Alba and BBC Radio nan Gaidheal. All this has had a huge impact on the number of Gaelic speakers which rose to nearly 60,000 in 2003.

But all this begs the question: should we try to revive Gaelic, a language spoken only in small parts of the Highlands, and hardly anywhere else in the world? Why should the government invest money in producing Gaelic radio and TV programs? Why should schools start offering it alongside French or German? Why should we put time, money and effort into breathing new life into a language that some might say has reached the end of its tether? Perhaps the real question to ask is whether or not we should try to prevent language demise. If you see language as simply a tool to communicate, then preventing the death of a language seems futile and nonsensical. Surely the fewer languages there are in the world, the easier and more efficient communication and interaction will become. But language is not just a collection of words and grammar. Language is a fundamental part of the life of a people. When a language dies, a whole culture, a whole set of songs, stories, legends and sayings die with it.  As the French linguist Charles Hagege writes: “”What we lose is essentially an enormous cultural heritage, the way of expressing the relationship with nature, with the world, between themselves in the framework of their families, their kin people…”  If Gaelic was allowed to die out, to be stamped out by the inexorable force of English, then in many ways the Gaelic culture would die with it. The British Isles was once a place of multiple languages and cultural diversity, and in order to preserve that diversity, we should act in whatever way we can to support Gaelic and its revitalisation.

If you are interested in learning more about Gaelic, the BBC website has many tools for complete beginners, as well as a large amount of Gaelic television shows and radio programmes. Alternatively, you can sign up to the Gaelic Beginner’s evening language course offered at the University of St Andrews.