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‘S beag orm Gàidhlig, arsa Pàrlamaid na h-Alba

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‘S beag orm Gàidhlig, arsa Pàrlamaid na h-Alba

I may be wrong, I hope I’m wrong, I really do, in fact I’m willing to be proved absolutely wrong. But it seems to me that the Scottish Parliament has no particular affection for Gaelic and the Gaelic Culture, and little serious interest in its survival.

I suppose this is simply a reflection of the general Scottish colonial cringe towards the English and other foreigners about Gaelic. What Scotland and the Scots need is an injection of Welsh assertiveness.

Nevertheless, it really ought to be the Scottish Parliament that, pace W. S. Gilbert’s Duke of Plaza Toro, should lead the regiment from the front and by example.

Apart from the public, touristy areas of the architectural monstrosity at the bottom of the Cannongate by Holyroodhouse Palace, there’s hardly a word of the ancient tongue to be seen – not even on a finger board pointing to the taighean beaga.

How are the mighty fallen? At the end of the Eighteenth Century, two generations after the vindictive genocide that followed the disastrous Blàr Chùil Lodair, or Battle of Culloden, in 1746, 80 percent of Scotland was Gaelic speaking.

Nowadays, fewer than 60,000 people speak it, and they’re mostly confined to the Hebrides. And even the Gaelic-speaking youth would prefer to speak English, because Gaelic isn’t “cool”.

How do you make it fionnar? Could it be – shock! horror! – by those in charge of its learning and revival actually taking the matter seriously? The Parliament could take an initiative and start requiring bilingualism in public documents – just as they do in Wales.

It could also give some proper support to efforts to teach the language, and popularise the fact that there is teaching of the language available. And it could make some serious efforts to provide facilities and properly designed courses for those wanting to learn it.

Does it realise, for example, that London – according to The Herald – is the third largest Scottish city, with some 350,000 Scots in it? And that the south-east of England has over a million?

Gaelic isn’t a vastly difficult language unlike, say, Arabic, Hebrew, or Mandarin – there are only 10 irregular verbs, for example. And the extremely successful Ulpan system for teaching Hebrew, which has been used as the base for teaching Welsh as Wlpan, has been converted for Gaelic as Ùlpan Gàidhlig. So why hasn’t its use and availability become more widespread?

Some subsidy from the Parliament would be advantageous, too. It is expensive to study, and many people don’t have too much spare cash at the moment. It is also time-consuming, and some incentivising – like reduced fees – would not go amiss.

But, I think, the best fillip learning the language could have would be well-designed short courses.

At the moment, what seems to be available is either long courses lasting a year or more and leading to a degree-level qualification, or very short courses of one to two weeks that don’t appear to lead anywhere other than introduce the student to Scottish country dancing and Gaelic songs.

This doesn’t strike me as being serious about turning around the decline in the language.

Quite a few years ago, when I was a shiny new second lieutenant, I found myself on a basic Malay language course at the Language Wing of the Far East Training Centre at Nee Soon Barracks in central Singapore.

The aim of the Army Colloquial Malay Course was to equip the student with basic grammar, a 500-word or so vocabulary, and the ability to increase this by his or her own devices. Each evening one was required to learn a vocabulary for next day’s testing of around 25 words – quite a tall order.

The course was designed to last between four and six weeks, five days a week, and involved mornings learning and using grammar and vocabulary and afternoons talking one-on-one with native speakers.

Our course was cut short because Internal Security duties obtruded; nevertheless, I was able to become fluent, even bilingual, in Malay.

It is well-known that the best, most comprehensive, shortest duration teaching of Arabic in the world is the Long Arabic Course at the Joint Services School of Education at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire which lasts 18 months.

What I find quite astonishing is that the Armed Services are able to put together these courses – one teaching one of the simplest languages and the other one of the most difficult – and yet civilian institutions of learning are unable to match this. And their typical students are not university grade, but ordinary people with a basic education.

Taking the model of that Malay course for teaching Gaelic and using the Ulpan method – which wasn’t available then – it should be a very simple matter to design and run several month-long courses in Scotland or elsewhere, say in London, Islay, Skye, or Benbecula – even, don’t be shocked, in Edinburgh – to turn the decline in the language around.

All it requires is some Welsh assertiveness, and a seriousness on the part of educators, bureaucrats, and politicians that appears to this layman to be in short supply. Time for a change in attitude; an abandonment of the colonial cringe of the colonised mind, perhaps?

Then there’ll be plenty of time for singing and dancing.

Gun tèid gu math leibh: may it go well with you.

© D Rosser-Owen 2009

Written by David Rosser Owen

April 18, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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