Language // “Criticising Gaelic Medium Education”

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© Emory Maiden

Last month, a piece of research by Aberdeen University was published which examined the Gaelic usage of pupils in a primary school class somewhere in the Highlands. The report highlighted the difficulties that many pupils face when speaking Gaelic, particularly when it comes to grammar. According to the research, children from homes where no Gaelic was spoken fared worst of all.

I’ve always felt quite envious of children in Gaelic Medium Education (GME). In my family, intergenerational transmission of Gaelic finally broke down between my grandparents’ and my parents’ generations, and so I grew up with very little Gaelic at home. GME would have given us as a family a way to claw back some Gaelic ground, but back in the late 1980s when I started primary school, it only been in existence for a couple of years and had yet to arrive in Oban.

Listening to Radio nan Gàidheal on the day this new piece of research about GME pupils was publicised, however, I felt quite sorry for them – particularly when the reporter insisted on reading out a list of all the mistakes the children were making, live on air on the station’s flagship news programme.

While Aithris na Maidne’s coverage of the report may have been a bit hysterical, it’s actually not clear from the research itself just how worried we should be about its findings. Are these children making more mistakes than children at the same level in Irish Medium Education, for example? Perhaps, but we are not told this in the report.

As you might expect, the report simply reports on the researchers’ findings in the classroom. Though the BBC’s headline for the story translates as “Report criticises Gaelic in schools”, it was in fact BBC Alba itself that did most of the criticising. As well as repeatedly reading out the pupil’s mistakes, the reporter started his interview with one of the researchers, Michelle NicLeòid, by suggesting that the Gaelic spoken in schools was unintelligible gibberish. “I wouldn’t use those terms at all,” replied NicLeòid.

Further on in the interview, NicLeòid stated, “Perhaps we should recognise the fact that the language is changing, and that it isn’t the same language it was a hundred years ago.” “Or even ten years ago!” interrupted the reporter. Again, NicLeòid wasn’t willing to agree with him.

The research does show, however, that there are issues, though this will come of little surprise to anyone. In fact, if you were asked to guess what the causes of these issues were found to be, without reading the research first, I’m sure you wouldn’t be far off the mark. It found that 1) teachers didn’t feel confident enough in their own ability regarding grammar, 2) there was far too little training or guidance at a national level regarding the teaching of Gaelic, and 3) pupils didn’t have enough opportunities to hear and to use Gaelic outside of school.

If we look at the first two points, it’s fairly obvious how they could be put right. But if it’s so obvious, why hasn’t it be done?

What is truly depressing is that this is in fact the fourth report we have read which has said practically the same thing: that there is a serious weakness regarding the level of training that Gaelic medium teachers receive. In 1999, the point was made in a report published by the General Teaching Council of Scotland; similar concerns were then raised in 2005 in a report written for the Scottish Government by the Gaelic Medium Teachers’ Action Group; in 2011, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate drew attention to the issue again; this year, this new research shows that the same issue is still affect the development of pupils’ Gaelic language skills.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig has made progress in recent years in terms of recruiting Gaelic-speaking teachers, and we have also seen progress in the form of new Gaelic schools being approved in Edinburgh, Glasgow Southside, Portree and Fort William. The numbers of children in GME are going up, though this isn’t happening as quickly as the Bòrd might like: they see raising the numbers in GME as being the main way of increasing the number of Gaelic speakers (though there are many who take issue with that position).

But if GME is so important to reversal of the language shift from Gaelic to English, why are teachers not receiving the training, guidance and professional development opportunities they need to do their jobs?

The responsibility for providing these things does not fall on Bòrd na Gàidhlig, but on the Government and on the universities which have been delivering teacher-training courses for years which fail to address the complex needs of Gaelic medium teachers. They should be asked to explain why they have not fulfilled this responsibility.

Regarding the third reason for the difficulties detailed in the report – that pupils aren’t getting enough opportunities to hear and to use Gaelic outside of school – the solution is less obvious. If children don’t get any Gaelic input at home, and if their school is not exclusively GME, their own classroom might be the only place that they receive any input in Gaelic. That puts a huge amount of pressure on their teachers; with that in mind, we should be thankful that, even with little training or support, people are still willing to undertake this difficult job.

At the beginning of the Aberdeen University report, the researchers write:

“There is no evidence to suggest that the GM education system is succeeding in transforming those who come to school as English speakers into active Gaelic speakers […] Indeed, research suggests that continuity in the GM secondary education sector is severely undermining the capacity of GM education to help second-language speakers obtain fluency in the language […] Nonetheless, the education system is central to the production of new speakers of Gaelic […]“

That last sentence may come to be true in the future, when there is effective GME provision available throughout the country at all levels, but it can’t be said to be true just now. That doesn’t mean that GME is not a positive development for Gaelic, or for education in Scotland. Indeed, there is evidence that shows GME is of more benefit to children that monolingual English education, despite the difficulties that currently exists. Would it not be better, then, to look at GME for what it is, as a successful method of educating our children, rather than as as a quick fix for reversing language shift, where the numbers in the classroom are more important than what happens inside it?

There was something else in the report that surprised me. It was the fact that the pupils studied persisted in speaking Gaelic for the duration of their task even though it was difficult for them, even though they were making mistakes, and even though they had to put in lots of English words to make themselves understood. It would have been so much easier for them to simply switch to using English – but they didn’t. It was clear that the wanted to speak Gaelic, and therefore that their teachers had been successful in creating a Gaelic-speaking environment in the classroom. More than that, the research showed that the pupils were happy to be in GME and that they had a positive relationship with the language.

It may not be the case for every pupil in every Gaelic class, but these pupils had clearly come to some sort of decision in themselves, that they were Gaelic speakers, even though they were making mistakes. It seems to me that we should recognise that this is something important and precious, and far harder to teach than grammar.

This is article was originally written in Gaelic and published here by the online Gaelic magazine, Dàna, which I co-edit.

The picture above is used under this Creative Commons licence.

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4 responses to “Language // “Criticising Gaelic Medium Education”

  1. I’ve only just started looking at the original research, but it seems that they only studied at four kids in all, so it’s hardly a representative sample of anything, simply an initial trial of their research methods. Also the ‘mistakes’ seem on the whole to be well within the bounds of variation in any spoken language, especially of young children / learners. If they’re learning by immersion then they will need extensive exposure to the language in order to deduce and internalise all the various grammar rules and exceptions, and there will always be grey areas where different analogies overlap. Learning a spoken language by immersion is very different to being taught the literary written standard through formal lessons. The first is like beginning with a fuzzy picture which gradually comes into focus, the latter more like starting in one corner of a canvas and painting outwards in near perfect detail. It was certainly quite inappropriate to use this work as a stick to beat Gàidhlig with.

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