Parents could hold key to Gaelic’s future

Parents could hold the key to the future prosperity of Gaelic in Scotland – even if they do not speak the language themselves, according to research led at the University of Strathclyde.

A study found that as much value was placed on the value of Gaelic by speakers as by non-speakers. This demonstrated a marked change in attitudes from three decades ago, when the speaking of minority languages in general was found to be discouraged.

However, favourable views of these languages did not always in practice translate into opportunities for children to speak them outside school lessons.  

The researchers proposed that future studies explore the locations in which speakers used a minority language, such as home, school or social settings, as well as the frequency of their use.

The study, led by Strathclyde researcher Dr Fraser Lauchlan, appears as a chapter in Bilingualism and Minority Languages in Europe, a book co-edited by Dr Lauchlan and Dr Maria del Carmen Parafita Couto of Leiden University in the Netherlands. It also includes a comparative evaluation of attitudes towards the speaking of Sardinian on the Italian island of Sardinia.

Attitudes

Dr Lauchlan, an Honorary Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, said: “Attitudes towards languages, particularly minority languages, can be influenced by factors such as the increased economic and social opportunities that they might offer, the general levels of confidence about a language’s value and the diversity of contexts in which it might be spoken.

“This study demonstrated clearly the positive value placed on minority languages - in our research, Gaelic and Sardinian - not only by parents and children who spoke them but also by those who did not.  It was not surprising that bilingual speakers viewed these languages more favourably but it is significant because 30 years ago, such positive attitudes would not have been found, even among those who spoke these minority languages.

“Previous research from more than two decades ago found that there was almost a level of embarrassment about speaking such languages and they were discouraged for many years. It is only in recent times that there has been a re-emergence of the importance placed on these languages – possibly because of a better understanding of the benefits that being bilingual can bring, but also because of their promotion at national or regional level by governments, including the specific introduction of legislation.

“However, this does not necessarily translate into wider practice and dissemination of a minority language. In other places, it has been found that opportunities to speak such a language can be comparatively limited and children can be seen to be mostly speaking the dominant state, or majority, language out of school.

“Despite this, it may be parents who hold the key regarding how a minority language is promoted. If parents have a positive attitude, it could be a first step towards a language’s increased use within the home, and this in turn could have a positive impact on the practice of the language in wider society. This could even be true for parents who don’t speak the language, as has been found with some whose children are in Gaelic-medium education; they may encourage their children to read and to watch TV programmes in the minority language – and may even learn it themselves.”             

Surveys were carried out of 236 parents and children on the Hebridean island of Lewis and on Sardinia, including speakers and non-speakers of Gaelic and Sardinian. Nearly 90% believed Gaelic or Sardinian should be taught in schools, while nearly three-quarters felt speaking these languages was equally important to speaking English or Italian.

Just over three-quarters thought it was as important to learn Gaelic or Sardinian at school as more educationally established languages, such as French, German or Spanish. More parents and children, particularly parents, in Scotland were positively predisposed to the minority language when compared with the Sardinian respondents.

Bilingualism and Minority Languages in Europe is published by Cambridge Scholars publishing.