Gaelic status quo will just mean more stagnation

"The new legislation is in danger of exacerbating the disconnect between the civic aspirations for Gaelic promotion and the difficult social reality""The new legislation is in danger of exacerbating the disconnect between the civic aspirations for Gaelic promotion and the difficult social reality"
"The new legislation is in danger of exacerbating the disconnect between the civic aspirations for Gaelic promotion and the difficult social reality"
Ahead of a debate in the Scottish Parliament on The Scottish Languages Bill (2023), Prof. Conchúr Ó Giollagáin describes its provisions as a diversionary response to the crisis in Gaelic communities.

​The primary question we need to pose about this draft legislation, the Scottish Languages Bill (2023), is whether the legislation is relevant to the primary issue facing Gaelic speakers and learners, that of sustaining Scottish Gaelic as a lived and viable social and cultural identity in Scotland.

The foundational legislation, the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, established a civic framework which emphasised the official promotion of Gaelic in schooling and the media, and in the symbolic use of the language in public bodies. The weakness of the 2005 Act can still be observed in the inadequate social traction the Act achieved in establishing practical initiatives and mechanisms for supporting the use of Gaelic in communities.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The new legislation is in danger of exacerbating this disconnect between the civic aspirations for Gaelic promotion and the difficult social reality of the speakers in that it is not proposing significant reform to the previous legislation, and it suggests no identifiable benefits to help address the vulnerable social reality of the remaining vernacular speakers. In short, the Bill posits amendments without seeking to enact meaningful and relevant reform. Unfortunately, this Bill only offers a slightly amended version of the legal status quo which has contributed to the precarious current situation.

The Bill, as it stands, is sufficient to promote Gaelic as a school language and as a secondary language with publicly sponsored civic visibility. It is insufficient, however, to protect Gaelic as a community language of native speakers, and against their social and cultural assimilation into English-speaking society. The Scottish Government must, therefore, determine if this is the outcome they desire.

The Bill, as presented to Parliament last November, has the potential to become part of the problem, as it may be seen as the legislative counterpart of the denialist approach to the Gaelic societal crisis which was adopted by many of the official bodies charged with supporting Gaelic affairs.

The Bill does not indicate what evidence base the amendments rest upon or what societal aims it is seeking to achieve. It is offering more of the same focus on the institutional practice of Gaelic at the expense of protecting its use in communities. This begs the question about what purpose the Bill serves if one of its main implications is that it will perpetuate the current approach to Gaelic development. Sustaining the remaining native-speaking Gaelic communities in Scotland has become, to all intents and purposes, strategically impossible in the existing official framework.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

As the day-to-day vernacular use of Gaelic has become increasingly marginal in the youth and parental age groups, this Bill is the last chance of the legislature, and its official bodies, to arrest the late-stage demise of the remaining Gaelic communities in the islands.

The Bill, as proposed, has not prioritised this primary issue and will most likely be perceived as a squandered opportunity. Its lack of a sense of urgency about societal reality not only demonstrates an official complacency about struggling Gaelic communities, but it also indicates the ongoing civic preference to contain Gaelic development to a manageable institutional remit and to the related promotion of symbolic debates about language identity.

From a community perspective, the main amendment in the Bill centres around the establishment of the ‘Areas of Linguistic Significance’. This may prove to be a diversionary aspect of the Bill to avoid addressing the vernacular crisis. The Gaelic communities with 20%+ Gaelic speaker social densities will have to compete with three other geographic designations, including areas with a ‘historical connection’ to Gaelic, i.e. areas where Gaelic is rarely spoken, if at all.

The other main operational change the Bill suggests is that the current Language Plan approach of c. 60 public bodies would be replaced by a Language Standards process, which has been borrowed from other minority-language contexts with significantly higher speaker numbers and social densities.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This raises the question as to whether a marginal language, like Scottish Gaelic, has the social and institutional capacity to carry such a bureaucratic burden. The box-ticking aspect of some of the Language Plans has been cited in criticisms of the approach, but it is hard to envisage how the Language Standards process will be more than a rebureaucratisation of the current dispensation.

As the Bill has the worrying potential to be diversionary, the best advice would be to suspend the legislation as currently proposed. This would allow for consideration of developing community mechanisms among Gaelic communities to build their collective capacity to address their actual challenges, as opposed to symbolic ones.

This community-focused approach would entail identifying structures to establish some local democratic control over the distribution of resources to give practical socio-economic assistance to promote and protect the use of Gaelic in families, in communities, in schools and in other civic institutions serving them. Gaelic speakers and learners have more pressing needs for feasible community development rather than cosmetic attempts at amending language legislation.

(Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the UHI Gaelic Research Professor. This article is a summary of his contribution to the Education, Children and Young People Committee on the Scottish Languages Bill on Wednesday 1st May.)