Bòrd na Gàidhlig consultation on Scotland's National Gaelic Language Plan

Written by Jenni Davidson on 3 March 2017 in Feature

Scotland’s Gaelic Language Plan sets out the way ahead for the language over the next five years

Gaelic medium education - Image credit: Bòrd na Gàidhlig

Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the public body with responsibility for Scottish Gaelic, published the draft National Gaelic Language Plan 2017-2022 for public consultation two weeks ago.

Its purpose, explains Bòrd na Gàidhlig chief executive Shona MacLennan, is to lay out the policy for Gaelic which will further strengthen the language, at both local and national levels, for the next five years.

“What the plan does is set out the overarching aims for ensuring that Gaelic has a secure future in Scotland. It indicates how government, local authorities, public bodies and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, along with other partners, will take forward the promotion and support of Gaelic.

“As this is the third iteration of the plan, it builds on what has been implemented during the lives of the previous plans and looks forward to where we think Gaelic can and should be developed over the next five years.”


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Bòrd na Gàidhlig was established through the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 and one of its responsibilities is to prepare and submit to Scottish ministers a national Gaelic language plan every five years.

This means that the plan has a legal status and is more than just a list of corporate priorities.

The concept of language planning is common in minority language communities as a means of influencing how a language is used and that is what this plan is about. 

“In preparing this one, what we’ve done is reflect on what has happened as a result of the previous plans, identified what are still priority areas, where we need the focus to continue and then consider where there are new opportunities, and where there should be new commitments to further strengthen Gaelic in Scotland.”

She continues: “It is essentially the policy for Gaelic. So once it’s approved, it identifies not only our work at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, but also for other public bodies, and where resources should be allocated.

“The Gaelic Act is about ensuring equal respect for Gaelic and this plan concentrates on three areas in particular – promoting Gaelic, learning Gaelic and using Gaelic.”

Over recent years attitudes have changed significantly towards Gaelic. Attitude surveys in 2011 and 2013 showed the majority of people were positive about Gaelic and the plan contains commitments to increase this further.

BBC Alba has been central to widening the appeal of Gaelic to the whole of Scotland and the campaign to increase the hours of original programming remains a priority.

Events like Celtic Connections and the Hebridean Celtic Festival also contribute to Gaelic’s appeal to a wider audience, both domestic and international, so the plan considers how to broaden and develop that further.

One success in recent years has been the growth in Gaelic medium education. This year will see the opening of the sixth standalone Gaelic school, and the plan looks to increase that number to 10.

As bilingualism is increasingly shown to provide health, cognitive and language skills, so greater numbers of parents are choosing Gaelic medium education for their children.

The plan, therefore, has an increased focus on childcare and education. As of 1 February this year, the Gaelic provisions of the Education (Scotland) Act came into force.

These created the right for parents to request an assessment for Gaelic medium primary education.

Making sure that these provisions and the statutory guidance that accompany them are implemented is going to be a major priority over the next five years.

The idea is that the plan functions as a springboard from which more specific practical solutions can be worked out to achieve the aims.

MacLennan gives the example of the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the number of hours of childcare for three and four year olds.

“If you’re a parent and you’re interested in Gaelic medium education for your child, the opportunity to have an increased number of hours of childcare, which are delivered through the medium of Gaelic, provides a better immersion experience for your child. This also means that when they progress to primary school their language skills enable them to make a more successful transition.

“And then if we’re saying there’s the potential there to increase the number of hours of provision, then there has to be the staff and the facilities to deliver that provision.

“Currently, those resources aren’t available in sufficient numbers – which is also true in English medium – so there needs to be training courses developed and students completing those courses so as to be able to deliver that provision.”

Another focus is on increasing the sustainability in the Gaelic arts, which are important in terms of language use and the vibrancy of the community.

The arts bring a lot of people to Gaelic, through music and drama particularly, including the Fèis movement and major events like the National Mòd.

And MacLennan notes that it’s vital to make sure that the arts sector is strengthened to enable the current delivery to be sustained, to flourish and to spread. 

In terms of success, MacLennan says it could be quantitative, such as the numbers of Gaelic schools, of Gaelic medium units within schools, and of pupils, but that it’s also much wider than that. 

Sitting alongside the National Gaelic Language Plan are the Gaelic language plans which public bodies and community organisations have developed for their own areas of work.

The spread of these over the last five years has been one of the main areas of growth, MacLennan says, with 50 public bodies now having plans in place and another 10 currently developing them. 

“In terms of success, looking at that spread and reach, the numbers of people working in organisations with Gaelic language plans is significant as is the number of people accessing the services provided by those organisations.”

MacLennan mentions how grateful she is that Gaelic has benefited from cross-party political support for the language.

She explains: “There’s been a tendency, I think, particularly very recently, for people wanting to criticise the government to align Gaelic with nationalism and the Deputy First Minister spoke out against this very strongly at the Mòd last October.

“Of course, the Gaelic Language Act was passed under the Labour-Lib Dem coalition government. Much of the funding that originally came for Gaelic television came under a Conservative government, so it really has, over the last 30 or more years, very much had cross-party support, and that’s something which we welcome very strongly.”

The changing political environment is also potentially a challenge for Gaelic.

Brexit is a cause for some concern in relation to this, MacLennan says, as many of the frameworks for minority languages are Europe-based and leaving the European Union could present further challenges.

In response to this, the plan looks to strengthening international links with Gaelic communities in Nova Scotia, its sister language in Ireland and with other minority language communities.

Another key aspect of the sustainability of Gaelic, and its impact, is in the economy. Research commissioned by Highlands & Islands Enterprise, in partnership with Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Creative Scotland and VisitScotland, showed that the potential economic value of Gaelic as an asset to the economy could be in the region of between £82m and £149m. 

However, the situation in the Western Isles, which has many communities where the majority of people are Gaelic speakers, is cause for concern.

Over the years it has secured significant EU funding, particularly for infrastructure projects.  

“If that money is no longer available and not replaced with other funding, then the economy is likely to change, leading to fewer jobs.

“If there are fewer jobs, there is less to keep people, particularly young people, in their communities and if there are fewer people, that has an impact on Gaelic.”

But the Western Isles has also seen substantial numbers of community land buyouts during the last 10-12 years. The plan contains a commitment to work with Community Land Scotland to make sure that Gaelic is at the heart of this economic development, through linking it with tourism, heritage projects or social care businesses, for example, and integrating Gaelic learning and usage into economic growth.

The plan looks to strengthen other types of Gaelic-speaking communities in Scotland too, such as those around Gaelic medium education, seeing more opportunities provided for children to use Gaelic in activities outside the classroom.

A positive development MacLennan has seen since the last language plan is Gaelic becoming more normalised, that people who previously might not have been exposed to Gaelic are becoming more aware of it, particularly through BBC Alba.

But as younger generations don’t watch TV in the same way as older people, Gaelic is also going to have to be more present in the digital sphere.

One key change MacLennan would like to see is Gaelic considered more often at the planning stages of policy rather than only being considered later.

“We want to try and make sure that there’s many more responses to consultations, particularly statutory consultations, to ensure that the potential impact, beneficial or negative, for Gaelic is highlighted at the development stage.

“That would keep Gaelic at the centre of policymaking, which in turn will help secure its place in Scotland for the future.”

Bòrd na Gàidhlig is keen to receive input on the National Gaelic Language Plan 2017-2022 from individuals and organisations across the whole of Scotland. You can provide your feedback on the draft plan at www.gaidhlig.scot

The consultation will end on 17 May, with the final plan to be published by the end of June 2017.

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