Talking point: Speaking of Gaelic
Gaelvember comes as a welcome reprieve from a quite jarring few weeks for speakers of the language.
According to my social media feeds, we’re now three weeks into ‘Gaelvember’, which means I probably should have been writing all my articles in Gaelic this month.
The tongue-in-cheek campaign is being promoted by Gaelic speakers online, after a similar Irish language hashtag took off in October. The idea is simply to do your best to use Gaelic for the whole month, online or off, no matter your level of fluency.
It’s a light-hearted challenge, meant to allow learners and rusty native speakers (like me) to feel comfortable to give it a go free from judgement. While it’s second nature for us to tweet or Instagram in English, it’s actually quite an awkward thing for a lot of people to do in Gaelic because of how different the context is to the classroom situations so many people contain themselves to.
It might just be a bit of fun, but it comes as a welcome reprieve from quite a jarring few weeks for the language.
The month of October is usually a highlight in the Gaelic calendar, with the annual national Mòd.
This year’s festival took place in Glasgow, and by all accounts was a success, raising the culture’s visibility and bringing a reported £2m to the city.
But it was barely over when focus shifted back onto the cold reality facing Gaelic in the real world.
Figures from a University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) study found that no more than 11,000 people might be able to speak the language in the islands – Gaelic’s historic heartland.
The 2011 census tells us there are 58,000 speakers across Scotland. Figures from 2018 show a huge increase in Gaelic medium education (GME), a hopeful sign that more might tick that box in 2021.
Indeed, demand for GME is said to be outpacing supply, at least in Glasgow, where in October John Swinney announced plans to open a fourth all-Gaelic primary school.
Investment in education is great, but as Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin of UHI warned, Gaelic at this rate “will continue as the language of school and heritage but not as a living language”.
This is the daunting challenge the UHI findings highlight – how can we create a community where people can reliably use their Gaelic in immersive social settings?
In the Highlands and Islands, it's about density; it's about community.
In the cities, like Edinburgh, Gaelic speakers are so diffuse that it takes real planning to get together IRL (in real life) just to speak. I can't be the only one who struggles with that.
Campaigners suggest all sorts of reasonable but potentially transformative, plans to revitalise Gaelic in the world of work and in the home. The government should support these.
In fairness, it would help if those charged with the big responsibility of saving the language weren’t in such a bùrach themselves.
Bòrd na Gaidhlig, the Gaelic quango, was condemned in a recently leaked report from auditors who described a “culture of fear” at the top, where leaders are “actively working against” one another.
And the controversy over remarks made by the heads of Highland Council on perceived unfairness in resources and activities for Gaelic pupils compared with their English medium compatriots is still boiling away.
Kate Forbes and Alasdair Allan – both Gaelic speakers - criticised the attitude displayed by the council leadership, with Allan saying the council clearly doesn’t understand how Gaelic medium education works. Teachers across the region are scunnered.
This is why the Gaelvember hashtag doesn’t seem so silly after all. It’s easy to feel hopeless when the little victories (Gaelic Duolingo!) simply don’t match the scale of the challenge.
Rhoda Grant was right, speaking during a members’ debate on indigenous languages on 6 November, to warn of the consolation of “window dressing”.
We are living through a cultural emergency that will need big steps to address.
But after a particularly grim few weeks, I’ve come to feel that trying to use the language more, even if it’s just online, with friends, is at the very least a small step out of the classroom, into the living (albeit virtual) world.