Talking point: We need to treat Gaelic as a cultural emergency
The announcement of SNP manifesto commitments looking at creating a Gàidhealtachd (designated Gaelic-speaking area), the expansion of standalone Gaelic-medium schools and plans to increase the number of Gaelic teachers is positive news, because just as we have a climate crisis that requires urgent action to prevent irreversible damage, so too we have a cultural crisis threatening the continued survival of Gaelic as a community language – and it has a similar timespan for action before it will be too late.
It is 16 years since the passing of the Gaelic Language Act and the creation of the largely toothless Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and in that time, things have got worse rather than better in terms of fluent speakers, with too much reliance on Gaelic-medium education as the answer to everything and the creation of Gaelic language plans that often make little difference on the ground.
There needs to be a rethink of focus and funding, an increase in spending overall, but also an islands-first approach so that funding for Gaelic goes first and foremost to maintaining Gaelic-speaking communities.
The aim must be for everyone within that community, child or adult, to be able to at the very least understand Gaelic and speak the basics, recognising that even one monolingual English speaker in a room, whether that is a school, a shop or a workplace, will switch that to being an English-speaking environment.
It must be a clear expectation that everyone moving to the area should learn Gaelic and provision must be made to make that possible.
That means, for example, making all public sector jobs Gaelic essential, requiring those taking up posts to either speak the language already or commit to attaining a working level of fluency within a certain time after taking up the post, with fully funded immersion courses available to help do that.
It means grants to businesses to put in place pro-Gaelic recruitment policies and use Gaelic in the workplace and as part of conducting their business.
It means phasing out English schooling within Gaelic-speaking areas, with the aim of all education from early years to secondary being conducted in Gaelic, as well as the expansion of Gaelic-medium apprenticeships and college courses.
There needs to be full-time, rapid immersion courses available, both for those within the community and from outside it, with grant support available, even for those who already have degrees, to make it viable for people to take career breaks in order to achieve fluency in Gaelic.
Gaelic needs to be treated as a shortage subject in education, with the kind of financial incentives, both for primary and secondary subjects, such as £20,000 bursaries, that are offered in STEM and the ambition for more Gaelic-medium teachers needs to be in the hundreds rather than the tens.
It must be possible too for those who have qualifications in other subjects – biology, history, geography – to be put through Gaelic immersion, rather than simply waiting for Gaelic speakers with those qualifications to come through.
There also needs to be courses to support people within the Gaelic community with different existing capabilities in Gaelic, whether that is those who understand it but can’t speak it, those who speak it but never had the opportunity to learn to read and write it or those who speak some, but not to a level that they could use it as their language of communication professionally or socially.
And work needs to be done to encourage the use and passing on of Gaelic within the community, whether that is parents or grandparents speaking it to children or a buddy system where fluent speakers pass on their knowledge to learners.
In addition, it is clear much more needs to be done on housing and jobs in the islands simply to make it possible for people to stay there.
Like the climate crisis and COVID, addressing all this will not be easy and it will require a lot of investment.
It will most likely involve implementing some policies that are not universally popular.
But if Gaelic is to continue to be a spoken community language for decades to come and Gàidhealtachd more than an empty term, this is the scale of action that is needed.