Why Learn Gàidhlig?

Scottish Gaelic Words - 20

by Richard Gwynallen

So you don’t speak Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig).  You love your heritage — the history, the land, the music.  But you think you don’t have the facility for languages, or the time to learn.  How could my child learn if I can’t help?  I don’t live in Scotland. They will not be able to attend a Gaelic-medium school.  And why Scottish Gaelic anyway, besides it being a nice thing? Our family hasn’t spoken it in generations.  Of course I’d like my children to know another language, but why not one more useful, like Spanish?  Can’t I just listen to the music and wear my tartan?

On the one hand, there’s the benefits of second-language learning.  On another, there’s questions of identity. On yet another, there’s love.  Bear with me.

Scottish Gaelic Words - 10

The Importance of Early Childhood Language Learning

The benefits of bilingualism are pretty well established and can be read about elsewhere, but these are a few summary thoughts.  Bilingual children succeed better in school and socially, and tend to have more aptitude than their monolingual contemporaries for later language-learning.  Further, they develop an awareness of other points of view at an earlier age, to a great extent from having to chose which language to use based on the setting and the person with whom they are speaking.

Languages offer linguistic codes to understand the world.  Being comfortable with more than one such view fosters a cognitive flexibility, such as the awareness that the same thought can be expressed and even understood in more than one way, at times in ways difficult to translate.

This cognitive flexibility has been shown to give bilingual children greater skill at forming concepts, a more diverse set of mental abilities, and greater problem-solving capabilities.

Some of these cognitive advantages even accrue to second-language learners who do not grow up bilingual.

Another broadly accepted principle is that exposure to another language in the primary school years is more likely to lead to improved language learning and functional bilingualism than in late adolescent or adult years. Therefore, the best ‘window of opportunity’ for becoming fully bilingual is early childhood.

And, finally, the economic and social benefits of speaking more than one language are similarly understood today.

Language and Identity

Assuming the reader pretty much accepts the benefits of learning a second language, and that they have some interest in Gaelic or would not have bothered reading this, let’s consider the role of language in developing identity.

When I was in college at Towson University in the 1970s I loved the Egyptian singer Faruz.  Her voice was beautiful.  If you let yourself float on the music she could transport you.  I didn’t speak Arabic and only ever grew to know but a few words in Arabic.  I didn’t understand what Faruz was saying, but my Arabic speaking friends tried to translate it poetically.  It was beautiful, but more beautiful for those who understood the nuances of the language.

Languages contain idioms and concepts unique to that language and the experience of the people who speak it.  The poetry inherent in it offers insights into philosophies and ideas that are different in other languages.

As identity is bound up in language, the subtle values and worldview built into the language are part of that identity. The world is “seen” through the “eyes” of the language.

In my teens and 20s, many people were reading the work of Carlos Castenada.  In his journeys with the shaman, Don Juan, Castenada spoke of a form of “seeing” that did not stop at the visual identification of an object, such as a tree, but of understanding its “tree-ness.”  Our language just does not allow us to fully grasp the concept.  Every effort at it leaves us stumbling around because our language has no means to integrate it.

A native language might allow for a worldview that provides a dramatically different understanding of one’s relationship to the earth and the cosmos, and thus a substantively different sense of personal identity and values.

Since Pictish no longer survives, Gaelic is, arguably,  the oldest surviving Scottish language and offers that unique perspective on the history, culture and future of Scotland.

Learning any language, whether Spanish or Mandarin, expands horizons and can open job opportunities. But learning a lesser-used language, one that is threatened, such as Scottish Gaelic, serves several additional purposes. Clearly it offers the same benefits as with learning any language to fluency, but in addition the learner helps ensure a future for the language, a priceless part of that heritage, that future generations will have first hand access to this cultural and linguistic heritage, that it lives and thrives and does not become a relic in a museum, that the literary heritage will live and grow, that those future generations have the opportunity to add to that heritage, and that distinctively Gaelic ways of looking at the world survives.

I explored this intersection between identity, values, and language in an article called Under the Words.  I won’t repeat that article here and will just refer the reader to it.  Suffice it to say that language is important in how values are shaped, and thus how we relate to the world, and even what kind of world we are building.  On the one hand, can we use language to shift our modes of thinking and foster different values?  On another, can we sustain the linguistic roots of our families and in so doing learn more about ourselves?

All good, but, still, why Gaelic?

The “why”, can have a social, political, and academic way of understanding it.  But perhaps personal stories make it clearer.  We hope to have different such stories on the website in the months to come. For now, I’ll offer a few personal reflections as someone who grew up very aware of their cultural heritage but who only started studying Gaelic in middle age (or perhaps my older youth is a better way of expressing it).

My own connection to my heritage, to a land and people, and even a sense of duty as I got older, was embedded in the stories of my childhood told by my parents.  I was an American Army brat.  It’s a community and culture of it’s own.   The only way one develops an early sense of roots beyond that semi-nomadic culture, is if one’s parents are intentional about it. They were.  Not because of a plan to do so, to the best of my knowledge.  Just because it was natural to them.  So, as a child I thought of myself as an Army brat, then as an Army brat who was Irish, Welsh, and North Carolinian.  Later I would grow to add Scottish and French to that.  Identities evolve through our experiences.

When I became old enough to want to do something about that sense of duty, one step I took was to connect myself with Irish culture through music and Irish politics.  That engagement gave me what I would call today a sense of authenticity.  That sense of being Irish wasn’t just in my beliefs, it wasn’t just superficial.  The deeper I went the more I felt love for it all.

My father died when I was only in seventh grade, and my mother did not speak any language other than English.  We had spent years growing up in Japan and were exposed to many cultures and languages.  Perhaps if my father had lived longer attachment to a language would have come to me earlier.

Eventually, with my daughter, years past my involvement with Irish politics,  I chose to learn Gaelic. As with my involvement in Irish politics it gives authenticity to my connection to my heritage.  Wearing the kilt to Scottish activities is a good thing, and I do it.  But it can be more of a uniform, a garment donned and removed, more of a sometimes thing, than something that is with one every day.  The language allows one to immerse every day in the living reality of a people that stretches back into time, a linguistic root to which every generation may connect and enrich.  It’s a spiritual and cultural connection to a purpose greater than oneself, a purpose one hopes that one sees replicated in the generations that follow.

As my involvement in Irish politics gave deeper meaning to the music I listened to, so Gaelic gives deeper meaning to the kilt I don for special occasions.

Scottish Gaelic is referred to as a minority language.  By the numbers it is a minority language.  In the 2011 census, only 57,375 people (1.1% of the Scottish population) in Scotland reported speaking Scottish Gaelic.  Some even refer to it as an ultra-minority language.  The latter is frequently used by English-speaking Scots who object to the funding devoted to the growth of Gaelic.  However, Gaelic is different than a minority language that gets planted in a country through immigration.

One article I was reading referred to it as a “minoritised” language.  “A minoritised language is a language which was once the language of the majority of a given country or large geographical region, but due to political and other factors became socially marginalised.”  (Scotland’s Language Myths; Myth 3; Paul Kavanagh)

This state of a native language being marginalized is not just a Scottish story.  It’s the story of every culture that became dominated by another culture that spoke a different language.  It’s a story playing out in North America in Native American communities coast to coast.

It is not a state that occurs accidentally.  Use of the language of a dominant class or people becomes thought of by those marginalized as more advantageous to know in getting ahead, and the former rarely tries to learn the language of the latter.  Eventually language dominance becomes embedded in law.

In 1872, the Education Act centralized and formalized Scottish education. Gaelic was excluded from the act and thus from public school instruction.  The authorities were at best ambivalent to the language, regarding it as unnecessary with the spread of English. English was looked upon as the language of social advancement and Gaelic as backward.  Not just Gaelic was affected.  Stories abound as late as the 1950s and 1960s of schools aggressively discouraging student conversation in Doric and other Scots dialects as well as Gaelic.

Similar situations are faced by communities of marginalized languages everywhere.  Systematic efforts to remove Gaelic from public school instruction in Scotland and penalties for use of it are mirrored in similar efforts to force assimilation among Native Americans.

Legal and social inequalities combined with a marginalized population’s belief in the efficiency of learning the dominant language combine to create a vicious cycle. In such a situation what was just a natural speaking and transmission of the native language becomes a social responsibility to ensure cultural integrity and survival.

Again, this is not a story that is restricted to Gaels.  In Chapter 23, “The Invisible Door Between Cultures,” of Teaching Indigenous Languages, Robert N.St. Clair discusses the importance of Native American languages in distinguishing between the values of the indigenous culture and the larger consumer culture.

In this context, reclamation of Gaelic, as an inherent right of everyone in Scotland or anyone who is attached to the Gaelic world, represents a rejection of the cultural homogenization of commercial culture stretching around the world, and of the effects of empire and colonialism.  This, too, has been a factor in my own decision to learn the language.

That said, language evolves. My Scottish ancestors probably spoke Gàidhlig at some point, then a dialect of Scots (since many came from the Northeast, probably Doric was one of those dialects; others from Galloway a different dialect), or both Gàidhlig and Scots in the same generation, maybe even a little Norse in there somewhere, then the English of the American Colonies, then eventually modern American English.  I could offer a similar pattern for my Irish ancestors. I don’t advocate at all giving up the language our families have come to speak.  English has been part of us for generations. Most of my family has been in North America since the early 18th century.  We’re heirs of the colonialism that created the country. And English is useful, and has a literature of it’s own that is important in our family’s history.  People should learn Spanish as well.  That, too, is useful for North Americans at this point in history.

Scottish Gaelic is part of our experience and heritage in North America.  It has been spoken in North America for nearly 400 years with the first settlement of Gaels after 1621 in what is now Port Royal on the western shore of Nova Scotia.  In the 18th century, Gaelic-speaking communities were established in southeast North Carolina, south of Savannah, Georgia, and on Cape Breton Island and other parts of Nova Scotia.  In the early 19th century expansion of Gaelic-speaking communities continued with the establishment of the Red River colony in what would become Manitoba.

Nova Scotia remains a vibrant hub of Gaelic culture in North America.  The dialects there are authentic North American dialects of Gaelic.

More and more efforts are being put into the education of children in Gaelic, as is the case with many marginalized languages.  Changing children’s perceptions of the languages around them to see value and normalcy in the native (even if it was native generations ago) language is crucial to stopping disintegration of the language.  Children learn the usefulness and value of the language by experience.

However, this cannot be fully effective without adults learning to speak the language. All of us adults learning is important for our children, grandchildren, and the community at large.

We pursue most things because we love them.   It’s that underlying passion that drives you on when so many other things could occupy your time – a love of land, of people, of your children and their future, of justice, and a sense of duty that arises from that love.

In the early stages of learning a language one is opened to different ways of looking at the world, different ways of thinking, and one can start to consider those differences intellectually. Languages aren’t just interchangeable codes. But like any adventure, the gains come the deeper one delves, the more fluent one becomes. Follow the love.  As with all things, go “all in” and your experience is richer.

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Select Sources

Scotland’s Language Myths: 3. It’s a waste of children’s time learning Gaelic or Scots; Paul Kavanagh

Gaelic4Parents

 Teaching Indigenous Languages, edited by Jon Reyhner, (pp. 1-9). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Copyright 1997 by Northern Arizona University; “Keeping Minority Languages Alive: The School’s Responsibility”, Gina P. Cantoni

Lost in Translation, (Wall Street Journal, 24 July 2010), Lera Boroditsky (Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California at San Diego, and editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology)

How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?, Lera Boroditsky (Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California at San Diego, and editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology)