Stuart Dunmore - Bilingual oracy education in UK minority languages: Challenges in policy and practice
Dr. Stuart Dunmore is Co-Investigator on the Speaking Citizens project, based between the Universities of Edinburgh and Sussex
The development of speaking ability, fluency, or ‘oracy’ in children becomes a matter of heightened political and emotional significance in minority language settings. In Scotland, the Gaelic language is now spoken by just 1% of the national population, having been actively minoritised by the (Scottish, and later British) state over the course of several centuries.
When Scotland was established in the early medieval period, Gaelic (Gàidhlig) was the most widely spoken language over the north of Britain. Indeed, the people for whom the name ‘Scots’ was coined (Latin: Scotti) referred to themselves as Gaels (Old Gaelic: Goídil). As a consequence of sweeping macroeconomic and socio-political change during the high middle ages, Gaelic as a spoken, community vernacular was driven gradually further to the north and west of the mainland Highlands, and the adjacent islands known as the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar).
In the 1870s, over a quarter of a million people could still speak Gaelic, including a great many who could not speak English. When state education started in Scotland in 1872, however, no provision was made for the teaching of Gaelic in schools. Linguistic and community decline accelerated through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the few remaining communities where a majority of the local population can speak Gaelic are now scattered throughout the Western Isles.
In recent decades, formerly Gaelic-dominant communities in the Highlands and Islands have continued to decline, despite increased policy interventions to support Gaelic since the 1980s. Conversely, initiatives which aim to increase speaker numbers, such as Gaelic-medium education (GME) continue to expand, both in Western Isles communities and especially the more densely populated Lowlands. In effect, GME has become one of the principal policy mechanisms in Scotland for the creation of new generations of proficient Gaelic speakers.
GME started in 1985, when 24 children in two classes in Glasgow and Inverness started their schooling through this bilingual immersion model. Some 6,200 children currently receive GME, compared with the total of 58,000 reported Gaelic speakers in the 2011 census (or the estimated 11,000-strong ‘vernacular’ community of speakers in the Western Isles recently delineated by Soillse researchers at the University of the Highlands and Islands). Critically, GME students are an increasingly diverse cohort, drawn from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, particularly in Scotland’s cities.
Research that informed my 2019 book Language Revitalisation in Gaelic Scotland examined long-term outcomes of GME. My analysis demonstrated that former students who started school in the 1980s and 90s tend not to speak Gaelic frequently now, whilst the language ideologies they conveyed tended to rationalise this limited use. It is therefore clear that minority language advocates, policymakers and researchers should exercise caution not to rely excessively on the education system for creating new generations of active speakers.
Yet crucially, policymakers internationally continue to lack effective responses for reversing community linguistic decline. Minority language acquisition – whether in immersion schools or the home – will thus likely remain critical to securing a future for many minority languages around the world.
Languages serve as repositories of culture and identity for those who have learned to speak them to fluency, whether on a parent’s knee or primary classroom in childhood, in adolescence or adulthood. Patterns by which a particular language goes out of use altogether are often deeply enmeshed in socioeconomic factors, and language loss in late globalised capitalism is accelerating rapidly.
In that sense, minority linguistic communities in the UK, whether Scottish or Irish Gaels, Welsh or Cornish speakers, are part of much wider international movement to reverse language decline and revitalise their distinctive varieties.
Ultimately, many young people in contemporary communities weren’t raised as Gaelic speakers by their parents, and thus never had the opportunity to become ‘native’, vernacular speakers of the language. If greater numbers of orally proficient speakers, with both the ability and disposition to raise families through Gaelic are to be created, policy to extend and improve GME provision in Scotland from 3-18 will be imperative in supporting them to do so.
As has recently been emphasised by GME students and parents from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, people of colour in urban Gaelic communities often face distressing challenges which arise from systemic racism. This is both unacceptable and inconsistent with the development of a multicultural society that values and celebrates the heritage identities of all its citizens.
I will explore issues of ethnicity and linguistic identity in GME through my participation in Speaking Citizens as research fellow, interviewing past students, parents and teachers about their experiences, and making suggestions for policymakers. It is clear that bridging current social and geographical divides between native and new speakers, whilst simultaneously encouraging the deeper development of multiculturalism, whether in the Western Isles, Highlands or urban Lowlands, will be a key policy challenge for Gaelic in coming years.
Stuart is author of Language Revitalisation in Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2019)