'Endangered' Gaelic on map of world's dead languages

GAELIC is "definitely endangered" and needs help to survive the 21st century, according to a new report which puts it on a map of the world's dead and threatened languages.

Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, says half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends, unless urgent action is taken by governments and speaker communities.

It hopes its Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, published yesterday, will help the preservation of under-threat tongues. The threatened languages are ranked as unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

Gaelic is seen as definitely endangered as there were just 58,552 speakers left in the 2001 census. Unesco says a language is endangered when its speakers stop using it, or use it less often and stop passing it on to the next generation.

It says: "Today, increased migration and rapid urbanisation often bring along the loss of traditional ways of life and a strong pressure to speak a dominant language that is – or is perceived to be – necessary for full civic participation and economic advancement."

Koichiro Matsuura, Unesco's director-general, said: "The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes."

Gaelic supporters last night said the language has been suffering for many years but is undergoing a revival thanks to developments such as the Gaelic TV channel BBC Alba.

Arthur Cormack, interim chairman of Brd na Gidhlig, the national Gaelic development agency, said: "To have a body like Unesco recognising the importance and value of Gaelic is very helpful as we advance the case for the language.

"Our work is geared not so much towards its survival but the development of the language. We recognise the precarious nature of where it's been but we believe the decline is being halted and numbers are beginning to turn around."

A new Gaelic website launched by the board two weeks ago has had 9,146 visits from 60 countries already.

BBC Alba, which started in September, is also watched by about 400,000 viewers, well ahead of the 250,000 expected.

The Scottish Government has backed the language. Michael Russell, the culture minister, said Gaelic is an essential part of Scotland's traditional and modern culture.

The number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland dropped from 250,000 – 7 per cent of the population – in 1881 to less than 100,000 by the 1950s as generations of Gaels were punished in school for not using English. By the 1980s numbers fell to 79,307 and by the 2001 census Gaelic speakers represented just 1.2 per cent of the population.

However, the decline has slowed and the number of young people interested in the language has been growing.

Gaelic medium education has grown from two units with just over 20 pupils in 1985 to over 3,000 primary children, hundreds more in Gaelic nurseries, while thousands take Gaelic as a subject in secondary school.

A national plan for Gaelic was launched to raise the profile of the language in everyday life and envisages stabilising the number of speakers by 2011, and to reach a target of 100,000 speakers by 2041.

A number of public bodies have now produced Gaelic plans and a study for Highland Council has also shown that the number of job opportunities for Gaelic speakers has never been higher.

FACT BOX

ACCORDING to Unesco, more than 200 languages became extinct during the past three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.

The Atlas states that 199 languages have fewer than ten speakers and 178 others have ten to 50. Languages that recently became extinct include Aasax (Tanzania) in 1976, Ubykh (Turkey) in 1992 and Eyak (Alaska) in 2008.

Cornish and Manx are also said to be extinct. However, Jenefer Lowe, of the Cornish Language Partnership, says there has been a revival in the past 20 years.

There are also thought to be about 600 active Manx speakers, while the Welsh Language Board says there about 500,000 speakers.