My Dad’s first language was Italian. When he first came to this country, in 1963, his English was almost non-existent. He made many mistakes. On one occasion he put a letter in a bin bearing the
legend LITTER. But he was a hard worker and a quick learner. And by the mid-70s, he could hold his own at Scrabble.
One of my memories of him involves him freaking out because he had forgotten the Italian word for grapefruit. It’s “pompelmo” – one of the few words I do remember from back then, along with “zanzari” (mosquitos, because I was often bitten) and “fiammiferi” (matches, because I was often sent to buy them).
I wasn’t brought up bilingual. My dad worked long hours and I spent most of my time with my Scottish mum. Instead, I was sent to Saturday morning Italian classes, which I hated because most of the other children there spoke it at home. Now and again, my dad would decree the dinner table an Italian-only zone. Those nights I ate in sullen silence.
Then, when I was 10, my dad died, and so, though I later went on to sit my Higher, I never became fluent enough to keep up with the noisy, free-flowing conversation that is integral to Italian family life.
With hindsight, this feels like a pity. Being able to speak more than one language is a gift. It widens your horizons and makes you more employable Also, language and culture are intimately connected. A country’s language shapes its ideas as surely as it expresses them. It is fundamental to its identity and its sense of humour. When you do not share a language, it is difficult to share jokes. And the ability to share jokes is at the heart of human relationships.
My lack of fluency was in part responsible for my eventual detachment from my Italian heritage. If your language skills are patchy; if you are unable to grasp sub-text and innuendo and nuance, then, however hard you try to belong, you will always be on the outside looking in.
I have been thinking about all this since I read about the Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) plan to increase bilingualism. From next year pupils starting primary will be taught in Gaelic, switching to English only in Primary 4, by which point speaking Gaelic ought to be second nature to them.
The idea is inspired. Around 23,000 of the Western Isles’ population speak the language and more than half of parents already opt into Gaelic Medium Education (GME). However, by making GME the default setting, with an opt-out for parents who are opposed, the local authority is positioning bilingualism as the norm.
Anyone who has witnessed their primary school child being taught French as part of the Scottish government’s 1+2 policy will understand the limitations of trying to shoe-horn a foreign language into an overcrowded curriculum. GME overcomes those limitations. And it’s an approach that is increasingly popular elsewhere. The number of children enrolled in Canada’s French immersion schools rose by a fifth between 2012 to 2015 as aspirational parents realised the educational benefits.
In this context, Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith’s intervention last week looks out of touch. She called the Western Isles’ move “deeply troubling” and suggested being taught in Gaelic could put pupils at a disadvantage.
But there is no evidence for this. As human cognitive neuroscientist Dr Thomas Bak pointed out in a letter to The Scotsman such a view is based on the assumption that – as there is only a limited space in our brain – adding something new means taking something else away.
“It assumes all pieces of knowledge that we learn are unconnected,” he wrote. “This is not the case. Every new piece of information we get is integrated with already existing knowledge and in this way can strengthen rather than weaken what we know already.”
Studies show bilingual children outstrip their monoglot counterparts in cognitive tests and these advantages extend into later life with bilingualism linked to the delayed onset of dementia and better recovery after a stroke.
Encouraging more Gaelic speaking will also redress some of the damage done by the 1872 Education Act and help reconnect the next generation with their own culture. This pernicious piece of legislation put an end to Gaelic medium schools and punished those who continued to use the language.
Establishment contempt for the country’s minority languages continued into the second half of the 20th century with those who expressed themselves in anything other than standard English still belted as late as the 1970s.
Not surprisingly this evocative language started to die out. Between 1891 and 2011, the number of Gaelic speakers dropped from 210,000 to 57,000 (with just 32,000 able to understand, speak, read and write it).
In the 1980s, however, there was a shift in thinking. Politicians began to realise the potential for Gaelic to revive depopulated areas and stimulate economic growth. There was increased funding for Gaelic arts, television and education, with Gaelic medium schools opening in the central belt as well as in traditional Gaelic-speaking areas.
Until recently, there was a cross-party consensus on its importance. In 2005, a law to protect and promote Gaelic was passed by the then Labour administration at Holyrood.
As with much else, however, Gaelic was re-politicised by the indyref with ultra unionists perceiving it as a nationalist totem. So now, every attempt to bolster it is met with a backlash. How much ink has been wasted whining about the cost of Gaelic road signs? Though, Transport Scotland says only £3,510 was spent between 2014 and 2017, and the Scottish government has only ever received two complaints.
The same sentiments have been expressed over the addition of Scots on to the primary school curriculum, although reading a handful of poems is unlikely to turn pupils into SNP activists.
It’s not unusual, of course, for minority languages to face opposition. Disagreements over the Irish Language Act – which should give the Irish language equal status in Northern Ireland – contributed to the collapse of Stormont.
But such hostility is short-sighted. Moderate and culturally-minded unionists understand this. Last week, Donald Cameron, Tory MSP for the Highlands and Islands, tweeted his support for the Western Isles’ plan (provided enough good GME teachers could be recruited). Distancing himself from Smith, he said his party had been promoting Gaelic for 40 years.
This was not the first time Cameron had spoken up. In 2018, he appealed to ultra unionists to tone down their rhetoric on the language. Having studied it himself, he understands its value.
What the Western Isles is trying to do is impressive. If it succeeds it will produce a generation of children as much at home with Gaelic as with English. As someone who missed out on bilingualism, I’m glad its pupils are being given a skill that will keep them in touch with their heritage. And I find it deeply troubling that anyone would seek to stand in their way.