Number of Gaelic speakers in Scottish island communities 'plummeting'

The number of Gaelic speakers in Scottish island communities has dramatically decreased in the last ten years, according to a study by the Language Sciences Institute at a prominent Highland researcher.

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, the director of the Language Sciences Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, believes that the language has come to the point of “societal collapse” across the country, as many children are attending schools in urban areas.

In the 2011 Scottish census, just over 58,000 people reported themselves as Gaelic speakers, however the study estimates that the vernacular group located on the islands, where speakers are more heavily concentrated, does not exceed 11,000.

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The major study on the language, which will be published next year, highlights the lack of support for existing speakers, saying Gaelic “will continue as the language of school and heritage but not as a living language” in an article by the Guardian.

For the study, the prominent researcher conducted extensive fieldwork in the Western Isles,Skye and Tiree. Picture: Getty Images

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After extensive fieldwork in the Western Isles, Skye and Tiree, the researcher concluded he believed that existing policies to promote Gaelic focus too heavily on encouraging new speakers, mainly in urban areas, or promoting it as a heritage language.

Some would argue Gaelic has become more prominent and visible, both in real life with dual languages on street signs across Scotland, and on TV, with the blockbuster series Outlander, and just last week, the government announced £2m in funding for a fourth Gaelic primary school in Glasgow.

Although many working with the language welcome this support, they agree this won't solve the problem in the long run.

Brian Ó hEadhra, the arts and culture adviser at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the public body with responsibility for the Gaelic language, told the Guardian: “We need more people to use it more often, but we can’t keep focusing on the negatives.

"We also have to be realistic about the numbers, because this is not just about language but societal shifts, with ongoing population decline in the Gaelic heartlands.”

Technology brings people together

Bòrd na Gàidhlig has welcomed technological advances which allow the creation of platforms to support the language.

Recently, it launched a campaign encouraging Gaelic-speakers to use the hashtag #cleachdi – or #useit – to indicate their enthusiasm and willigness to converse in the language.

However, certain platforms are reaching out to non-Gaelic-speakers as well, with global language learning app Duolingo announcing that it is working to introduce Gaelic on its app, making it available to its 300 million-plus users.However, Ó Giollagáin referred back to the lack of support, saying: remains sceptical: “This is about what gets attention: the focus is on media, schools, the arts, but there is no social policy supporting the speaker group itself.

"For example, we know that the most important thing for continuity of a language is transfer from one generation to the next, but there is no family support scheme for speakers.”