GAELIC dialects are in danger of dying out, an Edinburgh University academic has warned.

Dr William Lamb, of the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies, suggests that although there were over 200 varieties of Gaelic spoken in the 1950s, only the Lewis and South Uist versions will be strong enough to survive within their communities – though even those are being challenged on a daily basis.

Dr Lamb also noted another, non-dialectal, form of the language, dubbed "mid-Minch Gaelic", was emerging and this is the one being learned by children.

The Baltimore-born academic, a Gaelic learner, told The Herald: "Mid-Minch Gaelic is similar to the Queen's English in that it dulls distinctive dialectal features to increase comprehension and it is used in schools by teachers and by broadcasters. You cannot identify exactly where the mid-Minch speaker is from."

Dr Lamb believes schools are having a major impact on how Gaelic is spoken and is the main reason for its spreading homogeneity. However, he acknowledges that they can also be the language's saviour.

He said: "We are dependent on schools today because Gaelic is so weak in the community."

According to his research, in Gaelic medium units throughout Scotland – including the Western Isles – 21% of teachers use a non-dialectal Gaelic.

A quarter spoke the Lewis dialect and 17.5% spoke Gaelic from South Uist. But only 9% of Scotland's Gaelic-medium teachers spoke Skye Gaelic, while 8% spoke North Uist and 7% spoke Barra.

Dr Lamb cited the example of a girl with Harris parents in a mainland Gaelic school with a Lewis teacher.

He said: "When in Lewis they said she sounds like she's from Harris and when she's in Harris, they say she sounds like she's from Lewis."

Within indigenous communities, the way Gaelic is spoken is also changing.

The academic, whose two young daughters' mother is from North Uist and live in Edinburgh but speak North Uist Gaelic as their first language, explained: "Much of this is due to an increase in co-mingling within communities. A hundred years ago, people rarely left the islands and the communities were tight and cohesive. Now with more intermarrying and the influx of so-called White Settlers, it's become a much more complex situation."

Dr Lamb worked for many years in Uist, running the Traditional Music and Scottish Gaelic courses at Lews Castle College Benbecula (University of the Highlands and Islands).

Asked which dialect he speaks, Dr Lamb replied: "I'm told you wouldn't know I was a Gaelic learner, but I think that's just the politeness of the Gaels, because they don't actually say they can identify which spot it's from.

"You often find native Gaelic speakers will switch to English out of politeness when there's a non-Gaelic speaker in their company because they are aware that other person can't understand what's being said.

"Although this doesn't directly influence a dialect, it does mean that there are fewer and fewer situations in which it is spoken. If people only speak to each other the language will have a hard time surviving.

"The way people speak means a lot to them as individuals, and has a lot to do with group identity. They will have a fairly emotional reaction to the thought that the ancient and distinctive dialect spoken by their forefathers is going to disappear.

"I think it is important to have this debate right now about how we keep the language strong in its native communities."