THE discussion around the Gaelic language in Scotland has tended to veer towards the romantic, the ethereal, and occasionally the political. It can certainly fall under the banner of misinformation from kneejerk detractors.

What is rarely considered are the considerable cognitive and educative benefits of learning Gaelic or learning in the Gaelic medium.

Based in Inverness, Bòrd na Gàidhlig was established to promote the development of the language in Scotland. Its CEO is Shona McLennan, who explains that like many minority languages Gaelic has been in decline, but the mission of Bòrd na Gàidhlig is to promote Gaelic language, Gaelic education, and Gaelic culture with a view to reinvigorating the language.

“One of the most effective ways to do this is to provide education in the medium of the language,” says Shona. “Alongside education in the language, pupils also need opportunities to use it outside of the classroom. You need activity around the learning such as sports activities, arts and music.”

As Jim Whannel, Board Member of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Oraidiche/Teaching Fellow (Gaelic) at the University of Edinburgh, explains, parents in Scotland are fortunate to have an education system where, from Primary One, they can choose education through the medium of Gaelic or the medium of English.

“It’s a choice that is available in a large number of authorities,” he says. “When parents make the choice of the Gaelic medium, they will educate a child in two languages. It’s not an issue if the family doesn't have Gaelic, because there's an immersion programme and something in region of 80% of the children being taught in the Gaelic medium in Glasgow and Edinburgh come from homes where it isn’t spoken.”

There is also criticism levelled that Gaelic learning and education is for the middle-classes, the elite. Again, the figures extinguish that myth.

“The Glasgow Gaelic School/Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu has a very mixed intake,” adds Shona McLennan. “It serves a very broad community in the city. It’s also one of the highest performing state schools in Scotland.”

Monolingualism isn’t the norm across most of the world, and the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual are well-known , but what is emerging is the solid cognitive benefits to learning other languages, but more importantly using other languages.
Thomas Bak is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh, with particular interest in the interaction between bilingualism and cognitive functions, particularly in diseases such as dementia or stroke.

Among the many studies he has conducted was one to test whether there can be improvement in cognitive function by learning a new language.

“We needed to test before and after,” he says. “We compared those learning a language with those learning another subject such as history. We loo0ked at attention switching, counting numbers up and down and after a year there was no different but after four years there was a marked difference, with the language students performing better.”

Thomas also saw this in intensive language courses, when he went to the Gaelic college on Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and tested students at the beginning and end of the course.

“We saw that one week is enough to improve performance, but it needs to be maintained by five or more hours a week in practice using the language. Those who didn’t maintain it, went back to their original performance.”

Thomas adds that the language itself is irrelevant. “What is relevant to Gaelic, however, is that the cognitive advantages are not dependent on the number of speakers. One argument commonly used against Gaelic. Is that it’s a small language and most speak English anyway.

“If we look at the analogy of going to the gym, that does us good. That’s learning the language. However, if we drive there rather than cycle or walk, it does us less good. The walking and cycling are using that language.”

Jim Whannel sees bilingualism as an opportunity to have a more global view and rather than Gaelic medium education being insular, it’s actually English medium education which is more closed off.
“In Scotland we have this fantastic opportunity to validate and promote an indigenous culture along with English language culture.”

Of course there are benefits the learning the language without that immersion. The increased awareness of the language from a young age and understanding can often translate into a desire to carry on and learn more as an adult.

As Shona McLennan explains there are still challenges. “Like teaching in English-medium there is a shortage of teachers. We also need to expand the curriculum, so that that pupils who come through Gaelic-medium in primary aren’t restricted in subject choices when they come to secondary.

“There are so many benefits but the Gaelic language is a fundamentally important part of Scotland’s culture and heritage.”