IT is the secret to learning good English – go to a Gaelic school.

Research has shown that learning in a minority language makes you better at speaking a global one.

Scientists have long known that being bilingual in two major languages – such as Spanish and French or German and Russian – helps develop cognitive abilities.

A study led by Heriot-Watt associate professor Maria Garraffa has now compared the English of monolingual children with those who were immersed in Gaelic Medium Education (GME).

Ms Garraffa, a native Italian, and her team found the GME youngsters outperformed those taught in English – in English.

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Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Ms Garraffa said: “The research revealed that speaking Gaelic does not affect the ability to speak well in English and that being bilingual actually improves competency. We found bilingual pupils are better in complex language in English and also have better concentration, as reported in other studies on bilingualism.

“We clearly proved the positive effects of bilingualism are not contingent upon learning a global, widely spoken language, like French or Spanish, but are also true when it comes to a small heritage language like Gaelic.”

Ms Garraffa, along with colleagues from Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, looked in detail at the English language skills of high school pupils from a single monolingual secondary and a cohort of young people who had spent their school lives in GME.

Ms Garraffa stressed that people who come from non-Gaelic speaking homes got the most visible positive effect, even when they lived in a predominantly English-speaking community.

Ms Garraffa added: “So not only does being bilingual in Gaelic enhance language ability in the community language, it actually boosts the development of cognitive skills, even if exposure is reduced to the minimum.”

However, the paper, which was published in Frontiers In Psychology, has sparked concerns over whether parents seeking educational advantages for their children will take places designed to support Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking minority.

The study took the socio-economic background of the children it looked at into account. Some critics have linked the success of GME education to the fact it is popular among better-off and better-educated families.

Ms Garraffa said: “These results support the rise of a new generation of speakers who care about being bilingual, not for the heritage value but for the recognised benefits of a bilingual education, and are vital for the next steps of the revitalisation policies aimed at saving Gaelic.”

Gaelic language campaigners can have mixed feelings about the rise of speakers who care about the benefits of bilingualism, not heritage and culture.

Wilson McLeod, a professor of Gaelic at Edinburgh University, responded to the Garraffa study by saying this trend was “positive but not unproblematic”.

The academic has just published a new book, Gaelic In Scotland: Policies, Movements, Ideologies, in which he discusses the trend of Gaelic champions to promote the general benefits of bilingualism.

He wrote: “There is a possibility that some parents may chose Gaelic education for its perceived intellectual and educational benefits but have relatively little engagement with the language and the language community.

“The constant policy pressure to expand Gaelic education and increase the number of children enrolled may mean tending to court the marginally committed.

“That may be a price that has to be paid; an approach that focused exclusively on families with a strong, demonstrated commitment to Gaelic would almost certainly not have generated sufficient demand to make provision politically viable, most obviously in places like Edinburgh.”

GME has been expanding rapidly in Glasgow, where there are three primaries and a secondary and where there is a historically strong Gaelic-speaking community. Edinburgh is now considering plans for a secondary too.

The Western Isles, the area with the highest proportion of Gaelic speakers, has recently announced all children will automatically be enrolled in GME unless they opt out.