GAELIC means nothing to me. Sure, I quite like deciphering the occasional bilingual road sign. And, hey, sorry, I have a terrible habit of lugging in to folk speaking the language as I try to figure out what they’re saying. Cue some funny looks in supermarket aisles and on railway platforms.

But am I interested enough to enrol in an evening class? Sorry, no. Or even download an app? Nah. Why not? Too busy? Just lazy? Well, I think it is because I lack an affinity, a personal or business connection, something, anything to spur me on to pick up a dictionary and do some actual hard learning.

I’m not alone. This month – to far too little fanfare – we got a statistical glimpse in to what Scots really think about Gaelic.

The gold-standard Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that nearly seven out of 10 people thought the language was either “not very” or “not at all important” to their own cultural heritage. That is a lot of “meh”.


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This kind of majority indifference, of course, isn’t great for minority languages and cultures. It might even be toxic for them, perhaps even more so than the kind of ugly, ignorant and chauvinistic hostility sometimes aimed at them, especially on social media. Sometimes it is not the hate that finally kills off languages. It is the lack of love.

But it does not have to be like this. In fact, the figures suggest a lot of Scots, like me, who don’t personally click with Gaelic want to support those people who do. We are, by and large, happy to see public money go on “promoting” the language. Note that word in quote marks; I’ll be coming back to it. A lot.

The survey team including the wild-haired sage of all polls, Strathclyde’s Professor John Curtice, found that 30% of those they questioned thought we spend too much on Gaelic. That’s down from 35% the last time they did this work, back in 2012. We are, we might congratulate ourselves, getting less stingy about supporting minority language speakers.

Nearly half of respondents, 48%, thought the Scottish Government was devoting “about the right amount of money” and another 22% thought it was “too little”.

Those surveyed had been told that the government currently spends between £24m and £29m “on promoting the use of Gaelic, for example in TV, education and publishing”. That, researchers added, is about a fiver a year for every man, woman and child in the land.

This is the predominant narrative we have about minority languages. That those of us who don’t speak them are, mostly, content to bankroll their “promotion” or “survival”. Sometimes, at its worst, the story we tell ourselves makes it sound as if Gaelic were some kind of museum artefact that we have a duty to preserve.

The survey shows some movement in the last decade, a slight rise in willingness to contribute more. But essentially our collective thinking on this topic, like our laws and policies, has barely changed in years. Me? I think we might also want to look at other ways of framing this discussion.

We should maybe even challenge our assumptions that a majority English-speaking population is subsidising a Gaelic minority. Because – as obtuse as this may sound to some – it might just be the other way round. Take talk of public money spent on Gaelic as “promotion”. Is that really fair?

What we usually mean by “promotion” is the provision of services in the language for native speakers and, to a lesser extent, learners. True, this will encompass all sorts of enabling work by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the quango which, among other things, commissioned the latest survey report. This will include some policy and, I guess, “promotion” effort that is not required for a dominant state language.

Read more by David Leask:​

But – to take a simple example – broadcasts in Gaelic are not “promoting” their language any more or any less than those in English are. Same for schools. We majority anglophones are so used to the idea of our language as default that we forget that for a small minority of our fellow citizens it is not.

The last published census, for 2011, concluded there were 57,600 Gaelic speakers in Scotland. Are these folk really getting services subsidised by the rest of us? I don’t think so. Gaelic speakers, after all, pay taxes too. And most of the services they get back in return are delivered in English, including their schools and their public broadcasts.

Here is an alternative framing for the “promotion” budget the survey asked about. This money would work out at about £500 for every Gaelic speaker, out of total per-capita public spending of £14,000 last year. And yet, despite this, public campaigning seems focused on convincing anglophones to support public spending on Gaelic and its speakers.

I guess it makes political sense to try to get the majority to consent to minority rights. After all, there is an historic legacy to overturn. The power of the state for decades – centuries – focused on “promoting” standard English. And not always very nicely.

We’re still living with the intolerance and prejudice born of this stance. The survey reveals that – still, now – one in 20 of us feels “uncomfortable” when they hear Gaelic. That is five times as many people as there are speakers of the language.

Most anglophones, like me, are ‘meh’ rather than “aargh’ about Gaelic. But we do need to stop thinking we are doing the language’s speakers and learners a favour by paying for its “promotion”. Because we are really not.