Scotland’s Language Myths: 3. It’s a waste of children’s time learning Gaelic or Scots


Myth 3: It’s a waste of children’s time learning Gaelic or Scots

Read myth 1, 2

by Paul Kavanagh

One of the most damaging and pervasive myths about Scottish languages is that it is a terrible waste of a child’s time to teach a ‘dead’ language like Gaelic or Scots.

It’s never a waste of time learning any language. And Gaelic and Scots are not dead.  Allowing the claim that Gaelic or Scots are dead languages to go unchallenged risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy even though it should scarcely need refuting.  It can be easily and instantly disproved by anyone who is a Gaelic or a Scots speaker.  Tha a’ Ghàidhlig agam agus chaneil mi marbhA speak Scots , an A’m no deid.

Neither is it a waste of time because Gaelic and Scots are ‘minority’ languages.  Gaelic and Scots are minoritised languages as opposed to minority languages.  A minoritised language is a language which was once the language of the majority of a given country or large geographical region, but due to political and other factors became socially marginalised.  Italian in Scotland is a minority language, the Italian language in Scotland has never been used beyond the relatively small Scottish community for which it is a traditional language, a community which retains social, cultural and family ties with Italy.  But of course Italian is not a minority language in Italy.

Minoritised languages owe their status to social and political pressures.  The belief develops that use of another language is more socially valuable, a belief which is reinforced and promoted by the elite and influential groups within society who make use of this other language.  The mirror image of this belief is the belief that the traditional language is valueless and that acquiring it is a waste of time.

Bilingualism becomes the social responsibility of speakers of the traditional language, speakers of the elite language rarely bother themselves with learning it. Together these beliefs and inequalities create a vicious spiral which left unchecked will inevitably lead to the extinction of the traditional language.

The only way of breaking this vicious cycle is to change society’s attitudes.  Social attitudes to language are typically acquired in childhood and early youth along with language itself, so the best hope of changing social attitudes to Scotland’s traditional languages rests in changing children’s perceptions of the languages.  The way to do that is to teach children the languages and so demonstrate their usefulness and value by experience, because the only way in which you can truly learn the value of a language is to use it yourself.  If you don’t speak it, how do you know it’s useless?

This can’t really be done effectively with adults who don’t speak the minoritised language and who are not inclined to acquire it.  If you don’t speak a particular language, and see no need to speak it, you will inevitably be prone to the belief that learning it is a waste of time.  It may indeed be a waste of your time, but that doesn’t mean it’s also a waste of everyone else’s.

Much of the prejudice against learning Scots or Gaelic stems from the erroneous belief that learning these languages would require time and energy which a child could better spend learning French or Spanish.  This view derives from the most common Scottish experience of second language acquisition, hours spent in a foreign language class at secondary school listening to M. Marsaud est dans le jardin. Beep! Beep! It’s naively assumed that Gaelic or Scots would be taught in the same way, but this is not how a bilingual education works at all.  In a bilingual system, children acquire the language through use, Gaelic is used as a medium of instruction – to teach say, arithmetic, geography, or indeed French.

In an ideal system of bilingual education, children first acquire the target language (whether Scots, Gaelic, or any other language) informally through play in pre-school education.  This gives them a solid grounding in the language, which can then be introduced into the school curriculum as the medium through which other subjects are taught.  This has been called language teaching by stealth as the children acquire the target language through play in a completely natural way, the same way in which they acquire their first language.

Until the middle of the 20th century, minority and minoritised languages were discouraged in the educational systems of most countries.  The widely held opinion in those days was that the mental effort required to learn two languages delayed a child’s development and hindered the process of language acquisition.  It was thought that the two languages interfered with one another in the impressionable mind of the child, resulting in adults who lacked a solid command of either language.  This belief was responsible for the active discouragement and outright oppression of Gaelic and Scots in Scotland and Welsh in Wales when children were punished for speaking their native language within the confines of the school.  When scientific opinion coincided with societal prejudice against languages spoken largely by impoverished working class and rural communities, the outright oppression of minoritised languages was the result.

However in 1962 a landmark study by the Canadian psychologists Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert was published, showing that in a wide range of intelligence tests and in school achievement in general bilingual children outperformed children with only one language.  Peal and Lambert studied bilingual French/English speaking children, but it doesn’t matter what the languages are, psychologists and linguists discovered that the same advantages were seen irrespective of whether the child was bilingual in Chinese and Greek or Gaelic and Czech or any other pair of languages.  The educational tide began to turn and the benefits of bilingualism are now widely appreciated amongst educationalists.  However this knowledge has yet to percolate through to all sections of the general population.

One of the most important findings from these studies was that bilingual children typically have fewer problems learning to read. Previously it had been thought that the differences between spelling rules in different languages were confusing to children.  For example children who are bilingual in French and English, as in the Canadian study, must learn that in French the letter combination ch is pronounced “sh” as in chateau “sha-to”, whereas in English the same letters usually represent the sound “tch” as in church.  In order to write the sound French writes as ch, English uses sh.  Studies of bilingualism showed that these differences actually helped children to distinguish between symbol and sound, which is fundamental to the process of acquiring literacy.  Another study by Canadian researchers found there were still advantages even when the languages used very different writing systems, but the advantages were most apparent when the languages used alphabets.  (One of the languages in the Canadian study was Chinese, which is written in a logographic system where each symbol represents a unit of meaning, not a specific sound.)

This finding has important consequences for the teaching of Scots.  The current educational advice is that Scots speaking children copy the spelling of Scots texts, but the great majority of modern Scots texts are written in an unstandardised and highly variable orthography which is fundamentally based on English spelling – albeit with the occasion Scots spelling convention in words like heid or deid.  This does not teach children the distinction between sound and spelling symbol, and is likely to cause continuing confusion between Scots and English, a process which has already led to the severe endangerment of the Scots language in the large urban centres.

Perhaps one of the most surprising results of studies of childhood bilingualism and how it affects a child’s development is that bilingualism has a beneficial effect on non-verbal reasoning.  A simple (perhaps simplistic) way to explain this is that a word represents a mental coathook upon which we hang a concept.  A bilingual child has two mental coathooks for each concept and so has an advantage in reasoning and in learning.  Additionally, since the word for any given concept has slightly different associations in each language, the bilingual child gains a broader understanding than the monolingual child – the bilingual child sees a “bigger picture” if you like.  This effect of bilingualism greatly improves a child’s general educational prospects, even in non-language related fields.

There are other surprising benefits to bilingualism.  A recent study claimed that bilingualism helps to ameliorate the symptoms of Alzheimers in elderly people.  The spread of brain tissues affected by Alzheimers can be measured by neurologists, and it has been discovered that bilinguals with the same degree of brain damage as monolinguals typically suffer less from the effects of the disease.

There are some downsides to bilingualism.  Bilingual children typically acquire vocabulary a little more slowly to begin with than monoglot children, because they have twice as much vocabulary to learn.  However the difference seems short lived, and in terms of vocabulary acquisition bilingual children soon exceed their monolingual peers.

Bilingualism is also problematic in children who suffer from developmental disorders, but these children typically experience problems even when brought up with only one language.

In many countries with widespread bilingual education, parents who do not speak the minoritised language often send their children to bilingual schools because these schools tend to develop a reputation for good quality education.  I do not wish to diminish the hard work and effort of dedicated teachers, but in no small measure this reputation for good education comes from the natural advantages of bilingualism to a child.  When the Basque Country introduced a comprehensive system of bilingual education in Basque and Spanish, parents were still given the option of sending their children to Spanish-only schools.  However the advantages of bilingualism proved so great that parents began to stop sending their children to Spanish-only schools, with the result that the Basque government is now phasing them out.  In Wales many English speaking parents opt to send their children to bilingual Welsh schools as many of these schools have a reputation for good quality education.

If we want to give our children the best educational opportunities, we ought to offer them a bilingual education.  When you already speak two languages acquiring a third is considerably easier, a bilingual education in Gaelic and English or Scots and English would actually improve the child’s ability to acquire French, Spanish or German, not hinder it.  The child approaches French with the expectation that this new language will have different spelling rules, a different grammar, and a different pronunciation.  This greatly simplifies the teacher’s task in introducing a new language.  A French teacher would not have to gingerly approach the topic of gender in French nouns, an aspect of French grammar alien to English, with children who were bilingual in Gaelic and already knew about grammatical gender from that language.  Teaching Dutch, German or Scandinavian languages is a lot simpler when the pupils have a firm grounding in the Norse and Low German vocabulary of Scots.

But why Gaelic and Scots?  Why not just introduce bilingual education in French into Scottish schools?  The answer is quite simple, bilingual education in French and English has only one purpose in Scotland – to produce children who speak French.  But bilingual education in Scots and Gaelic serves several purposes – it ensures a future for Scottish languages which are a priceless part of our heritage, it ensures that continuing generations of Scots will have first hand access to the vast literary production of Gaelic and Scots, it ensures that future generations will continue to add to distinctively this Scottish literary production, and it ensures the continuing survival of distinctively Scottish ways of looking at reality – because that’s what a language is, it’s a way of looking at the universe and each language offers a slightly different perspective.  And on top of all that bilingual education in Scottish languages produces a generation of children who will be able to acquire French, Spanish or German far more easily than the stammering attempts of their parents.  What’s not to like?


To read our 10 part series on the ‘History of Scottish Languages’ click: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10