The teaching of Gaelic is on the up – with another new primary school, this time in Edinburgh, having opened its doors this term.
Now several thousand Scottish children enjoy Gaelic medium education (all classes in Gaelic with English as a second language) instead of a meagre handful two decades ago.
Education Scotland has also vowed to bring to life an ambition plan for every child to learn Gaelic. And numerous studies have shown that learning a second language at an early age brings great academic rewards.
So you’d have thought that an announcement from the Scottish Minister for Languages, Western Isles MSP Alasdair Alan that he was going to invest a further £4million in the teaching of Gaelic would get a universal warm welcome.
Voices of dissent are loud – even in the supposed heartland of Gaelic. Inverness councillor Jim Crawford called the investment a “waste of resources”.
“If you want to have a future in Europe then there is no point in having Gaelic. That is only useful if you want a job in the Western Isles,” he said.
“At a time when Highland Council is trying to save money in its education budget, this amount of cash is outrageous. Kids who want to progress in the world should be learning the likes of Mandarin, German or Spanish.”
And it was recently revealed that more than many millions of taxpayers’ money has been spent promoting Gaelic since devolution in 1998, during which time the number of Gaelic speakers has continued to fall. Although the most recent census shows that the number speakers under 20 has increased for the first time.
Of course, with the Independence vote less than a year away, this has become a political hot potato. Some view it as a cynical attempt to increase feelings of Scottishness while others insist it makes good educational sense and benefits the children, the nation and the language.
Iain Pope and his wife Merrick decided to send their kids to Edinburgh’s new Gaelic school – Bun Sgoil Taobh na Pairce.
He said: “The choice was easy for us because the Gaelic unit happened to be in our local feeder primary. The kids would have been going to this school anyway.
“It seemed to us to be an advantage to learn another language so young, and the statistics on educational attainment of kids who have been through Gaelic medium education are pretty impressive.
“Added to that was the fact that I grew up in Lewis and, for one side of my family, Gaelic is their first language. It is my heritage and I am proud of it, if I can pass that on to my kids then I will be happy.
“That said, there are plenty of kids in our kids school with no family or cultural connection to Gaelic, I think it’s great that they are learning the language.”
There is no doubt that the traditional British approach to learning languages where it’s mainly left to secondary school leaves us at a linguistic disadvantage in a world of polyglots.
So while the ability to converse in Gaelic won’t mitigate that disadvantage outside Scotland, perhaps the side effects of a Gaelic medium education might.
Education Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, certainly things so and it is planning to teach two foreign languages to children in primary school. Under the scheme youngsters would start with one language in primary one and a second no later than primary five.
The idea is that one of the second languages will be Gaelic, although early reaction suggests that many parents would rather their children learned more widely spoken languages.
In any case, the plan – known as a 1+2 strategy – may struggle at the outset due to lack of suitably qualified Gaelic teachers
Tina Woolnough, of the National Parent Forum, told the Scotsman: “Our position is that we are broadly supportive of 1+2. We think Scotland doesn’t do modern languages well enough or extensively enough.
“If Gaelic is one of the ‘plus 2’ languages that would be fine. However, the reality at the moment is that it’s difficult enough to find teachers who speak French or German and many parents question the need to learn German.
“It’s an aspiration that is being expressed here (by Education Scotland). It not necessarily the particular language which matters, but what you learn from picking up a foreign tongue.”
While the millions spent to teach a relatively small percentage of the population to speak a language that – while culturally significant – is all-but dying might seem like a foolish investment, if the larger result sees primary children learning more than one foreign language as a matter of course, then Scotland and its children will benefit greatly both at home and abroad.