Chair: Eilidh Scammell
Research in endangered languages often points out the key role that so-called ‘new-speakers’ and learners of the target languages can play in reversing language shift (RLS). This has been particularly true in research relating to Breton, Scottish Gaelic and Irish, where family language transmission is highly threatened, if not interrupted. However, while questions of identity and ideology have been explored by Celtic scholars, broader research in second-language learning (SLL) and acquisition (SLA) has not yet informed the field to any satisfying degree. This paper offers an exploration of SLA in the context of Celtic languages, in particular Scottish Gaelic. I will look at the limitation of SLL and SLA research when studying Celtic languages, and try to propose an approach of these fields for RLS. A particular focus will be placed on questions of input and output in a context where total immersion is virtually impossible; I shall also consider motivation and investment, and how discourses concerning the target language can affect learning.
This work is based on original research carried out for my PhD project at the University of Aberdeen on informal language-learning spaces for adult learners of Scottish Gaelic.
After centuries of minoritisation, the Scottish Gaelic language has begun at last to receive the institutional care necessary for its revitalisation. It enjoys cross-party support in the Holyrood parliament which secured its formal recognition as an official language of Scotland in 2005; Gaelic language learning now exists at least to some extent at all levels of Scottish education, including tertiary provision; and increasing numbers of ab initio learners commence studies in the language annually.
These statements, although true, belie evidence of ongoing, intensifying language shift. The overall number of Gaelic speakers continues to decline, with geographically bounded, Gaelic-dominant communities disproportionately affected; and diminishing rates of domestic intergenerational transmission have raised concerns that Gaelic’s full transition to a network language could occur in the near future.
Relying on data from questionnaires and ethnographic interviews involving the graduates of undergraduate degree programmes in Gaelic studies between 1990 and 2006 at what are today four Scottish universities (the University of Aberdeen, the University of Glasgow, the University of Edinburgh and two colleges now affiliated with the University of the Highlands and Islands), this paper presents research examining the role of institutions of higher learning and their degree-earners in efforts to reverse Scottish Gaelic language shift. Subtopics include student motivations for undertaking Gaelic undergraduate degrees, graduates’ linguistic competencies during and after their time at university, participants’ reflections on the workplace applicability of their degrees, and attitudes concerning the future viability of the Gaelic language.