Scots Gaelic is at risk of dying out in a decade, study reveals

Scots Gaelic is at risk of dying out in a decade with only 11,000 speakers left, study reveals

  • Study forecasts that 45 per cent of Western Islanders will speak Gaelic next year
  • Just 11,000 people reported an ability to speak the ancient language at present
  • Researchers are warning Scots Gaelic could become a dead language by 2030 

Scots Gaelic could be dead within a decade as university researchers have found that social use of the language is at the ‘point of collapse’.

A major study forecasts that just 45 per cent of people from the Western Isles will have an ability to speak Gaelic next year.  

Researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Language Sciences Institute (UHI) noted that just 11,000 people reported an ability to speak the language – with most Gaelic speakers confined to people aged 50 plus.

They also noted the number of native Gaelic speakers fell from 80 per cent in 1981 to 52 per cent in 2011 – an average 13 per cent decline per decade.  

UHI researchers are now warning that the ancient language could be dead by 2030 unless the Scottish government takes radical action to save it. 

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, UHI professor of Gaelic research, said the Gaelic-speaking communities are ‘falling apart’.

Scots Gaelic could be dead within a decade as university researchers have found that social use of the language is at the ‘point of collapse’ (pictured, road sign on the Isle of Harris)

A major study forecasts that just 45 per cent of people from the Western Isles will have an ability to speak Gaelic next year (pictured, road sign in Stornoway)

He said: ‘It is not being spoken in the families to a large enough level and there is a lack of social use of Gaelic among the young. 

‘They don’t see how it is relevant to their lives. If we continue along the trajectory we are on at the minute the level of spoken Gaelic in these communities will soon resemble what happened in other parts of the mainland.

‘In 10 years’ time… there won’t be communities of speakers.’

Researchers found that only 11,000 people are habitual Gaelic speakers. 

There was a net loss of 9,660 Gaelic speakers in 1981-2011, and a 41 per cent fall in Gaelic speaker numbers in the 3-17 age group from 1981-1991.

The study also found a faster rate of decline in the use of Gaelic among people aged between three and 17 compared to people aged 50 plus between 1981-2011.

Researchers from The University of the Highlands and Islands Language Sciences Institute (UHI) noted that just 11,000 people report an ability to speak the language – with most Gaelic speakers confined to people aged 50 plus (pictured, sign for Culloden Battlefield, Inverness)

At the 2011 census, less than 2,000 young people – 42 per cent of those aged between 3 and 17 – were reported to have some ability in Gaelic.  

Around 25 per cent of Gaelic speakers now use the language at home. 

When this number drops to 15 per cent, Scots Gaelic will have entered its ‘final stages’ – known as the critical or ‘moribund’ threshold. 

At this point, Scots Gaelic would be largely restricted to marginal aspects of community life, institutional practice and to the elderly.

How Scots Gaelic is on the way to becoming a ‘dead language’

Numbers of people aged 3-17 in the Western Isles with an ability to speak Scots Gaelic (1981-2011)

  • 1981 – 5,329
  • 1991 – 3,166
  • 2001 – 2,395
  • 2011 – 1,989

Proportion of people in the Western Isles with an ability to speak Scots Gaelic (1981-2021)

  • 1981 – 80 per cent
  • 1991 – 69 per cent
  • 2001 – 61 per cent
  • 2011 – 52 per cent
  • 2021 (forecast) – 45 per cent

Source: The Gaelic Crisis In The Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey Of Scottish Gaelic (Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, Aberdeen University Press) 

Prof Ó Giollagáin said: ‘The status quo and the social continuity of Gaelic as a community language are clearly now incompatible. The situation is so critical; the vernacular community is falling apart and those charged with supporting Gaelic need to face up to these issues.’

He added: ‘More of the same will give you more of the same crisis. It is imperative we have an open and honest discussion.’

Iain Caimbeul, also of UHI, said: ‘We hope this research will be valuable to those interested in seeking to shift public policy assumptions from a sole dependence on the school system for creating the next generation of fluent (Scots) Gaelic speakers.’ 

The study involved research throughout the Western Isle, in Gaelic-speaking Staffin on Skye, and Tiree, and island in Argyll and Bute in the Highlands.

It found that English was the default language even in Gaelic-speaking families, while there was ‘general indifference among the young’.

A similar crisis is taking place in Ireland, where just 17,000 people use Irish habitually despite official figures showing it is spoken by nearly 2million people.

Half of the 500,000 Welsh people who can speak Welsh do so routinely.

Mairi MacInnes, chairwoman of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said: ‘One of the key messages from the research is that for the older generation of Gaelic speakers in the islands, Gaelic was and remains the default language of the community. For most younger people, the default language is now English. This finding will come as no surprise to anyone who lives in the islands or anywhere else’.

She added the board was ‘listening and willing to discuss with island communities what else they want to happen, in addition to the many positive things which are already in place, to encourage greater use of Gaelic in the islands and elsewhere’.  

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said: ‘The Gaelic language is a vital part of Scotland’s cultural identity and Ministers support efforts to improve access for speakers to learn and use the language. We are interested in the proposals in the book and look forward to discussing the value of current initiatives and the new structures suggested to strengthen Gaelic in the islands.’   

‘Although the Gaelic language is in a fragile condition, there are a range of policies and interventions in place to promote the learning, speaking and use of Gaelic in the islands and these are constantly kept under review.’

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