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Iain Mac Labhrainn: "Building or strengthening communities where Gaelic is the primary language is key. If everyone uses English as default, then Gaelic will wither"

Iain Mac Labhrainn (Iain McLaren) answered to several questions of mine about Scottish Gaelic language, which I am learning and which is said to have a revival now, especially after Duolingo introduced Scottish Gaelic in the end of 2019. According to Wikipedia, 57,000 people are fluent in Scottish Gaelic in Scotland (2011), and 87,000 people in Scotland are reported having some Gaelic language ability. There are also 1,300 people fluent in Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia (Alba Nuadh), Canada. Duolingo claims at least 465,000 learners of Scottish Gaelic.

Mindaugas Peleckis
2021 m. Balandžio 04 d., 13:42
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Iain Mac Labhrainn (Iain McLaren), Glaschu (Glasgow). Photo from personal archive of Iain Mac Labhrainn
Iain Mac Labhrainn (Iain McLaren), Glaschu (Glasgow). Photo from personal archive of Iain Mac Labhrainn

How did you decide to learn Gàidhlig?

I have long been interested in Scottish and Celtic things, as long as I was aware that I was given a Scottish Gaelic name but my parents. I grew up in England, but with Scottish ancestry on my Dad's side and some Irish on my Mum's.

So, looking at clan history or reading maps of Scotland in my teens in the 80s I was puzzling over the Gaelic words.

I have been living in Scotland for 17 years now and have seen a lot of written Gaelic, but still understood very few words and knew less about pronunciation. 2 years ago, I bought a book to try to make a start at learning.  Last year I started Duolingo.

Tell me more about yourself, your linguistic, and Scottish background.

Born in England, and mainly grew up there.  But I went walking on Skye in my teens with my brother.  And when I got married in my 20s, we both loved Scotland so went there on honeymoon to Skye and the coast of Wester Ross. Moved to Scotland in my 30s when I got a permanent job there.

What is the current situation of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland and the world? Some say (and write) it's almost extinct, some (including me) say it's getting more and more popular (thanks to Duolingo)?

Difficult. Speaking has declined in the heartlands. Outward migration of young people to non-Gaelic speaking areas, and inward migration of English speakers have diluted it. Tourism has made things very difficult (and expensive to live) in parts, like Skye or Oban (which were once very Gaelic).  

So, it's great to see positive steps like the growth of Gaelic Medium Education, and the recent burst of interest in adults learning, but it is not enough yet to reverse the decline in the heartlands. And even that comes with problems. Many children get primary education in Gaelic, much fewer to age 16 or 18. Fairly few of the adult learners will both progress to fluency and integrate into Gaelic communities.

I've read there are some strategies to revive Scottish Gaelic. What are they? Are they successful? What should be done to revive this language "completely" and what could be the maximum aim?

You'd learn more from native speakers involved in education and policy areas. But building or strengthening communities where Gaelic is the primary language is key. If everyone uses English as default, then Gaelic will wither.

What is being done to keep it alive and well? Are there more initiatives, new grammars, dictionaries, etc,? Are there films, radio, TV stations one could find in Gàidhlig?

Lots of things going on. is excellent and full of good resources at all levels. Many older TV programs still on youtube. BBC Alba is very useful as all programs subtitled in English, so once you are good enough to get a lot, you can mainly listen and look at the subtitles when needed. BBC Radio nan Gàidheal is great, and especially their program for learners Beag air Bheag.

Duolingo is a fantastic addition. And a whole raft of useful books and dictionaries for those wanting to learn.

Moreover, there is such a huge corpus of poetry, song, religious writing and more in Gaelic, and a lot is on the internet. And huge archives of recordings at universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh for people to rediscover older voices, including of dialects that are no longer spoken.

How many languages do you know fluently or have a good command of? Are you currently learning any languages? What are your dream languages to learn?

I have learnt Swedish, a little Chinese and excellent German by living and working in those countries. Gaelic is really my only interest now as it is the language of both a good chunk of my country and of my own ancestors. I may pick up a little Russian, refresh my Swedish or do a little Spanish at some point, but these are low priority compared to getting really fluent in Gaelic and then contributing to others learning it.

Which towns, cities, islands of Scotland have the biggest number of Gaelic enthusiasts? What about Nova Scotia?

Apparently, lots in Glasgow, although we can't meet in person just now.  Probably many in other bigger cities like Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen too. So community is more online just now. I don't know the Nova Scotians so well just now, although was chatting to one online last night in Gaelic.

I've read wonderful book "Sly Cooking" with old Gaelic words that were revived. What other books can be recommended to those who study Scottish Gaelic?

There are plenty of good starter books, like "Gaelic in 12 Weeks" (hopelessly optimistic title, but still very good, if dry and grammar-heavy). 

We just got "Teach yourself Gaelic" which seems pretty useful and less heavy.  There are also fun books that may complement things.  We have "Teach your dog Gaelic", which is mainly simple dog commands in the language, and makes masses of sense if you are already learning these words in other contexts.

Tapadh leibh!