Edinburgh scholar suggests speaking in tongues

Scholar hopes to ensure language’s future with help of new Edinburgh role. David Matthews writes

May 16, 2013

A scholar appointed to the University of Edinburgh’s chair of Celtic languages, literature, history and antiquities says he will push for more teaching in Gaelic, amid a wider drive in the Scottish academy to promote the language.

If Robert Dunbar is successful in introducing dual-language courses, this could mark a shift north of the border to something closer to the situation in Wales, where Welsh is much more commonly used in higher education.

Offering degrees taught partly in Gaelic is “something on my personal agenda and on the university’s agenda”, said Professor Dunbar, who joins Edinburgh from the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Just over 1 per cent of Scotland’s population speak the language, according to the 2001 census, and while Professor Dunbar said he does not expect a “stampede” of additional students, he noted that there are far more Gaelic-speaking jobs than a decade ago.

BBC Alba, which broadcasts in Gaelic, was launched in 2008, and there are opportunities in universities and the public sector.

“It’s probably in a better position than it’s ever been,” he said. “There are now many more jobs where Gaelic is an essential language skill.”

Although speaking Gaelic rather than, for example, Spanish would inevitably present fewer job opportunities worldwide, he said, he would be surprised if speakers were “at a significant disadvantage in Scotland” in terms of post-graduation opportunities.

There is also “surprisingly high” interest from foreign students, “especially students who come for a year abroad” and who wish to learn about Scottish culture, he said.

Canadian students in particular are drawn to the language because of the estimated 2,000 Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, a legacy of Scottish emigration, added Professor Dunbar, who is himself Canadian.

Part-Gaelic undergraduate courses are already offered at the universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and the Highlands and Islands. These three institutions, in addition to Edinburgh, have official plans drawn up to help ensure that the language has a future in Scotland.

Aberdeen, for example, is introducing Gaelic signs around its campus and translating parts of its website, and will encourage the use of bilingual email signatures.

A much greater range of Welsh-component courses is offered across six universities in Wales, where approximately 19 per cent of the population speaks Welsh.

In Scotland, Professor Dunbar suggested, “I don’t think [there is] that vision of a bilingual society as in Wales”. The Edinburgh government’s aim is instead to “arrest the decline” of Gaelic, he said, adding that part of his new role will be to assess whether these policies are working.

“Unlike Wales or the Basque country I don’t think it’s become a hot-button political issue,” he said. “I would say there has been a fair amount of political goodwill from all four main political parties.”

Asked why such a rare language should be given treatment not afforded to other minority languages in Scotland, Professor Dunbar said he “wouldn’t rush to assume” that Gaelic is less widely spoken than languages such as Polish or Urdu.

Gaelic is part of Scotland’s heritage - and at risk - in a way that other minority languages are not, making it worthy of special protection and promotion, he argued.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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