Number of Gaelic speakers

According to the most recent census, the number of people in Scotland who speak Scottish Gaelic is 58,650. However some of people I talked to last week who are involved in teaching or researching Gaelic believe that the actual number is higher. They suggested that some fluent Gaelic speakers who don’t read and write the language very well, if at all, don’t admit that they speak it on the census to avoid receiving forms and other official literature in Gaelic. They estimate that that real number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland is at least twice the census figure, and that there are several thousand more in other parts of the world, especially in England, Canada, Australia and the USA.

I’ve heard similar stories about Welsh speakers who don’t tick the box on the census saying that they speak Welsh for fear of receiving incomprehensible documents in Welsh.

Some Gaelic speakers apparently don’t believe that their Gaelic is good enough for jobs that require it, even though they speak it fluently. However such insecurity doesn’t seem to effect younger people so much, or Gaelic learners from other countries. There were certainly quite a few people from other countries with fluent Gaelic working at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Does this sort of thing happen with other minority languages?

12 thoughts on “Number of Gaelic speakers

  1. It certainly happens everywhere the government imposes or has imposed a language which is supposed to represent a better education and a better social status. In the North of France and in Belgium, walloon speakers often deny speaking walloon to strangers, over a century after it was forbidden to speak walloon in schools. People who spoke walloon like my grandparents typically thought that “it was nobody’s business” . Because of the past repression, it becomes almost a secret language, reserved to family and friends. I now live in USA, and I cannot imagine telling an enquirer about the 20 words of walloon I still know, so the attitude runs deep. However there is no scientific way to say that the real number of speakers is twice or three times bigger than what we count, or how well they speak. It is just wishful thinking.
    Despite all the efforts of the de Valera Irish republic, I observed the same reserve with many Irish speakers on the west coast in the 70s.
    How many black people in the southern USA do “trust the law”? Same attitude, same problem: the law was against them too long. Distrust does not affect only language but a whole range of attitudes.

  2. I know of people who have ticked the ‘Can speak Welsh’ box on the census form whose Welsh is inferior to that of others who have answered that they don’t speak Welsh. It’s up to the person, and perfectionist learners might delay saying that they are speakers until they feel more fluent. Also I now of older people who say that they can speak Welsh, but they only know songs and expressions remembered from their parents or grandparents from their childhoods. The question is just a yes/no answer, and many people who were not taught Welsh grammar in school and who speak dialects feel that their Welsh is not ‘good enough’. Dialect Welsh is every bit as valid as the various English variations spoken in Britain. Languages don’t evolve at the same speed, and the standardisation which has applied to the English of printed material, film and TV doesn’t apply to minority languages.

  3. It’s the opposite in Ireland: the general opinion is that the actual number of Irish speakers is lower than the census says because many people just tick the “can speak Irish” box in a state of wishful thinking.

  4. I’m probably going to show my ignorance, but…

    How can Gaelic and Welsh speakers be unable to read? It’s the same script (right?).
    Memorize a few new phonemic associations and orthography and you’re there.

    I can “read” several scripts that I can’t understand-Korean, Hiragana & Katakana, and Arabic. They got the hard part down, already. Reading is the easy part.

  5. Polly – there are significant differences between formal written Welsh and colloquial spoken Welsh. I think that some Welsh speakers who have never studied the language formally, particularly the written language, find it difficult to make sense of written material in Welsh, which uses different vocabulary and grammar. The same may be true for Gaelic.

  6. Polly, I’m from West-Friesland and have several Frisian friends. They speak Frisian fluently but can’t write it correctly. Maybe they can read it to some extent, but sometimes things are too different to be comfortable with it.

  7. This experience is probably common to all minority languages. In Ireland, it is quite common for native Irish speakers to be absolutely fluent and to have impeccable pronunciation but to have seriously underdeveloped literacy skills — including atrocious spelling.

  8. Polly

    With minority languages, and in the case of Welsh and Gaelic, people grew up speaking Welsh or Gaelic at home and with neighbours and the family, but never received any education in those languages as they were only taught English – Welsh and Gaelic for long periods of time were not formally taught in schools and were actively discouraged in some schools with harsh penalties given out to children caught speaking their native tongues. Condequently, written Welsh and Gaelic was not acquired by all speakers of those languages, and those who did acquire it were often taught the written language at home or in Sunday schools or other organisations.

    Things are different now where schools that teach through the medium of Welsh and Gaelic are available, and often have more people wanting their children to attend then they can accomodate.

  9. OK. I understand the sitaution better now. It’s probably like the difference between Old English and Modern.

    It’s appaling that children would be punished for speaking in any language, much less their parents’. I hope it was simple ignorance and fear regarding bi-lingualism rather than a conscious attempt to eradicate a language/culture. But, that’s probably naive.

  10. Hi Polly,

    Yes, unfortunately that is naive. A huge effort was made to eradicate Gaelic – native Gaelic speaking schoolchildren were forced to learn English at school, were physically beaten if heard speaking Gaelic, were regularly told that Gaelic was a peasant language (and that if you spoke it, you were far less intelligent, you would never get a job etc).

    When my grandparents were at school, it was normal for children to come home from school covered in bruises – having been assaulted by teachers for speaking Gaelic. In my parents generation, there was some physical violence, but it was much more psychological – brainwashing them from an early age to believe that their mother tongue was a bad thing, that they should stop speaking it and only speak English; teaching them never to speak Gaelic to their own children etc.

    Simon is correct – formal written Gaelic can be very different from normal spoken Gaelic. ‘Proper’ Gaelic is generally Skye/Uist Gaelic, which has a different accent and vocabulary to Lewis Gaelic. They say ‘is toigh leam’ (I like…) whereas in Lewis we say ‘is caomh leam’.

    But the standard written form is always supposed to be ‘is toigh leam’, even for the Leodhsaich. Is that called a prestige dialect?

    Also regarding the Gaelic statistics… I know those statistics aren’t totally exact. I was an undergrad at the time, and totally forgot to return my census forms – which means that at least one Gaelic speaker was missed out!

    I know what you mean about the native speakers who don’t feel their Gaelic is good enough for Gaelic speaking jobs, whereas learners do. Learner Gaelic is so different from native Gaelic – learners get taught all these new, artificial Gaelic words for things (loads of technical terms that are literal translations of the English). The problem is, native speakers would never say “post-dealan” (lit. electronic post), they just say “email”.

    Last night my wife and I (both Gaelic speakers, my wife even did all her primary schooling in Gaelic medium) were trying to decipher a Gaelic website – but it was full of made up vocabulary that you might be comfy with if you’d done a course in “Gaelic IT vocab” at Sabhal Mor Ostaig (which is a fantastic institution, btw), but if you’re just a normal Gaelic speaker, it’s little wonder that you’ll feel your own Gaelic is not up to the task (even if you speak as a native).

    Then the problem gets worse when native speakers try and interact with learners who use all this new vocabulary and simply cannot understand them (due to the non-native accent/artifical vocabulary combination). It again makes native speakers feel embarassed and think their Gaelic is poor.

    Lastly (sorry this is a long comment!) I agree with the others on the problem of what it means to “speak” a language. It is far too subjective to make reliable statistics. For example, at a party I once met two people, an American girl and a Dutch guy. The American said she could “speak” French, German, Spanish etc… when in fact she could only say a few words in each language. The Dutch guy said he could “speak” only English and Dutch – when in fact he could also communicate very well in German and French. Different people mean very different things when they say they can or cannot “speak” a language.

    Co-dhiu, tha mi deiseil a nis!! Tioraidh matha

  11. @Seumas,
    I’m glad I asked the original question. I don’t usually hear about this kind of thing.

    The American said she could “speak” French, German, Spanish etc… when in fact she could only say a few words in each language.

    I hate that. Do they really think an entire language boils down to a few greetings? It’s pompous.

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