A new study on the fortunes and fate of the Gaelic language in Scotland casts serious doubt on its survival in the medium to long-term in the region where it is still spoken.
Researchers say that without intervention Gaelic will no longer be spoken as a community language within a few short years and will be completely replaced by functionally dominant English.
Gaelic was once spoken in the whole of Scotland but is now on UNESCO's list of endangered languages.
The new research, published today on behalf of the University of the Highlands and Islands, was carried out in the only region of Scotland where there is still a Gaelic community - the Western Isles, Staffin in the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Tiree in Argyll and Bute.
According to the 500-page study, the social use and transfer of Gaelic from the older generations to the younger generation in this region are in a state of collapse. In short, the researchers claim, the Gaelic community does not currently have the collective resources to renew itself.
Out of a population of around 28,000, the research indicates that over 14,000 have some ability in Gaelic. When statistically examined, however, the actual number is less than 11,000, the majority of whom are aged 50 and over.
The main findings of the research are:
- Low levels of ability in Gaelic among the young
- Marginal use of the language in most social contexts, except among the elderly
- Marginal presence of Gaelic in schooling
- Indifference of most young people towards the language
- Severely reduced family and community transfer of Gaelic to the younger generation.
The research was carried out using census data for the years 1981-2011, surveys of pre-school children and teenagers, focus groups and public meetings, as well as in-depth questionnaires.
Analysis of the census figures shows a 13% average decline per decade of Gaelic speakers in the research area.
At the 2011 census, 52% of people reported an ability to speak Gaelic compared to 80% at the 1981 census.
The decline of Gaelic is particularly chronic among the young. At the 2011 census, less than 2,000 young people, 42% of those aged between 3 and 17, were reported to have some ability in Gaelic.
In a questionnaire, conducted in 2016, only 1.5% of teenagers reported that they always or mainly speak Gaelic to their friends.
The census figures also show Gaelic is spoken in just 19% of households. The researchers say that this is a considerable impediment to the substantial transfer of Gaelic from the older generations to the younger generation.
Based on the current trajectory, the researchers predict that in this decade the language will reach a "critical threshold of non-viability."
They say that Gaelic will retreat further and irrevocably to marginal aspects of community life, to institutional practice - such as education and the media - and to use among the elderly.
The researchers make several recommendations in order to halt the decline of Gaelic and call for "a re-orientation of public policy and interventions focused at the community level."
Indeed, they claim that current policy is "a significant hindrance" to the preservation and revival of Gaelic.
The researchers' main recommendation is the adoption of a "co-operative model" based on "a comprehensive language-in-society approach."
This would involve establishing a Gaelic Community Trust based in the islands under the direct democratic control of a representative group of community members.
Decision-making would be transferred to this trust from the state-run Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Board) which is currently based in Inverness.
This trust would undertake initiatives such as a financial incentive to encourage families to speak Gaelic to their children; renewed Gaelic-based youth group activities; public entertainment through the medium of Gaelic; encouraging Gaelic social enterprises; increasing Gaelic-medium provision in schools; and the provision of language planning strategic advice and support to Gaelic community groups and to the leadership of the trust.
The trust, the researchers claim, would also bring broader socio-economic benefits to the islands, helping to tackle emigration and the lack of employment opportunities, which have been core factors in the decline of Gaelic.
The head of the research team, Irish sociolinguist Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, says it is self-evident that languages survive and thrive in speaker communities rather than at a rootless institutional or symbolic level.
He says that languages require a socio-geographic space, such as a Gaeltacht.
Prof Ó Giollagáin claims that over-emphasis in public policy or discourse on the language-learner sector can result in the neglect of language communities and of the social processes that affect those communities. It can also result in irrelevant or detrimental public policy, he says.
Prof Ó Giollagáin believes that Scottish Gaelic can face up to the challenges to its sustainability if people accept that the status quo is not an option. He claims the new research provides detailed data, a clear diagnosis and a pathway out of the crisis.
The study is available in book form under the title "The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Study of Scottish Gaelic" and is published by Aberdeen University Press.