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Gaelic language may be down, but it’s not out

By Chris Connors – The Cape Breton Post

For the past 20 years, Jeff MacDonald has been among the few dedicated
Gaelic educators trying desperately to keep a dying language alive.

But all too often, during a night class or one-hour weekly visit to a
local high school, the lessons would hit a brick wall as would- be
linguists struggled to understand how th combined to make an aahh sound.

“One of the things you were getting across to people was ‘You’re never
going to speak this language,'” MacDonald, a Glendale, Inverness County
resident who prefers Goridh Domhnallach, the Gaelic spelling of his
name, said Tuesday after sharing some Gaelic stories and songs as part
of a Celtic Colours International Festival workshop at Union
Presbyterian Church in Albert Bridge.

“I used to keep up a brave face but I didn’t really have hope.”

Now, thanks to a new teaching methodology, MacDonald and other Gaelic
teachers are hopeful they can revive a dying language that has dwindled
from an estimated 100,000 speakers in Cape Breton at the turn of the
20th century to about 500 today.

Designed by Findlay MacLeod, chief executive of Comhairle nan Sgoiltean
Araich, a Gaelic teaching organization based in Inverness, Scotland,
Total Immersion Plus teaches people to talk the talk, rather than read
or write it. The technique originated in New Zealand where a Maori
speaking grandmother saw a language and culture in its last throes and
got together with other elders to form what they called language nests.
By taking young people into their homes and repeating common words as
they went about their daily household chores, the language was revived.
The process was repeated in Hawaii where the number of native speakers
rose from an estimated 1,200 people in 1983 to more than 15,000 today.

MacDonald, who learned the language at the knees of his parents, is
hoping for similar success in Cape Breton where students in places like
Christmas Island, where the first local classes began last year, and
Glendale, Baddeck, Little Narrows and Sydney are gathering in groups of
fewer than 15 people to hear and speak Gaelic while they make tea or
biscuits, all the while learning to name and, perhaps most importantly,
pronounce things like the ingredients, utensils or simply the colours
of the mug and tablecloth.

So far, the results are promising, said MacDonald, who recalls the old
days when even the most dedicated Gaelic students were essentially
“eternal beginners.”

“It’s embarrassing to say it, but I never thought of these common sense
things, like having people doing things in the house that someone’s
going to be doing every day, just to get familiar with it from hearing
repetition of the same words,” he said, noting that people can now
become conversationally fluent with just 200 hours of TIP instruction.
“It really surprises me how those who are learning, it takes them so
little time and they’re coming out with sentences and they’ve got the
confidence and their pronunciation is good.”

Despite the light at the end of the tunnel, the prospects for the near
future are dimmed by the harsh reality of the situation: many of the
last true Gaelic speakers are getting older and it doesn’t look like
the number of new speakers will make up for the loss of the
tradition-bearers who kept the culture alive through generations. In
MacDonald’s own community, for example, of the 10 people who died in
the past year, seven were Gaelic speakers. And of those, two were
gifted singers and a third was a skilled storyteller.

“So we’re losing some of the last of the best now,” he said, adding
that the future is still much more promising than ever before.

“Findlay was saying that there’s no reason why in Cape Breton, in 20
years, we can’t have 20,000 Gaelic speakers, if we organize this
properly and people put the value into Gaelic.”

The key, he said, is getting people – and government – to put their
money where Gaelic speakers’ mouths are. As chair of the Gaelic Council
of Nova Scotia, he said the province is already beginning to see the
promise of promoting Cape Breton’s Gaelic traditions as a cultural
tourism experience, with the ancient language serving as the backbone
of that product.

“We’ve got to get the word out that after 2,000 years, the language is
still alive in Cape Breton, and it’s the only place outside Ireland and
Scotland where you have this language in the community,” he said. “And
the question is, ‘Are you going to do anything to keep that alive, so
that we can be proud of that in 100 years time?'”

And he’s already seeing encouraging signs that young people have begun
to answer the call, much the way they did back in the 1970s when the
island’s master fiddlers worried that they too could be the last of the
dying breed.

During the annual Broad Cove Concert, MacDonald said he spoke more
Gaelic than he ever had in years past. Most impressively, the majority
of the people he spoke to were under age 30.

“This
year, between the people from Cape Breton and the people from Scotland
and Ireland, I spoke an awful lot of Gaelic during the day,” he said.
“And there were only two older speakers that I talked to all day, the
rest was all younger people. It was the first time that I spoke that
much Gaelic to that many young people.”

Copyright © 2005 Cape Breton Post

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