Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 16:37 UK

Making the case for Gaelic schools

By Seonag Mackinnon
BBC Scotland Education Correspondent

Seonag Mackinnon

The Scottish Government has announced fast-tracked funding for two new Gaelic-medium primary schools at Fort William and Portree on Skye. BBC Scotland's Education Correspondent Seonag Mackinnon explains why she chose to have her children educated in Gaelic.

Greek fish paste was reponsible for the eventual decision to send our children to Gaelic classes.

My Hebridean mother said to her then four year old grandson: "Teann as an rathad."

He replied: "Taramasalata?"

Laughter followed but also a moment of discomfort with the realisation that my child - born in London - was so distanced from his background he thought his grandmother was offering him a Greek starter rather than asking him to move out of the way.

When we moved back to Scotland, Edinburgh's Gaelic Medium unit was among the four prospective schools we visited.

I liked Tollcross primary itself which was an English speaking primary with a rich social mix. But the Gaelic unit within the school was our main focus as it seemed to offer children a richer education.

They would learn all the normal subjects like geography, science and maths but, as the conversation from nursery onwards is in Gaelic almost all of the day, they would emerge bilingual.

It's well known that children with two languages find it relatively easy to pick up third and fourth languages later on.

Moreover, there would be the chance to learn about the Gaelic dimension to Scottish culture and song. Two of them had the immense privilege of tuition in the stunningly beautiful instrument that is the Scottish harp (clarsach).

It did undoubtedly feel at the time as if we would be taking a gamble with our children's education.

My generation was discouraged from speaking Gaelic because of the prevailing - and mistaken - belief that it would make us less proficient in English, which is after all a massively important international language.

But research by Professor Antonella Sorace of Edinburgh University suggests bilingual children essentially make no more grammatical mistakes in English than children who speak only one language.

As toddlers they may learn to talk later but not significantly so. Studies in minority languages around the world report similar findings.

It's well known that children with two languages find it relatively easy to pick up third and fourth languages later on.

Extra skills

Less well known are the studies indicating bilingualism makes children generally better at learning throughout their lives. They become skilled at co-ordinating information and switching on to key things at the right time while screening other information out.

There are now 60 Gaelic units in schools across Scotland educating more than 2,200 children. Growth in pupil numbers has been steady - but not enough to replace the number of speakers dying off.

Gaelic minister Mike Russell and Highland Council have announced plans to set up stand-alone schools in Portree and Fort William. The debate now is whether to open more such schools as they offer the prospect of more vigorous growth.

Since two opened in Inverness and Glasgow pupils numbers have shot up. Fully fledged schools with their own building, identity and leadership seem to inspire more confidence in parents.

But support varies across the country. Many parents feel more comfortable if their children learn Gaelic within the context of a school where the norm is English.

Campaigners insist all-Gaelic schools are the way forward. Pupils there don't just see the language as something they speak with teachers. It's the language in the playground and what you use when chatting to the janny and the dinner lady.

Getting Gaelic beyond the classroom door is seen by many as essential to its survival.

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