Welsh, Hawaiian and Navajo … now Gaelic is in line for a rescue

Sorley MacLean’s poem Hallaig, a lament to the cleared homesteads of the Isle of Raasay, is his most famous work, lauded by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel laureate whose translation was published in 2002, and the inspiration for countless other poets and songsmiths.

Yet few have ever read the poem as MacLean wrote it, or any of the other masterworks from the lyrical canon of Scottish Gaelic literature. Barely 60,000 people speak Gaelic, one of Britain’s fragile minority languages which is deemed “endangered” by Unesco. Campaigners hope that will change when Duolingo, the world’s largest online language learning platform, adds it to its syllabus on St Andrew’s Day.

Gaelic will not be the smallest language on Duolingo – Hawaiian, added last year, is spoken by only 18,610 people, according to American census data – but lovers of the language hope that the number of speakers will swell after 30 November, as they have for Welsh and Irish. Gaelic, Hawaiian and Navajo have all been selected after many years of campaigning, with Haitian Creole, Yiddish and Finnish still in the pipeline.

The announcement comes the day after the initial findings of a study into Gaelic showed that the number of speakers in Scotland’s island communities has plummeted in less than a decade. Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin,who is leading the study, described the language as being on the point of “societal collapse” across the country.

Among those lobbying Duolingo were Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh, a member of Misneachd which campaigns to promote Gaelic, and Kieran MacInnes, a teacher who runs the Gaelic department of a school in Oban. When the US company said yes, both were among 10 volunteers who created the course with the help of the company’s engineers and linguists.

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“Duolingo have never been under so much pressure to provide a language before, that’s what clamour there was for a Scottish Gaelic course,” Mac a’ Bhàillidh said. “We always struggle with numbers. It [Duolingo] provides a platform like it has done for Irish and Welsh and indigenous American languages as well, where you will get potentially a million people learning the language.”

MacInnes designed the curriculum, while other members of the team helped to create the Gaelic phrases and their English translations. He began working on the course materials in June. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours on this,” he said. “I even took my laptop on honeymoon. My wife sat at the pool and I took the laptop either down to the pool or I sat on the balcony. She was quite understanding.”

While MacInnes and Mac a’ Bhàillidh are hopeful that new learners will eventually be able to enjoy the poetry of MacLean and Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, or the songs of Runrig, it remains an open question whether Duolingo can help secure Gaelic’s future.

Some academics believe that promoting Gaelic to new speakers does not help the existing core of speakers on whom the language’s wellbeing depends.


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