At this school, teachers to teddy bears speak Gaelic

Eleven-year-old Emily Gillies, a pert, snub-nosed girl with brown hair and glasses, wants to be a TV star, so she is learning Gaelic.

That might seem a roundabout route, considering that Scotland's traditional tongue is spoken by only about 10,000 people today. But Emily has it all planned out. "There are loads of Gaelic shows on the telly [television] here now," she explains. "But there's not many people in Glasgow who speak Gaelic." And on the remote Scottish islands where the language is more common, "there aren't any TV studios."

Emily is a pupil at Bunsgoil Ghaidhlig Ghlaschu (Glasgow Gaelic Primary School), Scotland's first - and only - Gaelic-medium school, where English is introduced as a second language only after age 7.

The school is part of a Gaelic revival in Scotland that includes the TV shows on which Emily has set her sights. "It's a question of developing the ethos, of giving the children pride in their language and encouraging them to use it," says headmistress Donalda McComb.

Gaelic, historically the native language of the Scottish highlanders and islanders, was outlawed in 1745 by the English, after they put down Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion against London.

It has been in retreat ever since, and like its "Celtic fringe" cousins - Welsh and Breton - fell steadily into disuse during the 20th century as rural speakers flocked to the English-speaking cities in search of jobs.

The school's austere, smog-blackened exterior - it sits in one of the shabbier districts of the city, in the heart of the Bangladeshi immigrant community - belies the bright liveliness you would expect from 108 children between the ages of 4 and 11.

Everything inside has a particularly Gaelic twist. Toddlers in the language-immersion class are encouraged to practice, when they are told the playroom teddy bears only understand Gaelic.

A CD-ROM for older children, about the fragile environment of a Scottish island, is in Gaelic (though the teacher needs a pupil's help getting it to run).

The school is anxious to be part of the modern world, not just a decorative element of the "tartan fringe."

Since opening in September, it has forged links with nearby schools, where most of the children are Bangladeshi, and its teachers offer Gaelic lessons to adults and families on the weekends in an effort to sink local roots. "We don't want to be isolated, we want to be part of the community in a unique way," says Ms. McComb.

But it is hard for the children to make their Gaelic real in a country where English, albeit with a Scottish accent, is overwhelmingly dominant. Even McComb says she speaks Gaelic only at the school (where even the janitor is fluent) and in a few Glasgow pubs that cater to young people from the Outer Hebrides. These windswept and remote islands off Scotland's northwest coast are inhabited mainly by a dwindling population of crofters, or small-scale sheep farmers.

Still, the children say they don't feel odd taking all their classes in a language that few of their friends speak (not to mention their parents - most are on their own when it comes to homework). Emily's friends keep asking her to say things to them in Gaelic and think "it's pure groovy," she says.

Kevin Mackay, a classmate, is equally proud. "It's Scotland's culture, and I like learning new languages. I'm doing German too," he says. "And when I was on holiday in Florida, the American kids I met thought it was great to come from a country with its own language."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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