> Interview: Màrtainn Mac A'Bhàillidh – Scottish Gaelic Duolingo - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Màrtainn Mac A’Bhàillidh – Scottish Gaelic Duolingo

You’ve probably noticed that there’s been a huge increase in Scottish press coverage of the Gaelic language. Once Scotland’s principal language, it’s now only spoken by about 2 percent of the country, with the vast majority living on the west coast and in the Western Isles. After a sustained campaign of eradication and dismissal stretching back hundreds of years, what’s changed? Should we Scots be promoting it more? After all, it’s one of Scotland’s three official languages, along with English and Scots.

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in all things Gaelic-related, partly down to the Outlander effect: principal character Jamie Fraser speaks both English and Gaelic in the hugely popular TV adaptation. Scottish diaspora in the US and elsewhere are very keen to learn what they consider to be their ancestral tongue. And of course, the ongoing battle for independence from the UK has bolstered interest in all things inherently Scottish.

Gaelic Medium Education is available at around 60 primary schools across Scotland. Many parents of GME kids who are non-native speakers themselves are keen to learn, in order to gain a better understanding of their kids’ schoolwork. Recently Gaelic immersion learning became opt-out only in the Western Isles.

As a result of this surge in interest, a campaign emerged in 2019 to encourage the developers of language app Duolingo to add Scottish Gaelic to their list of available languages. This included a social media-based campaign which led to tens of thousands signing up to the course in the first few hours after its launch. Duolingo is a hugely popular and successful app with over 6 million users worldwide. It uses short, comprehensive exercises and a game-like format to encourage and spur on learners, who can win trophies and advance through leagues to complete the various levels. As of December 2020, there were over 560,000 people signed up to the Scottish Gaelic course: that’s over ten times the number of native Gaelic speakers in Scotland.

I’m learning Gaelic myself. I’ve been using the Duolingo app for over a year now, and I have to say, the developers have done an excellent job. It’s funny, engaging, and relevant to modern day Scottish life and culture – references to Irn Bru, Runrig, and the woefulness or otherwise of Fort William’s football team abound. Deadpan statements are common, such as ‘Tha Dùn Dè cho alainn’ (Dundee is so lovely) and my personal favourite, the unbothered, non-committal ‘Tha Sasainn ceart gu leor’ (England is okay).

This is in addition to a cast of characters featured in listening exercises which start off innocuously enough, with basic lessons on how to introduce yourself (Halò Eilidh! Halò, Alasdair!). These quickly descend into vaguely worrying, League of Gentlemen-type statements, such as ‘Chan eil drathais orm/I don’t have underwear on’ and ‘Obh obh…Iain an-seo/Oh dear…Iain is here’. Indeed, much time has been devoted online to constructing a back-story for the insidious Iain, who spends a good amount of his ‘on-screen time’ in uncomfortable social interactions, wearing minimal amounts of clothing (Tha aon brog orm!/I have one shoe on!).

I spoke with Màrtainn Mac A’Bhàillidh, one of the course developers and an organiser with Misneachd Alba, a grassroots advocacy group which aims to raise awareness of Gaelic and the issues facing Gaelic-speaking communities. I also used this as a sneaky chance to brush up on my Gaelic, in an attempt to garner some praise for my efforts.

Màrtainn Mac A’Bhàillidh

Halò a Mhàrtainn! Ciamar a tha thu an-diugh? Please tell me I said that right.

Glè mhath, nach math a rinn thu! Tha mise gu math, tapadh leat.

The course is impressive. I’m having so much fun with it. Did you and the other developers set out to make it funny, and do you think this is the key to engaging with people and holding their interest?

Absolutely. With an app like Duolingo you have to make the content engaging and memorable, and probably the best way to do that is through humour. That’s no easy task either, as you are restricted to vocabulary which has been taught in the course at any point. It’s also why IRN BRU appears; if we want to mention something, we need to teach it as a word! That forces you to be creative with the vocabulary you have.

There was a huge online effort to get Scottish Gaelic on the radar for the Duolingo course. The course itself has a large Twitter presence and a Facebook group with over 9,000 members. How important is social media in promoting and encouraging the Gaelic language?

Without a doubt it has a huge part to play, but like everything else there are pros and cons. For learners particularly, the Facebook groups, Instagram and Twitter accounts are a great way to share tips and recommendations with other learners, ask questions, practice, and provide motivation and a sense of community. However, social media use can’t replace genuine language communities which are in real trouble. There is also a tendency to share and give unnecessary exposure to the negativity and hate which lurks on Twitter particularly

There will always be a tiny vocal minority opposed to Gaelic. In my opinion, too much energy is wasted on these people who don’t represent Scottish, or international, public opinion. Haters gonna hate!

There are many Scots out there who view Gaelic as a dead language, and therefore not worth wasting time and resources on. Why is it important that people in Scotland, including those who may not be living in traditionally Gaelic-speaking areas, engage with and learn the language?

All languages and their cultures offer priceless and unique world views and windows into different human experiences over the centuries. Scotland as a nation has a moral obligation to preserve our languages and cultures. This obligation is made even more compelling by the injustices suffered by Gaelic speakers historically.

A huge effort has been made to eradicate the Gaelic language and culture; this historic injustice should be rectified and we all can play a part in doing so. There is a common refrain that languages are subject to a Darwinian process of evolution and that some should be left to ‘die off’, as if this happens naturally. Languages don’t die: they are killed. They are killed by a lack of support at a political and economic level.

Every penny not spent supporting Gaelic is spent supporting the English language! English isn’t some default position, enjoying hegemony due to its inherent greatness. It gained this position through Empire, colonisation and ethnocide. It is a political decision to maintain its dominant situation.

Gaelic seems to be on the up-and-up, but the percentage of speakers in Scotland is still lagging behind that of speakers of Welsh and Irish Gaelic. What do you think the single most crucial factor is in ensuring that Gaelic doesn’t die out?

Well, there is a lot of positivity around Duolingo and new learners, which is great, but we’ve also seen comprehensive research on the remaining Gaelic communities published recently which lays out the scale of the challenge [The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community 2020]. There simply isn’t enough being done to support these communities. The situation in Scotland isn’t comparable to that of Ireland and Wales in terms of policy and political support, as well as in number of speakers.

Languages are a social phenomenon: they ‘live’ in communities rather than as skills possessed by individuals. Without social density of speakers, groups of people living close to each other and leading their lives through the medium of the language, languages can’t naturally regenerate themselves. It’s unsustainable in the long term to be dependent on the passion and commitment of learners: there has to be intergenerational momentum.

In the recent course update, Iain has his own section devoted to his antics. Will we see Iain’s star continue to rise? Maybe he could star in a reboot of [iconic 90s Gaelic soap] Machair. Or I could see him in a Tommy-style rock opera…

I couldn’t possibly comment. No spoilers here. The great thing about the characters and ‘storylines’, such as they are, is that they are very much driven by the community of users. There are suggestions of a back-story in the course, but sentences appear without context and users are fleshing these out and speculating on them in the Facebook groups, to hilarious effect. It’s a great way to build interactivity and to let users’ imaginations motivate them to keep going, I think this is much more successful than being too literal with the storytelling.

The difficulty for all of us involved is that we all know many an ‘Iain’, who are now all convinced we’re having a dig at them. I can assure all the Iains out there that no identification with actual Iains (living or deceased) is intended or should be inferred.


Misneachd: misneachd.scot

The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: uhi.ac.uk

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