Secondary school Gaelic immersion study reports positive effects of bilingualism on language and cognition

A ground-breaking study into how Gaelic is perceived by secondary school pupils and how it develops their linguistic and cognitive skills found significant benefits of speaking the language alongside a global language such as English.

The immersion study, funded by Bord na Gàidhlig, was led by Dr Maria Garraffa and a team from Heriot-Watt University, together with Prof Bernadette O’Rourke from University of Glasgow and Prof Antonella Sorace from the University of Edinburgh.

They worked together with senior pupils from The Glasgow Gaelic School, the largest provider of Gaelic medium education in Scotland, to find out how our younger generation of Gaelic speakers view and use the language.
It examined for the first time particularly whether older teenagers, after 15 years of education in Gaelic, continued to speak Gaelic or what might lead them to stop.

The research revealed that speaking Gaelic does not affect the ability to speak well in English – and that being bilingual provides more opportunities for those fluent in both.

Dr. Maria Garraffa, Associate Professor at Heriot-Watt University, explains: “We had clearly proven that the positive effects of bilingualism are not contingent upon the fact that a speaker is using a small heritage language like Gaelic or a global language like French or Spanish. Speaking does not affect competence in English, offers the same cognitive benefits of bilingual speakers and it is a resource for more opportunities”.

“Being competent in more than one language has been associated with success in global business. Yet studies conducted by researchers in Wales have shown that pupils in immersion programmes often regard their heritage language as a subject choice they can drop when they leave school. We’ll be working with pupils who will soon be leaving school for employment and we don’t want them to lose their Gaelic language skills.

“Children in Gaelic medium education are changing how people perceive the Gaelic language and they need to be supported to further demonstrate its applicability in a business context. Speaking Gaelic is not a local skill but could have global applications and benefits.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “I welcome this research by Heriot Watt University which shows the benefits of bilingualism for those children in Gaelic education. I hope that this will reassure the growing number of parents who have placed their young people in Gaelic medium education and encourage others to take that step.”
These results are vital for the next steps of the revitalisation policies aiming to save Gaelic. Not only do they show that being bilingual in a minority language does not harm either language abilities in the community language, and actually boost the development of cognitive skills, but that young adult speakers and especially new speakers view Gaelic in a favourable light and do not carry on the negative connotations held by the older generation.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s Director of Education, Jim Whannel, said: “The Education Team at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, warmly welcomes this interesting research, which provides further concrete evidence of the advantages young people experience in becoming functional bilingual adults, as a consequence of Gaelic Medium Education. This will support further reflection, in the context of the OECD Review of the Secondary Curriculum, on how Scotland can extend further the opportunities Gaelic Medium Education delivers for young people, right across the country.”
This calls for the need to multiply and diversify the contexts in which Gaelic is spoken, to encourage its use in the social sphere and make it a language of choice.

The project’s results have been recently presented in the large context of the European Cost Action “The Newspeakers network” on policies and practices to support minority languages.

The paper will be available to view on Tuesday 20 October: