Why I chose Gaelic Medium Education for my children

I wrote a testimonial a few days ago for gaelicmediumeducation.com, the website which tells people all about the benefits of Gaelic immersive education and gives information on schools offering it in the islands.

It came about because I have a work connection to the good people in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s multi-media unit and they asked if I would consider putting my views across on the site which they run.

It’s a good time, with enrolments coming up in January, and they asked me because I have a child in Gaelic Medium Education — Michael, six, is now in GM2 at Stornoway Primary — and believe the decision to go with Gaelic was one of the best decisions I could ever have made for him.

For those who don’t know, Gaelic Medium Education means being immersed completely in Gaelic in the classroom, with no English taught at all until Primary Three.

I many ways, I am a distinctly average parent. I work lots of hours, juggling (badly) the need to work with the need to look after my children, particularly James, who is still a preschooler, aged three.

I’m not always as available for them as I want to be, they don’t always eat the most nutritious meals (chicken nuggets have graced our table) and the extent of my baking skills is fairy cakes with jam on top because I can’t do icing.

When it comes to their education, though, I try to do the very best that I can. And that began with the ‘simple’ decision between Gaelic Medium Education or mainstream.

Michael with his teacher
Michael with his lovely P1 teacher, Miss Murray (now Mrs Macleod)

In this part of the world – the Outer Hebrides is the Gaelic heartland after all — the biggest question among parents of young children is “are you going to put him/her into Gaelic?”

I made the decision pretty early on, despite the fact that next to no Gaelic is spoken at home. I can manage a “suidh sios” (sit down) and a few other phrases but that’s not saying a huge amount, as pretty much everyone from Lewis can manage those.

The only people in my children’s family who really have Gaelic are my parents. I only have a little but my husband has none, and neither does my mother-in-law.

As I explain in my testimonial, my own experience as a teacher in the Nicolson (I do supply as well as freelancing as a writer and PR consultant) played a large part in persuading me. I could see, first hand, what those pupils who had been through Gaelic Medium in primary had going for them.

But I also had to do my research before committing my own children to Gaelic immersion, so I checked it out online to see whether it would be wise.

I found a wealth of evidence that it would be.

Michael with school work
Showing off his work on a class open day

On their website, Comunn na Gàidhlig, the Gaelic Development Agency, have a page entitled ‘How effective is Gaelic medium education?’ which cites multiple pieces of research.

This includes the finding by Edinburgh University that pupils in GME — who are not exposed to English in the classroom until at least Primary Three, remember — “catch up and overtake” mainstream pupils in their command of English.

By their second year in secondary school, three-quarters of GME pupils will have reached the expected level E in English reading and writing, compared to only half of the English Medium pupils.

Another report, produced for Government, found that GME pupils were not being disadvantaged in comparison to children educated through English. And that, crucially, was “whether or not Gaelic was the language of the home”.

“In many though not all instances” they were outperforming English Medium pupils and had the obvious advantage of learning two languages.

In addition, bilingualism-matters.org.uk pointed out that “children speaking two languages seem to have a greater facility for handling all aspects of the thought process”, as well as enhancing their chances of successfully learning other languages.

Michael with his class cup
Proudly bringing home the ‘Sgolair na Seachdain’ cup, which went to a different pupil in the GM1/2 class every week for good effort

As I write this, I am thinking back on Michael’s performance earlier this evening at Stornoway Primary’s Christmas concert, when he said a few lines on stage as part of his class’s wee play. I’m not sure what it all meant, being Gaelic, but it certainly sounded great and he looked very confident.

It took me back to his appearance at the local Mod earlier this year, when he delivered his lines with great aplomb on stage at An Lanntair. Again, that is something that wouldn’t have been open to him if it wasn’t for Gaelic Medium and I wrote about it in a previous blog post, Empowering Young Performers at the local Gaelic Mod.

It was also today that James, who started going to croileagan (Gaelic nursery) in October, gave a clear “tha” (yes) in response to a question.

I was delighted. Not just because it shows social confidence but because they were giving me their answer, loud and clear, to that question about whether Gaelic Medium Education is a good idea.

I was more than happy to give my testimonial for gaelicmediumeducation.com. I thought I would also include it here and if it emboldens even one parent in their decision-making process then I will be happy…

A grin of sorts as Michael heads off to P2 after the summer

The decision to put my child into Gaelic Medium Education was made before I was even pregnant! As a teacher in the Nicolson Institute, I saw the difference between those pupils who had come through Gaelic Medium and those who had been in English mainstream.

On my very first day, a more experienced hand told me: “You’ll have no problem with them — they’re an Addison class.”

Addison is the school house for pupils who have come through Gaelic Medium and right away it was clear that something about these pupils was ‘better’, somehow.

Initially, and of course this is a generalisation, you could see a difference in behaviour but the list of prize winners at the end of the year showed that Addison also excel academically.

They would win prizes in all the subjects, not just languages, and were frequently first across the line on the sports track, too.

Michael and James
Thumbs up from Michael on his second day of P2… little brother James a bit more nonplussed on his way to nursery

Some people find it strange that, as an English teacher, I have chosen to put my children through GME but it was what I saw in the Nicolson pupils that persuaded me to do this.

The benefits of GME and bilingualism are immense. They are well documented and the research done by Professor Antonella Sorace of Edinburgh University helped convince me. For a greater understanding, it is worth watching this presentation she gave to the An t-Alltan Gaelic teachers conference in 2011.

GME children tend to perform better across all disciplines but I personally really like that it helps them to intuitively understand there will always be more than one way to describe something.

Bilingualism slows cognitive ageing and has been shown to delay the onset of dementia. I’ve also heard stories of old folk losing their first language but keeping their second when they’ve suffered a stroke, which says something rather magical about bilingualism.

When it came to my own children, I did my research early on, asking a lot of questions about how to give them the best chances of succeeding in Gaelic Medium Education when they come from a solely English-speaking family.

I was advised that it would be wise to switch them from nursery to croileagan around the age of three to give them a couple of years of preparation for going to school in Gaelic.

Michael and Seoras
Michael with Seoras the Monkey, when it was his turn to have the class mascot home for the weekend

When Michael first went to croileagan (in Breasclete because of where we were then living), he didn’t take to the language.

“Don’t talk Gaelic!” he would shout at me, but the staff assured me this was an entirely normal stage of development and all the children were like that.

Even this summer I had a moment of doubt because he was still resisting speaking it but then I learned about ‘the quiet phase’ of language acquisition, which is still an issue in P2.

Recently, though, his Gaelic has taken off. I have a wee bit of Gaelic, because I’m learning it, and try to use it in conversation. I think I’m doing well with ‘An robh sgoil math an-duigh?’ (was school good today) but Michael and his Gaelic-speaking Shen will have wee chats that I can’t understand.

He is more than happy now to ‘talk Gaelic’ and thinks it’s very cool that he will be able to read and write in two languages! He’s proud of himself for knowing English and Gaelic and the extracurricular experiences he has had through GME, such as performing in An Lanntair during the local Mod, have helped with that confidence.

This wee guy has started croileagan and can now count in Gaelic

James has had a much slower start than Michael – his speech is clearly delayed and we are awaiting speech therapy — but I have still put him into croileagan.

He now goes to the Gaelic room at Stornoway Primary nursery on three mornings a week, where he has settled right in, despite not hearing much Gaelic anywhere else and not speaking very much of anything himself.

His words are still very muffled but it was great to hear him count to five in Gaelic recently.

I’m what you would consider ‘the missed generation’ in Gaelic. My Gaelic-speaking parents didn’t teach it to me, thinking it would be best to concentrate on English to maximise my chances.

I went to school in Lewis in the 80s, long before Gaelic Medium Education became established or even fashionable, but my children are in the system and on track for growing up bilingual.

James and Seoras
James makes off with Michael’s class mascot Seoras…

I love hearing Michael and his Shen blether together in Gaelic. It’s a beautiful sound.

They have a special cultural connection because of the language and Michael now belongs to the Gaelic heritage that is his birthright.

As well as the cultural and cognitive benefits of this bilingualism, there is also the undeniable economic advantage of having Gaelic in this part of the world, should Michael and James want to remain here, or return here, when they are grown up.

There are a lot of jobs, particularly in the media, that do require Gaelic and I didn’t want my children to find any closed doors when they might have been open.

In the early days I used to worry that choosing GME was a bit elitist but what parent wouldn’t give their children any advantage they possibly could?

I won’t pretend the decision to choose Gaelic Medium Education was an easy one for our family. Numerous relatives challenged me about it but my husband supported the decision, although the homework responsibility does fall on me because I have the most Gaelic by far.

Gaelic4Parents mascots
Maoilios and Nip, the mascots from the Gaelic4Parents website

I couldn’t have managed without Gaelic4Parents.com — and a lot of parents will say the same. The website is great and we’ll always listen to the audio of the latest schoolbook on Gaelic4Parents before having a go at the pronunciation ourselves. They have a live homework support service too, between 5pm and 7pm during term time, so you really needn’t be stuck.

There is a lot of support out there for non-Gaelic speaking parents of children in Gaelic Medium Education… but I would say it’s still a bold step. You can’t know how it’s going to play out when you enrol them but the research is there to prove that it works, so trust the process.

Off all the parenting decisions I have ever taken, choosing Gaelic Medium Education is the one that I am most proud of. I believe it’s the best thing I could ever have done for my children.


Comments 5

  1. As one of those responsible for the setting up of Gaelic-medium education back in 1985, this is one of the most lucid and encouraging articles I have read. It is particularly impressive that the psychological block which used to operate amongst Leòdhasaich who had themselves been deprived of their own language has been demolished by a younger and less prejudiced generation. This blog deserves wider distribution. Mo bheannachd agad (see Michael for translation!).

    1. This is terrific to hear, Iain – thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, particularly given your background (there aren’t the words to thank you for being involved in setting up GME!) and your point about the psychological block is very interesting and pertinent. Thank you again and best wishes. Katie

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