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, in general of course, between those pupils who had come through Gaelic Medium and those who had been in English mainstream.
Ahead of my first ever lesson, a more experienced teacher 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 were also excelling academically.
They would win prizes in all the subjects, not just languages, and were frequently first across the line on the sports track, too.
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.
To be absolutely honest, there were some cases where GME pupils would display slightly shaky grammar and spelling in English but this wasn’t all that common and, to my mind, was more than compensated for by the fact they did better across all the subjects.
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. GME children tend to perform better across all disciplines but I personally really like that it gives them an understanding of the fact 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.
My own children are Michael, aged six, who is now in primary two in the Gaelic Medium unit in Stornoway Primary, and James, three, who has very recently started in the school’s cròileagan.
I did my research early on and learned it would be wise to switch them from nursery to cròileagan at this age to give them a couple of years of preparation for going to school in Gaelic.
Michael went to Breasclete cròileagan at first (we moved from the west side to Stornoway a year ago) but he didn’t initially take to the language.
“Don’t talk Gaelic!” he would shout to me, whenever I threw a wee phrase at him, 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 I was told about ‘the quiet phase’ of language acquisition, which is still very much ongoing during P2.
Recently, though, his Gaelic has taken off. I have a wee bit of Gaelic, because I’m learning it (my husband has none) and try to use it in conversation. I think I’m doing well with ‘An robh sgoil math an-diugh?’ 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 cool that he will be able to read and write in two languages! I know that he’s proud of himself for knowing English and Gaelic and the extracurricular experiences he has had through GME – such as going to the Mod and delivering lines on stage in An Lanntair — have helped with that confidence.
James, Michael’s little brother, has had a much slower start with his speech in general but I have still put him into cròileagan at Stornoway Primary.
Miss Macritchie and the rest of the staff are fantastic and he settled right in, despite not hearing much Gaelic at home 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 at cròileagan recently.
I’m what you would consider ‘the missed generation’ in Gaelic. My parents were both fluent Gaelic speakers but didn’t teach it to me, thinking that it would be best to concentrate on English.
I went to school in Lewis in the 80s, when GME wasn’t really a thing, but my children are in that system and are on track to growing up bilingual. The fact that Michael bypasses me in conversation with his Shen highlights this beautifully.
They have an instant cultural connection because of the language and Michael is now part of the Gaelic culture that is his heritage.
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. 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. Some relatives disagreed with it quite strongly but my husband supported the decision, although the homework responsibility does fall on me.
I couldn’t have managed without Gaelic4Parents — 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.