Saving Gaelic – Is It Rocket Science?

by Mar 6, 2015

A few years ago, someone criticized my work, saying that Gaelic language revitalization wasn’t rocket science.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because she was right. Language revitalization isn’t rocket science — it’s far more difficult.

Rocket science, or any type of engineering, formulates and solves problems. Get the math right, solve the problem. On to the next problem. Something breaks or goes wrong? Find the math or programming mistake and fix it. Human error is a factor, but the math is reliable.

Language revitalization, on the other hand, is not so simple.


International Space Station

The International Space Station – definitely rocket science


A formal definition of language revitalization is: “the attempt to add new linguistic forms or social functions to a language which is threatened with language loss or death, with the aim of increasing its uses and users” (Kendall King 2001, p. 4). Basically, it’s the effort to “save” a language that is gradually going out of daily use.

Why is it so difficult to save a language? Because it involves a deliberate effort to change people’s opinions, ideas, feelings, and behaviors.

In this sense, language revitalization is much more like public health than rocket science.

Public health is the effort by a state government to monitor, regulate, and promote the health of its population as a whole. Public health is difficult. The Harvard University School of Public Health alone employs dozens of professors to research and teach about epidemiology, nutrition, public policy, etc. Have they solved all the problems of public health yet? Look at vaccines. Although some deadly diseases have been nearly eradicated by public health programs of vaccination, we are now seeing a resurgence of measles in the USA. Why? Because a significant number of people have come to fear vaccines.


1920s anti-vaxxer cartoon

Even in the 1920s, public health advocates struggled with anti-vaxxers.


How did some parents come to fear vaccines? How did the idea take hold that they were dangerous? It’s complicated, but it includes faked scientific research results; trust of anti-vaccine doctors; contradictory but not unjustified distrust of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and governments; and trust of celebrities.

Parents who are responsible for taking their children to get immunized (a behaviour) have opinions, ideas, and feelings. Through fear, mistrust, or misplaced trust, they have decided that it is in their children’s best interests not to immunize them against deadly diseases. Their behavior reflects that — avoiding immunization, and applying for vaccine exemptions or homeschooling to avoid public health requirements.

This behavior is now affecting a much larger group of people due to the weakening of “herd immunity.” People who cannot be immunized for medical reasons, whose vaccines didn’t provide full immunity, or who are more vulnerable to infections, are now catching measles again in greater numbers. It’s spreading rapidly.

The question I’ve heard over and over on Facebook is, How on earth can we get more parents to vaccinate their children? Some people think it’s going to happen through public shaming of anti-vaxxer parents. Some people think it’s going to happen by presenting more and better scientific explanations to parents. Some people think it’s going to happen by changing the laws to eliminate more vaccine exemptions. Whether any of these strategies will work still remains to be seen.

In language revitalization, we also see how parents’ opinions, ideas, feelings, and behaviours can be influenced by a whole range of sources: other parents, friends and family members, educators, celebrities, what they see on the internet, what they hear on TV and radio. What Gaelic-speaking parents heard, for a very long time, was that they ought to speak English and not Gaelic to their children. Educators told them that Gaelic would be bad for their children’s future. Many parents were persuaded to fear for their children’s future if the children were raised with Gaelic, and then the presence of their English-speaking children increased the pressure on other parents to conform. The media still regularly repeats the stereotypes and lies that Gaelic is pointless, outdated, inferior. The result was that parents stopped transmitting Gaelic to their children in Gaelic “heartland” areas.

Even when parents do choose to speak Gaelic to their children, the metaphorical “herd immunity” to language shift is gone. There is nowhere that children can remain in a totally Gaelic-speaking environment. They will hear English — and more importantly, prejudice against Gaelic — almost everywhere they go. Because of this, it becomes an even greater challenge to ensure that children get enough Gaelic interaction and input to build up their language skills to fluency, and just as importantly, to build a positive emotional connection to the language.


The Shawbost Report

The Shawbost Report


We have sent astronauts to the moon, and built and staffed an international space station. That is rocket science.

Can we save the Scottish Gaelic language from going out of daily use? It’s not rocket science.

But it takes persuading people to feel willing, happy, safe, and supported as they go about it (along with experience, expert knowledge, and research-based decisions). Trust and positive emotions are key to language revitalization.

And if you try to go about it by spreading lies, insults, and ill-will, you will never succeed.

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