GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

Bilingualism: language and cognitive skills

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.

The project 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 Gaelic 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.”