DuoLingo released a version of their language-learning app for Scottish Gaelic in the Autumn of 2019 and in little more than a year, more than 500,000 people had signed up to gain some knowledge of a tongue that is in a highly endangered state due to centuries of neglect and persecution from anglophones, especially those who have wielded power and monopolized privilege in state institutions. Many thousands of these DuoLingo learners from around the world are on FaceBook groups, and while discussion tends to be focused on getting help with questions around grammar, syntax, and idiom, some of it relates to wider questions of history, social conditions, and ethnicity.
An anecdote was just shared on one of these groups that I think is worth exploring further:
“My partner and I stayed in a B&B near Lochcarron, in 1978. In those days much of Scotland, and the Western Highlands in particular, was firmly closed on Sundays and we were despairing of finding anywhere to stay, so we were very grateful for the elderly couple – an old blind shepherd and his wife, who ignored the local convention and kept their B&B sign up. They were lovely too. The old shepherd said something I will never forget: he said ‘I have the Gaelic, I’m no ashamed’. That took me aback, the first time I realised that this man and others of his generation were taught that speaking the native language of the Highlands was something shameful, something to be discouraged.”
And, as might be expected, the sharing of this anecdote prompted others to respond with stories within their own families of how their own parents, grandparents, or other forebears, were made to feel ashamed of Gaelic by people invested with authority by institutions such as the school or church, and how that shame discouraged them from valuing Gaelic or allowing others to use or speak it. Here are a few of those responses:
“My own father was belted at school for speaking his first language. He wasn’t ashamed and was trying to teach my mother, before he died at 43. It’s repeated all over Scotland. And the prejudice and ingrained institutional prejudice is still a big issue for the language today. You see it everywhere in Scotland.”
“A friend of mine’s mother was beaten at school for speaking Gaelic. We’ve all lost so much and not even realised.”
“As I understand it from conversations I’ve had with folk from native speaking households, not only were they physically disciplined at school if they used their first language (this is in mid-late 1900s, not that long ago), but the families were made to believe the kids would not amount to anything in life. Like they’d be seen as backwards, stupid, and not have the same opportunities as others. Sadly, it worked.”
“My family too. That’s why I was determined to keep it.”
Of course, being physically punished or psychologically brutalized in school does not by itself entirely account for the entire phenomenon of abandoning a language: the shepherd in the first anecdote resisted the negative attitudes of the anglophone ascendency, as did the final response that I’ve quoted. But discussion about the sad state of Gaelic and its history of marginalization in Scotland and in colonial contexts like Nova Scotia always brings similar stories to the fore, which suggests that people and families find them to be meaningful, pithy encapsulations of the struggles that they and their communities have had in maintaining any meaningful amount of control over their own cultural and linguistic identities, and the merciless iron fist that the anglophone world has exercised against such possibilities for centuries.
There is clear evidence that Scottish Highlanders internalized a sense of inferiority, as far as their native language and culture was concerned, in the eighteenth century, particularly after the defeat of the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Culloden (history I’ve discussed at length in my book Warriors of the Word and in some articles and blog posts such as this one).
While this imperial agenda to enforce the superiority of the anglophone world at the expense of the native language and culture of the Highlands was reflected and reinforced by all formal institutions in Scotland, it is particularly heart-breaking to see the role that schools often played in this tortuous brain-washing. Teachers are authority figures who exercise a great deal of influence on the thoughts and values of the students in their charge, who in most cases want to earn the approval and endorsement of the teacher. The very idea of education – passing patterns of thought from teacher to student – is predicated on this hierarchy. Once the concepts and belief of education are inculcated upon a new generation, the pattern can replicate itself. In other words, once the idea has been transmitted that Gaelic is inferior and not worth nurturing, that an English-only world is the only path through progress and modernity, then it doesn’t matter what the identity of the teacher is, the same imperial agenda can be promoted.
A very similar set of “methods of instruction” – the murder machine, as Pádraic Pearse called it – was practiced across the Celtic communities of Scotland, Ireland, Man and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and sometimes beyond. A student who was caught speaking their native language was forced to wear a badge of shame, such as the skull of a dead animal, and other students were responsible for reporting them when that happened. One of the common practices was for the student who wore the object of shame to listen for another student using Gaelic and the object would be passed to him or her. In some cases, at the end of the school day, only the student who ended up with the object would be thrashed, and in other cases, each of the students who had been caught would be thrashed in turn.
It was a brutal means of brainwashing children to believe in the subordination of their native language and culture, and it is more than just a metaphor or analogy for the chain of coloniality that was transferred to other settings such as First Nations Residential Schools. This was exactly how cultural marginalization was passed from one generation to the next, how subservience to imperial power was imprinted on bodies and minds, and how unresolved trauma was re-enacted upon the most vulnerable groups in geographical circles radiating outward until it bled out into colonial settlements.
One of the missions that I have with the Hidden Glen Folk School is to give participants the tools to understand and interrupt this chain of coloniality within their own lives. How? First of all, by delving into the real, concrete cultural expressions of Gaelic culture, participants can learn and experience for themselves that this is and was not an inferior way of being in the world or seeing the world. It did not need to be invaded, conquered and assimilated for its own good. It is and was a fully-functioning, sophisticated, beautiful, valid society and identity in its own right on its own terms.
Second, if participants can have deep engagement with Gaelic culture, they can come to realize in their own way that the marginalization of Gaelic society and the imposition of assimilation into an anglocentric, imperial world was an injustice that caused great harm to people not just at a material level but at psychological, social, and spiritual levels. And if participants can gain empathy with Gaels who went through those experiences, and the reasons why they were traumatic, they can gain greater understanding of similar experiences of injustice committed against other ethnic groups in the past and present and gain greater empathy with them.
Finally, one of my courses, Radicalizing the Roots, covers the history of coloniality in the Gaelic world. It allows participants to learn about the history of empire as it has intersected with Gaeldom in very specific terms, the particular circumstances, practices, and beliefs involved, and demonstrates that these follow fairly common patterns of Othering and hegemony – phenomena that have happened and continue to happen all around the world due to the nature of power and impulses of dehumanization that accompany it. The experience of coloniality, disenfranchisement and oppression are detrimental to all involved in different ways. These are lessons that every generation experiences and must take account of on its own terms.
These insights and experiences can provide solid foundations for engaging with people who work for a more just and equal world where people and communities can live and act in solidarity as peers, recognizing our common humanity, our common flaws and shortcomings, giving each other the chance for healing from our many scars and the chance for redemption from our many past faults, weaknesses, sins, and mistakes. There are many entryways into the dialog of Truth and Reconciliation and we all need to start somewhere.
For some people, this journey might start with joining DuoLingo and learning a little bit of Scottish Gaelic and discovering that it’s fun and not impossible to learn. For those who want to delve deeply, I expect to offer the next course in my series, Reclaiming the Roots, in the next month or two. The pandemic has forced me to put teaching on the back-burner for a time, and I’ve been caught up in a couple of book projects, but I’m trying to keep the teaching simmering as best as I can. Stay tuned …