A team of experts from the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Soillse research project studied a number of Gaelic communities and found that “the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse,” according to a press release published Thursday.
The language has been used in Scotland for more than 1,500 years. While its use has declined, Gaelic is “a valuable part of Scotland’s cultural identity, especially for people in the Highlands and Islands,” the Scottish government says.
The team published their findings in a new book titled “The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic.”
Study author Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, professor of Gaelic research at the University of the Highlands and Islands, told CNN that the language could be gone within 10 years due to a rapid decline in the number of speakers that started in the 1980s.
For the 1981 census, 80% of people on the islands reported an ability to speak Gaelic, but by the 2011 census that had fallen to 52%. This represents a net loss of 9,660 Gaelic speakers over 30 years, with younger people in particular not speaking the language.
There are currently around 11,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland and most are over the age of 50, Ó Giollagáin said, but their networks are increasingly isolated and the language is not being passed down to younger generations.
“Language is a social competence,” said Ó Giollagáin, adding that speakers need friends to converse.
Researchers say the existing government policy — which has included the building of Gaelic primary and secondary schools in Glasgow and Edinburgh to improve access to education — has failed.
A radically different approach is needed to arrest the decline of the language and if things continue as they are then in the near future those learning Gaelic will only do so in a classroom rather than in communities, added Ó Giollagáin.
“Gaelic language identity will essentially become a second language, or a heritage identity, in Scotland, and not a lived reality of a community of speakers,” he said.
Existing efforts have been “largely symbolic,” according to Ó Giollagáin, and the government needs to do more, such as setting up a Gaelic Community Trust and encouraging networks of speakers to use the language in a social setting.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said Gaelic is a vital part of Scotland’s cultural identity and it supports efforts to help people learn and use the language.
Mairi MacInnes, chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, an organization that promotes Gaelic, said the group is “willing to discuss with island communities what else they want to happen, in addition to the many positive things which are already in place, to encourage greater use of Gaelic in the islands and elsewhere.”