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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jul-18 > Caillte ann an eadar-theangachadh

Caillte ann an eadar-theangachadh

Gaelic is a dying language. Should it be kept alive?

(Lost in translation)


The first time I try to learn Gaelic, I go with my mum. We enrol on a week-long immersion course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye. Beginners I, our course is called, and it assumes no knowledge.

We start from the very beginning: consulting notes at every corner, fearing the spotlight, feeling every syllable strange in our mouths. The teacher stands to write a question on the board and we regard it solemnly. “Dè an t-ainm a th’ort?” Together we pick the sentence apart and put it together again, wondering at its strangeness: what is the name that is on you? I learn to put the names on us, with a certain amount of panache. “Is mise Cal,” I wobble, earning appreciative nods from around the room. “Agus seo Fiona. Tha i na—” I explain, with a confidential air, “—mo mhàthair.”

We’ve never been the sort of family in which I address my parents by their first names, but it feels nice to be suddenly peers: sitting beside each other in class and sleeping in twin beds. Together we rattle through the basics. “It is windy,” we inform each other in halting syllables. Or: “I have one sister.” Sometimes these statements are true; more often they aren’t— the facts manipulated to generate the simplest or most adventurous language. “I don’t like soup,” I announce to the class on Friday. “But I like making soup.” “Liar,” says Mum, out of the corner of her mouth, as the teacher observes us goodhumouredly from the front of the room. When not teaching immersion courses, he tells us, he is the Gaelic voice of Daddy Pig on BBC Alba’s version of Peppa Pig.

In the evenings, over dinner in the hall, we practice our conjugations. Sometimes we walk to the rocky beach on the other side of the headland to watch for otters, and on the way we talk about Mum’s childhood on the island. A traditional Highland upbringing in many ways—but an Anglophone one, in an increasingly Anglophone world. “Isn’t it awful,” her father said once, after she and her siblings were grown, “that none of you speak any Gaelic.” But he didn’t teach it to us, says Mum. They often didn’t, that generation.

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In Prospect's July issue: Editor of Prospect Tom Clark tackles the major fault lines developing in the Conservative Party over Brexit, arguing that the issue could be one of those few occasions where the Tories can’t overcome a significant challenge. Alongside his lead essay, Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, examines why many European parties on the right are struggling and why the continent should be worried. Conservative MP Lee Rowley charts what some of the policy areas that the Tories will have to deal with beyond Brexit if they are to get it right. Elsewhere in the issue: Nabeelah Jaffer tries to answer one of the most difficult questions of our time: how do you de-radicalise an extremist. Using examples from both the UK and Denmark, she argues that the UK model needs more work to be effective; Philip Collins asks why Britain’s towns have fallen by the wayside while its cities have thrived; and Sam Tanenhaus profiles “the real deal-maker” in Donald Trump’s White House, Mike Pompeo, after the Secretary of State oversaw the US-North Korea summit.