Interview by Christian Puma-Ninacuri
Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Gaelic-medium education (GME) has been developed as an initiative to maintain the Gaelic language through education. The role of formal education as a tool for revitalizing a language has been widely studied and theorized; however, empirical research on the long-term outcomes of minority-medium education has been relatively scarce. What was your motivation to evaluate the revitalization of Gaelic from an empirical point of view? How does your study contribute to our knowledge of language revitalization processes?
Stuart Dunmore: I think my main motivation was, as you rightly say, the paucity of research evidence that has been brought to bear on long-term outcomes of minority-medium immersion education historically. In Scotland, GME receives a great deal of attention as the main means we currently have of increasing the numbers of speakers that exist in the world, since vernacular community use of the language continues to decline apace. Generally, Gaelic has not been passed onto a majority of the youngest generations in heartland areas, so school has tended to be used to plug that gap elsewhere in Scotland. The trouble was, we just had no real idea as to whether or not former students who have received an immersion education in Gaelic continue to speak it after completing their studies. So, my research set out to answer that question among a sample of adults who went through GME after it started in the 1980s.
I hope what the book contributes to the wider literature on language revitalization is its stress on the importance of critical, empirical approaches to evaluating language policy outcomes; when it comes to linguistic and cultural endangerment it’s not enough for policymakers to simply invest in new initiatives and hope for the best. Interventions have to be evaluated critically to ensure they are effective and to identify where and how they can be improved, as the stakes are so high for minoritized communities throughout the world.
Christian Puma-Ninacuri: The revitalization of Gaelic has faced different challenges over the years. On the one hand, policymakers made the language official, especially in the educational system, but on the other hand, it was initiative from parents who wanted to continue using the language that led to GME’s development. Taking this into consideration, how do you understand the participation of both policymakers and members of the community in revitalization processes? How does community engagement contribute to minority language education?
Stuart Dunmore: That’s an absolutely crucial point, that bottom-up, grassroots initiatives from within the minority linguistic community are vital for the long-term success of revitalization policy objectives. GME was developed in the 1980s as a consequence of Gaelic-speaking parents’ relentless campaigning for the establishment of immersion education in Gaelic at the pre-school and elementary level. They wanted their kids to be fluent and confident Gaelic speakers but worried that within an English-only system, their Gaelic acquisition and abilities would be significantly undermined. Subsequently, GME classes were augmented by children of parents who couldn’t speak Gaelic themselves, but who wished for their kids to become bilingual. But it was only due to the hard work of grassroots Gaelic organizations that policymakers were persuaded to establish the system in the first place. Similarly, I suspect that internationally, it is only bottom-up support from parents and community that will encourage and enable minority-medium immersion pupils to maintain their linguistic abilities in minoritized varieties after schooling is completed.
Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Mixed methodological approaches are increasingly being used in the field. Your book uses semi-structured interviews (qualitative data) and online surveys (quantitative data). What were the challenges that you experienced while analyzing the data? How can your methods guide other research on language revitalization?
Stuart Dunmore: I think the principle of data triangulation – that is, testing the reliability of conclusions made using one method against one or more other methods – lends a great deal to the validity and generalizability of social research generally, and this is certainly true of linguistic ethnography in my view. That can mean testing a researcher’s own ethnographic, participant-observations against more detailed interview accounts, focus group or survey data, or in my own case, employing statistical techniques alongside qualitative sociolinguistic methods such as ethnography of communication. As you say, it often is genuinely challenging for researchers to feel confident employing multiple methodological techniques simultaneously, but I would recommend this approach as one that we can adopt and learn to improve the reliability of our findings in the field of language revitalization.
Christian Puma-Ninacuri: In your book, you mention Fishman’s claim that language revitalization efforts in schools will fail unless the minority language can be more broadly used outside school. Similarly, scholarship has demonstrated the importance of intergenerational transmission to language maintenance. How do your findings contribute to this debate?
Stuart Dunmore: Fishman’s point that communities and parents passing on endangered languages to children in the domains of home, neighborhood and community – intergenerational transmission – is the key to securing language revitalization (in the sense of re-vernacularisation, or normalizing the use of the minority language in the community once again); however, it is very difficult to take issue with on an empirical basis. My book demonstrates that for the majority of students who acquire a minority language in an immersion classroom, the language will remain a thing used for school purposes only if parents, community and grassroots organizations are unavailable or unable to encourage minority language use in the home. Gaelic language socialization – which I measured as having been raised with at least one Gaelic-speaking parent at home, correlated consistently with higher rates of Gaelic retention and use among former-immersion students in my quantitative statistical analyses, and in interviewees’ own accounts. Without this normalizing influence for minority language use outside the classroom, it’s hard to avoid Fishman’s conclusion that school-based interventions will not be successful in the long term.
Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Your book shows that the majority of participants’ social use of Gaelic is reported to be limited among peers such as friends, siblings and partners. However, there are other language practices of Gaelic that seem to be relevant to speakers (‘secret code’ and ‘informal’ use of Gaelic characterized by a code-mixing with English). What does this tell us about the relationship between Gaelic and practices related to language identity and ideologies?
Stuart Dunmore: Quite simply, I think my data show that the relationship between linguistic practices, ideologies and identities is absolutely key to understanding language decline and revitalization processes. Limited use of Gaelic by my informants across the domains you mention above appeared to be underpinned by their language ideologies concerning the appropriate use of Gaelic and relative lack of social identity in Gaelic. Those individuals who tended to use the highest levels of Gaelic in the present day had frequently grown up with Gaelic at home, and subsequently have a stronger cultural identification with the language.
The school system alone didn’t appear to encourage pupils without this background to develop a clear sense of social identity in the language, and as a result, they didn’t use it a great deal or wish to pass it on to their own children in future. My sense is that these processes are universal in contexts of language shift and revival, and that language ideologies and social identities are crucial considerations for policymakers to bear in mind. Revitalization initiatives, whether focused within the education system or not, should clearly address issues of ideology and identity, which often have a strong and negative influence on linguistic practice.
Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Finally, taking into consideration the results of your investigation, how does your book establish a conversation with policymakers, educators and community members to improve processes of language revitalization of Gaelic, especially to improve the GME system?
Stuart Dunmore: I hope the dialogue my research provokes will lead policymakers and community members to consider critically the effectiveness of top-down interventions, and how this can be improved through being joined and supported by bottom-up efforts from within the language community. A book on its own can’t do this job for educators and policymakers, but hopefully some of the knowledge exchange activities I have undertaken since completing the research can help to inspire discussion between communities and policymakers. As the book demonstrates, it’s absolutely crucial that bottom-up efforts from within communities complement policymakers’ interventions to support them if minority languages are to be successfully maintained into future decades.