‘The development of Gaelic language skills by adult learners’

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On 29 October 2013, the Centre was delighted to welcome Celtic & Gaelic’s own Nicola Carty, who discussed ‘The development of Gaelic language skills by adult learners’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Nicola’s research is focused on second language acquisition, and is supported by Soillse (the national research network for the maintenance and revitalisation of Gaelic language and culture).

Nicola began by outlining the main theories of second language acquisition. She personally subscribes to the ‘usage-based’ theory, i.e. exposure and practice are key to fluency in a second language. Following this, she noted that recent research overwhelming suggests that learning based on form, structure and grammar is the most efficient way of studying a language.

Gaelic has been in decline since the 18th century, yet the 2011 Census suggested this decline was dramatically slowing thanks to the growth in young learners under the age of 20. More positive signs for the language include the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of 2001 (which affords Gaelic governmental investment and protection), the founding of the University of the Highlands and Islands (awarded University status in 2011), and the success of the media platform BBC Alba. In the National Plan for Gaelic (2012-17), acquisition is highlighted as the key area for reversing language decline, which clearly makes Nicola’s research extremely relevant.While the growth in young learners is encouraging, the promotion of adult learners is also vitally important, as they purchase goods/services, may work in the Gaelic sector, and could raise families with Gaelic.

Nicola’s main research question was: “What linguistic features are observable at different levels of communicative ability?”. In order to answer this question, she interviewed 16 adult learners (9 women, 7 men) who had no exposure to Gaelic before the age of 18. Nicola measured their proficiency according to:


1) Percentage of complex utterances (more than one clause per sentence)

2) Lexical diversity (variety of vocabulary)

3) Mean length of clause


4) Average number of errors per sentence (AS unit)

5) Percentage of error free sentences


6) Phonation time ratio (when they ‘had the floor’, how long did they speak?)

7) Mean length of run (how long before pause?)

8) Average words per minute

Nicola had 5 non-professional Gaelic speakers rate the interviewees according to a rating scale she developed herself. The reason she did not employ language teachers was due to their tendency to focus on grammatical errors, rather than a basic ability to communicate.

Nicola’s rating scale divided learners into 3 major groupings, with 2 sub-levels in each: Beginner (A1 or A2), Intermediate (B1 OR B2) and Advanced (C1 or C2). According to this scale, Nicola found that 6 of the interviewees were Beginners, 6 were Intermediates and 4 were Advanced learners. The Beginners could only manage 1 clause per sentence, half of their speech had errors, there was mid-clause hesitation, slow speech-rate and a recycling of words. Intermediates were notably more fluent (faster with less hesitation) but still made frequent errors. Advanced learners employed more ‘2 clause sentences’, with fewer errors and an overall more natural speech pattern. Additionally, they employed far greater lexical diversity and used far more conjunctions.

In order to assess the possible reasons for these results, Nicola provided her group with a questionnaire on their learning background, preferred learning strategies and beliefs of learning. She found that those who self-evaluated and sought clarification had greater lexical diversity and employed more words per minute, while those who practiced with others were overall more accurate in their speech.

In terms of learning backgrounds, she found that Cùrsa Adhartais produced the overall best results, while Cùrsa Comais learners had a higher rate of words per minute, and Ùlpan learners were generally more accurate. She found that those with self-perceived ability in language learning generally performed better, suggesting that self-awareness in learning was a useful strategy. She suggested that tutors should encourage their pupils to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. The lack of uniformity and standardisation in language courses is both a blessing and a curse: the variety is ideal for adult learners but can make proficiency assessment and learning outcomes very difficult.

Concluding, Nicola rightly asserted that her rating scale had been proven valid and reliable; the study enjoyed 96% rater agreement. The data of her study would allow the scale to be expanded with specific descriptors of proficiency, an invaluable step in formulating further strategies on Gaelic learning in Scotland.

Below are some of the Gaelic language courses referenced in Nicola’s lecture:

Cùrsa Comais: http://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses/certhe-an-cursa-comais-introduction-to-gaelic

Cùrsa Adhartais: http://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses/certhe-an-cursa-adhartais-english

Ùlpan: http://www.ulpan.co.uk/

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series will continue next week, 5 November, with Jackie Kemp’s ‘1979: Scotland’s First Constitutional Referendum’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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