Student blog: Music as the saviour of a dying language?

Could music save a dying language? This is what elective student Kato Kuijpers asked herself when she wrote a blogpost on traditional Scottish music and its impact on the survival of Scottish Gaelic for the course Minority Languages I. “What I liked about the course is that it introduced me to different aspects of minority languages. I hadn’t looked into it as much, as my studies (English Language and Culture) are mostly focused on English, one of the biggest majority languages. It was very interesting to see language situations from a different perspective, and it definitely changed my own outlook on language and language contact situations. I actually liked it so much that I’m also following Minority Languages II!”

Read the post here!


Music as the saviour of a dying language? Traditional Scottish music and its impact on the survival of Scottish Gaelic.

“Ged a chual’ iad an ceòl, cha do thuig iad am port.” (Nicholson, 1882, p. 198).

This probably applies to many Scots and non-Scots who listen to Scottish music but don’t speak Gaelic. Still, even if you can’t understand the language, the music still speaks volumes (McElhiney, 2013). This is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with as I’m a fan of Scottish music myself despite having no ties to Scotland whatsoever. Though it might seem strange to some people, I’m not alone in my love for Scottish music. It has become quite accessible in the mainstream media and is more widely listened to nowadays due to movies like Brave, which is set in historical Scotland as seen from the image below. Through the movie, singer Julie Fowlis introduces many people to traditional Scottish music and consequently to the beauty of the Gaelic language (McElhiney, 2013). It does make me wonder if the power of music may be able to help the language survive its expected demise.

Let’s first look at the Scottish music tradition itself. Scotland has a long history of traditional folk music from even before the first textual records during the sixteenth century (McKerrell, 2019). From lively reels to Gaelic waulking songs, music was always fundamental in the social and cultural identity of Scottish communities. However, due to the attrition of traditional Scottish culture, its music also started to disappear (McKerrell, 2019; Cheape 2014). Luckily, a folk revival started around the 1950s, and due to the renewed interest in Scotland’s cultural heritage, many lost songs were recovered from old manuscripts, and new music was being written (McKerrell, 2019). Since then, the Scottish music tradition has expanded even beyond the Scottish communities, and Gaelic is used in different genres such as rock and punk, allowing the language to become more popular within majority cultures (Glaser, 2007; Peyer, 2004).

So, what does this growing musical interest mean for the Gaelic language? Will it motivate enough people to start learning it? According to MacIntyre et al. (2017), the answer might be “yes”. They examined the effect of Scottish music on the motivation of people in Cape Breton Island, a community with Scottish roots where Gaelic used to flourish. They found that listening to Scottish Gaelic music can indeed make people more motivated to (re)learn Gaelic as it plays directly into their heritage passions (MacIntyre et al., 2017). Similarly, Sparling (2003) and MacIntyre et al. (2019) also found that people who listen to traditional music are often more willing to learn and try to communicate in the traditional language. Aside from the Scottish communities, outsiders have also expressed the ambition to learn Gaelic despite not having any relation to the culture. Since the end of 2019, a Scottish Gaelic course became available on the language learning app Duolingo, and over 200.000 people from around the world signed up (MacPhee, 2020). All this seems promising, but is it enough to save the language?

As with many questions, there is not really a definite answer. It depends on whether you are looking at Scots themselves, or at the outsiders. Sadly, motivation alone is not enough to learn a language, otherwise, I would have been able to speak Scottish Gaelic by now. According to language theories such as the Interactionist theory, interaction between a learner and a fluent speaker of the target language is crucial (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013). Simply studying it from a book or an app, which is often the only available way for a non-Scot, is not enough to learn the language. Likewise, Birnie (2019) says that the only way for Gaelic to survive is when learners interact with Gaelic speaking communities to acquire the language in its natural form, which is difficult as only two percent of the Scottish population actually speaks Gaelic. I suppose it is up to the Scots to seek out these communities and learn from them before it is too late.

So, can music help to save Scottish Gaelic? Not directly it seems, especially for us outsiders. It does appear to have a motivational influence on Scots themselves, which may be enough to encourage them to learn Scottish Gaelic from the people around them. I know we would all love to help, but we can’t just fly to Scotland whenever we want. So, the Scots will have to do the saving themselves while we keep supporting from afar by listening to Scottish music. Who knows? Maybe with time, they will learn to understand the tune.

Birnie, I. (2019, December 18). For Gaelic to survive in Scotland, it’s not enough to learn it –
more people need to use it in their daily lives. The Conversation.

Cheape, H. (2014). ‘Tha feum air cabhaig’ The initiative of the folklore institute of Scotland.
Scottish Studies, 37, 53-62.

Glaser, K. (2007). Minority languages and cultural diversity in Europe: Gaelic and Sorbian
perspectives. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Lightbrown, P.M., & Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned. Oxford University

MacIntyre, P.D., Baker, S.C., & Sparling, H. (2017). Heritage passions, heritage convictions,
and the rooted L2 self: Music and Gaelic language learning in Cape Breton, Nova
Scotia. The Modern Language Journal, 101(3), 501-516).

MacIntyre, P.D., Ross, J., & Sparling, H. (2019). Flow experiences and willingness to
communicate: Connecting Scottish Gaelic language and traditional music. Journal of
Language and Social Psychology, 38(4), 536-545.

MacPhee, C. (2020, February 15). ‘Enormous’ interest in Gaelic language over last 18
months. Stv News.

McKerrell, S. (2019). Scotland: History, culture, and geography of music. In J. Sturman
(Ed.), The SAGE international encyclopedia of music and culture (pp. 1909-1913).
SAGE Publications, Inc.

M. Máire Ní Shúilleabháin. (2018, February 13). Gaol ise Gaol i – Scottish Gaelic LYRICS +
Translation [Video]. YouTube.

Murphy, M. (2012, June 15). Evolution of a feisty pixar princess. The New York Times.

Nicholson, A. (Ed.). (1882). A collection of Gaelic proverbs and familiar phrases.
Edinburgh: MacLachlan and Stewart.

Peyer, E. (2004). Sorbian, Scottish Gaelic and Romansh: The viability of three indigenous
European minority languages. (Publication No. 33683577) [Master’s mémoire,
University of Fribourg]. ResearchGate.

Sparling, H. (2003). “Music is language and language is music” Language attitudes and
musical choices in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Language and Culture, 25(2), 145-171.