Chapter 3: Survey of Preschool Children's Language Ability and Use


3.1 Introduction

This chapter presents a descriptive statistical analysis of language use by preschool children and assesses the extent of social practice of Gaelic in the context of the family and preschools in the Research Area, i.e. the Western Isles, Staffin (Isle of Skye) and the Isle of Tiree. Census data, described in Chapter 2, offer a generalised depiction of Gaelic as a reported language competence (without any detailed data on actual degrees of individual competence or functionality). In contrast, the chief aim of this preschool module of the IGRP is to delineate the extent to which Gaelic survives as a language rooted in social practice and as a societal competence, as evinced in the familial transmission of native-spoken Gaelic. These indicators will allow a comparison of family transmission data with Gaelic ability data from the Census. This module, therefore, provides baseline familial and communal evidence on the current levels of competence and use of Gaelic as a family-transmitted language.

This module of the IGRP aimed to survey every preschool (in Gaelic: sgoil-àraich, plural sgoiltean-àraich) in the RA. Initially, all preschool units in the target area were identified (26 in all, 25 of which responded), and the numbers of pupils within those units for 2015–2016 were ascertained. The survey work was carried out in November and December 2015. A separate intake of children (according to birthdate and eligibility) entered the preschool environment from January 2016, but this later intake is not included in this survey. The aim of the survey was to cover the preschool cohort in the RA, and therefore all preschools were contacted and almost all were successfully surveyed, both English (six preschools) and Gaelic-medium (GM) (partly or wholly GM, 19 preschools; out of a total of 25 responding preschools; see section 3.3.1).

3.1.1 Aims

The survey aimed to ascertain and differentiate the densities of family acquirers and preschool learners of Gaelic in the 3–5 age cohort. This preschool module is a study of Gaelic language ability and practice among children attending preschools. The survey was undertaken among preschool managers and teachers. Information on the Gaelic ability of the preschool children at the time of enrolment provides a gauge to assess the levels of Gaelic language practice in families. The survey also produces data which provide for an assessment of age-appropriate Gaelic competence, and assessment of the prevalence of Gaelic among this youngest peer-group. The survey also aimed to assess the perceived levels of Gaelic practice in the preschool catchment areas, thus further illuminating the receding social geography of Gaelic.

3.1.2 Demographics

Data drawn from the 2011 Census indicate that 181 of 616 children aged 3–4 years in the RA speak Gaelic (i.e. 29.4% in Table 3.1). The 2011 Census indicated that the 3–4 age cohort, nationally, showed an increase of 30% in the numbers of individuals with Gaelic ability over the 10 years from 2001 to 2011 (613 to 797 in actual numbers), the largest of any age cohort. This represented an intercensal increase from 0.53% of the national age cohort to 0.70% of the national age cohort. However, the percentage of children in that cohort with some Gaelic skill fell during the same period, from 1048 (0.91%) in 2001 to 995 (0.86%) in 2011. Regarding the overall Gaelic speaker community in Scotland, 1% of the language’s speakers were from the 3–4 cohort (O’Hanlon and Paterson 2015a: 10–13).[1] Seven civil parishes in Scotland (all in the Western Isles: Barra, South Uist, North Uist, Harris, Lochs, Uig, Barvas) were recorded as having over 50% of residents with Gaelic ability in 2011. In those civil parishes, 43.2% of the 3–4 age cohort could speak Gaelic, while 52% had some Gaelic skills. Stornoway was the only civil parish in the Western Isles which had less than 50% of residents with Gaelic ability in 2011. Table 3.1 shows that in the Western Isles as a whole, 29.5% of 3–4 year olds are reported to have Gaelic ability; and the RA has a corresponding 29.4%.

Analysis by Mac an Tàilleir (2015) on the 2011 Census yields similar numbers of children aged 3–4 years in the Western Isles who speak Gaelic. In the six areas comprising the Western Isles analysed by Mac an Tàilleir, he counted 29 children with Gaelic ability in Barra, 23 in South Uist, 9 in Benbecula, 8 in North Uist, 9 on the Isle of Harris, and 83 on the Isle of Lewis, totalling 161 children with Gaelic ability, as indicated in Table 3.1.

For Tiree, Coll and Mull combined, Mac an Tàilleir counted just two children or 6.5% of the 3–4 age cohort in those three islands who could speak Gaelic (and none who were enumerated as being able to understand only). For the Isle of Skye, Mac an Tàilleir identified, in the 3–4 age cohort, 44 (23% of the age cohort) who could speak Gaelic and an additional 12 children who could understand Gaelic.

3–4 year olds

Source / Report


Gaelic ability

% Gaelic ability

Western Isles

2011 Census




Western Isles

Mac an Tàilleir (2015)




Western Isles, Staffin, Tiree (RA)

2011 Census




Table 3.1 Gaelic-speaking 3–4 year olds, Western Isles, RA, 2011 Census v. Mac an Tàilleir (2015)[2]

We can compare the numbers on Gaelic ability in this cohort to the enrolment numbers in early years GME, which are provided by Bòrd na Gàidhlig. The comparison of ability data with enrolment figures implies that over a third of GME preschoolers have no ability in Gaelic on enrolment. Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s (2018b) Gaelic Education data for 2017/18 indicate 332 children in the Western Isles in 19 sgoiltean-àraich. This represents 66.3% of the age cohort in the Western Isles and 31% of the national total of children in sgoiltean-àraich. The 2017/18 data also show 54 sgoiltean-àraich nationally, with 1,078 children in attendance. The Bòrd’s (2017a) Gaelic Education data for 2016/17 indicated 318 children in the Western Isles in 20 sgoiltean-àraich. This represents 63.5% of the age cohort in the Western Isles and 31% of the national total of children in sgoiltean-àraich. The 2016/17 data also showed 54 sgoiltean-àraich nationally, with 1,039 children in attendance.

[1] Scotland's Census 2001 and 2011 — National Records of Scotland. Gaelic Report (part 1): Figure 3. Proportions drawn from tables: AT_003_2001 and AT_236_2011.

[2] The difference between IGRP and Mac an Tàilleir’s numbers may be due to issues related to standard outputs (