Chapter 6: Ability, Household Practices and Speaker Typology Survey in Three Islands


6.1 Introduction

This chapter presents the findings from the Speaker Typology Survey (STS) which examines the bilingual Gaelic–English and the monolingual English abilities and types of speakers in the small islands of Scalpay, Grimsay and Eriskay, and how these ability profiles and typologies correlate with the household practice of Gaelic, including family households and related parental and child abilities. The STS findings allow us to present a comprehensive advisor-assisted assessment of language ability and practice of the entire populations and households of the three sampled small islands. This methodology can supplement the more subjective reported ability-data in census returns (2.3.3).[1] On the basis of these speaker ability categorisations, we were able to take a further step with the local advisors’ assistance and produce an entire speaker-type profile of the populations. Furthermore, the age profiles of speakers according to their Gaelic ability and their geographic backgrounds allow us to pinpoint the dynamics of language shift (in apparent time) to a greater level of detail than in any other demolinguistic study of the Western Isles. This part of the multi-modular IGRP survey is the first ever multi-district study of its type in Scotland, investigating the bilingual synchronic and diachronic dynamics of the entire subpopulations and their households.

In this study, speaker typology entails the categorisation of individuals in the population according to their language abilities and the associated sources of language acquisition. In the STS we identify six speaker types on a continuum of Gaelic ability: Native speaker of Gaelic; Neo-native speaker of Gaelic; Semi-speaker of Gaelic; Co-speaker of Gaelic; Learner of Gaelic; Speaker of English only. The Speaker Typology Survey was conducted in Scalpay, Grimsay and Eriskay, areas identified as having relatively strong Gaelic profiles in the 2011 Census data for Scotland (as in the Community Sociolinguistic Survey (CSS) in Chapter 5). Unlike the related CSS in Chapter 5, which was based on data from each participating respondent (a total of 180 individuals reporting on their household), the STS is based on mediated assessments provided by one well-informed local advisor for each island. These three local advisors provided the information about all reported residents (total of 484) living on a full-time or permanent basis in the three small island communities. Therefore, the STS in Chapter 6 supplements the findings of the CSS in Chapter 5. This STS methodology borrows from research carried out in Ireland (in three Irish Gaeltacht districts: Ráth Chairn, Co. Meath, and Ceathrú Thaidhg, Co. Mayo as well as Ros Muc, Co. Galway; Ó Giollagáin 2002; 2004a; 2004b; 2005; 2011), which gathered sociolinguistic data on speaker-type profiles of the entire sampled populations, constituting the bilingual dynamics of the districts. The speaker-type profiles in the three Irish Gaeltacht districts indicated greater minority-language vitality than in the three islands of the STS. The STS gathered data on the prevalence of Gaelic and English in the key domains of familial and household language practice. As discussed in section 5.1, Scalpay and Eriskay are classified among the strongest remaining Gaelic-speaking communities, with mid-range vitality indications for the North Uist (south & east) SD containing Grimsay. An indication of the fragility of, or level of threat to, vernacular Gaelic can be obtained from the combination in the STS of detailed profiling of speaker abilities and typologies across age cohorts and geographic backgrounds, as well as the key domain of the practice of Gaelic in family households with children.

6.2 Literature review of minority-language speaker typology

As stated, the STS research borrows from aspects of the Irish Gaeltacht surveys in Co. Meath, Co. Mayo and Co. Galway (Ó Giollagáin 2002; 2004a; 2004b; 2005; 2011). Ó Giollagáin’s research demonstrated the relevance within communities of examining speaker typologies defined primarily by the sources of speakers’ abilities. The major findings from that research were that: 1) in a given community, intergenerational transmission of Irish declines as the number of native Irish speakers declines; and 2) school acquirers of Irish represent a weak source for intergenerational transmission. In short, Ó Giollagáin pinpointed the importance of productive speakers, i.e. those who are successful intergenerational transmitters of Irish, and that the most productive speakers are native speakers. The relevance of categorisation of speaker abilities is central to demogeographic linguistics and to sociolinguistics globally, particularly in the minority sociolinguistics context of this study. Speaker categorisation is the cornerstone of reality-based minority sociolinguistics. Without categorisation and quantification, scientific population-wide investigation of the minority speaker group is impossible. Establishing an accurate analysis of the demogeographic quantity and quality of the existing speaker group is evidently crucial for minority language protection and promotion. Coherent language planning, as practiced in mainstream sociolinguistics, is based on realistic assessments of population quantities and typologies (e.g. Batibo 2005; Bourhis and Landry 2008; Dorian 1980, 1981; Eberhard et al. 2019; Fishman 1991, 2001b; Lewis and Simons 2016; Moseley 2010). Of course, categories or speaker types should not be defined over-categorically and obviously can admit to exceptions and continua of acquisition, attainment, competences and practices (e.g. Davies (2001: 517) and Mesthrie (2001b: 495)).

In the minority-language context and in the framing and implementation of language planning and policies in support of the maintenance and revival of (minority) languages, it is clearly of relevance to assess the roles of both native-speakers and non-native-speakers. The revisionist critique of speaker-categorisation, nevertheless, reproduces a binary perspective (section 1.3.1) on two key aspects of minority-language planning and policy:

(a) language planning relevant to the vernacular speaker group, and (b) language planning relevant to the non-vernacular speaker group (in other words: (a) native speaker and (b) learner). The speaker-typology research in the STS eschews this binary perspective by rooting its analysis in the primary sociolinguistic feature affecting the vernacular Gaelic group: the proportion of productive speakers (i.e. those involved in successful intergenerational transmission of Gaelic) in the relevant community.

As already stated, classification of speaker abilities is clearly central to analysis of demolinguistics and crucial to minority-language sociolinguistics. Nevertheless, a postmodernist overcomplexification of recognised categories such as learner and native

[1] It is accepted that definitions of language ability may be flexible, in that individuals may assess their own ability and that of others differently at various times. However, the confidence in the reliability of the information received under the guidance of our local advisors, as an accurate depiction of the contemporary distributions of Gaelic abilities in the surveyed islands, is bolstered by its general conformity with the profiles and trajectories of the data in the previous chapters (6.8).