Redesigning how adults learn Gaelic

Research led by the University of Aberdeen has explored what works and what doesn’t in terms of Gaelic language acquisition, enabling them to reframe approaches for adult learners.

Gaelic has been spoken in Scotland for over 1,500 years. It forms an integral part of Scotland’s culture, heritage and identity. Introduced from Ireland in the 5th century, Gaelic was the main language in most rural areas of Scotland for over 1200 years. Today, however, Gaelic speakers are firmly in the minority; in the 2011 census, just 1.7% of people in Scotland reported having some Gaelic language skills.

Over the past two decades, the Scottish Government has been attempting to slow the decline in speakers and to increase the number of Gaelic learners, through the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, the establishment of the Non-Departmental Public Body Bòrd na Gàidhlig and through the publication of Gaelic Language Plans.

Ahead of the publication of the second Gaelic Language Plan, policy makers needed evidence about how well the initial approaches were working. Step in Aberdeen researchers Professor Michelle Macleod, Dr Marsaili MacLeod and Dr Moray Watson.

Assessing the success of established learning programmes

The initial favoured approach to Gaelic learning was based on what’s called the Ùlpan method. Ùlpan is a Gaelic language course for adults that aims to provide an accessible, accelerated and effective route to achieving fluency in Gaelic. The course comprises 144 units taught over 216 hours, starting with spoken language and then moving on to reading and writing. The Aberdeen team were commissioned to review the effectiveness of this approach. To do so, they examined the design and delivery of the course and the experience of both the students and the tutors, drawing on a combination of interviews, document reviews and data analysis.

The researchers found that, whilst there were some benefits to the Ùlpan approach, there were also a number of shortcomings. Adults learners often lacked motivation, found the course design to be too rigid and they needed additional materials to continue their learning outside of class, including more grammar instruction and more opportunities to hear and speak the language.  All of this meant that they were not moving effectively through the levels. Many learners didn’t know how to record their progress and, as a result, were not fully aware of how well they were doing.

The outcomes of the Aberdeen evaluation were adopted by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and used to redesign their policy for Gaelic adult language acquisition. In particular, the research led to a change in how funds for language acquisition were allocated. Before the Aberdeen research, Bòrd na Gàidhlig allocated the majority of adult learning funding through the Ùlpan method. Since the research by Macleod and MacLeod, Bòrd na Gàidhlig is now able to draw on an evidence base about the efficacy of different language learning approaches, which they have used to inform their funding decisions.

Laying the groundwork for a new approach

Using this as a foundation – and drawing on further research carried out by the team that demonstrated the importance of exposure to spoken language – the Aberdeen researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Glasgow, created a new framework for measuring Gaelic language competencies. The framework aligns Gaelic language learning with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – the gold standard for language learning – and with assessment frameworks used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. Specific contributions from the Aberdeen team developed new linguistic baselines for measuring proficiency in Gaelic and explored how these new baselines could be assessed.

This new framework, Comasan Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig, or CLAG, enables learners to self-assess their fluency in Gaelic, using an assessment grid and checklist. The self-assessments provide a common frame of reference to describe spoken ability in Gaelic, by simplifying the wide range of spoken fluency into 6 bands, from beginner level (A1) to proficient speakers (C2). Students can use the framework to get an idea of their skills, and to test their progress. Tutors can also use the framework to identify levels of proficiency in their learners. CLAG has been backed by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and adopted by the national portal for Gaelic learning,

"The research was invaluable in informing our policy decisions regarding adult language acquisition and informing the National Gaelic Language Plan 2018-23… [It] has had a significant, positive impact on Gaelic for adults in Scotland and has been an important part of the development of this sector in recent years… The [CLAG framework] will sit within a suite of resources envisaged in the strategy currently being developed by the Bòrd and other national partners."
Bòrd na Gàidhlig

Dr Moray Watson

Dr Moray Watson

Creating innovative learning materials

Alongside the CLAG framework, the Aberdeen research also pointed to the need for more innovative learning materials. Dr Moray Watson, joint author with Macleod on the 2010 publication, The Edinburgh Companion to the Gaelic Language, worked with international language company Glossika to develop Scottish Gaelic and other Celtic language courses that could be used by a global audience.

Glossika is an online immersive learning portal dedicated to helping learners achieve fluency through an audio-based, spaced repetition language-learning method.  To date, these resources have reached over 2,500 registered learners.

Watson has also used the research findings – which highlighted the need for additional learning materials – to add to his established Progressive Gaelic series, with additional guides and a highly accessible Gaelic workbook.


  • Marsaili MacLeod and Michelle Macleod’s evaluation and report on Ùlpan has been used by Bòrd na Gàidhlig to redesign their policy on supporting and developing adult language acquisition, increasing understanding of the efficacy of the approach and informing decisions about future funding.
  • In a collaboration with the University of Glasgow, the Aberdeen research has contributed to the creation of the first empirically-derived framework for the measurement of Gaelic linguistic competencies. The Comasan Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig Framework has been adopted by the online Scottish portal for learning Gaelic.
  • The CLAG Framework has supported more than 4,300 Gaelic learners to assess their own skills and competencies and provides a clear way for tutors and learners alike to assess progress.
  • Moray Watson has worked with Glossika, an international online language learning platform, to create new learning resources for Scottish Gaelic and other Celtic languages. More than 2,500 Gaelic learners have accessed these free resources.
  • Watson has also built on the findings of the earlier Aberdeen research to broaden his range of Gaelic learning materials. He has now written four books in the Progressive Gaelic series and has created a new workbook, providing supplementary exercises. All 5 books are in the top 10 best sellers in Amazon’s Scottish Gaelic section.