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Only nine children are enrolled in the Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide immersion program, but organizers of North America’s first primary-aged Gaelic school hope to expand across Nova Scotia

In Mabou, N.S., teacher Emily MacDonald helps Lochlan Lee with Gaelic grammar and spelling while classmates Cassie MacDonald and Iris MacKenzie look on.Photography by Steve Wadden/The Globe and Mail

When Anna MacKinnon heard the children singing in the language of her parents, even with their unfamiliar pronunciations, she smiled. And then she cried.

At 88, Ms. MacKinnon doesn’t get to hear Gaelic spoken very often in Cape Breton anymore. And certainly not by children.

“It made my heart soar,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, they’re speaking Gaelic!”

Ms. MacKinnon is among the last generation of Cape Bretoners who were raised in the language of the Scottish Highlands, first brought to this island by settlers in the late 1700s. Gaelic was “my first meal,” she says – the only language she heard at home, and the only one she knew until she began school as a child, where she quickly learned she was living in an increasingly English world.

“People would snicker at the way I spoke English. But it’s Gaelic that’s kept me alive all this time. I don’t know how else to explain it,” she said.

For a long time, Ms. MacKinnon worried that Gaelic would fade away to memory on her island, relegated to its token use in cultural festivals and on road signs for tourists. It’s thought there may be only a few hundred fluent speakers left in Nova Scotia, and many of them are living in nursing homes.

But a little white schoolhouse on a hill in Mabou is giving hope that a new generation can help keep the language of Ms. MacKinnon’s ancestors alive.

Called Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide, which translates to Bridge Schoolhouse in English, it opened in September as the first Gaelic immersion school for primary-aged students in North America. There are just nine children enrolled for now, but the goal is to increase that to up to 50 within a few years, and eventually expand it to other communities in the province.

“Historically speaking, this school is very important,” said Kenneth MacKenzie, one of the school’s founders and director of education at The Gaelic College in St. Anns, N.S., and vice-president of its satellite campus in Mabou.

“I think what we’re doing here could serve as a model for other places. We’re hoping in a few years, some of our leaders, politically or musically or otherwise, will have come from this school.”

Pupils at Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide work in their journals. Only nine children are enrolled, but the eventual goal is 50 at this school and more in other communities.

Iris MacKenzie, John Finlay MacDonald, Cassie MacDonald and Duncan MacKenzie get a visit from a neighbour's dog. Mabou is a town of just over 4,300 people that also has a satellite campus of Nova Scotia's Gaelic College.

The Gaelic College's Kenneth MacKenzie hopes the immersion school in Mabou will build a new generation of leaders.

The college and the privately funded school work closely together, drawing on the experience of other language programs such as those at First Nations in Nova Scotia teaching children to speak Mi’kmaq. Fundraising is a constant need, and helps keep tuition affordable, he said.

The school is trying to reverse a long history of repression of Gaelic in Nova Scotia. In the Second World War, the federal government tried to ban its use on public telecommunications systems, fearing it could be used by enemy subversives, and students who spoke it in school were sometimes met with corporal punishment. It was widely seen as a lower-class, rural language, and by the 1930s many parents were hesitant to pass it on to their children.

“It was pretty traumatic for a lot of that generation to learn English, and we’re still dealing with that, in terms of having pride in Gaelic heritage,” said Mr. MacKenzie, whose twin sons also attend the school. “There are still people living in this community who have memories of going to school and being severely discouraged from speaking Gaelic.”

At Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide, that history feels far removed. Children happily sing, count and play in Gaelic, using the Montessori model that encourages self-directed learning. Some of them arrived in September speaking only English, and have quickly learned fundamentals such as pronunciation and patronymics – the system of formal names derived from male ancestors, an important feature of Gaelic culture.

“It just feels natural to them,” said Emily MacDonald, the school’s teacher, who until now had only taught Gaelic to adults.

“It’s never been done before, and it’s been a huge learning process, but I think we’re finding that sweet spot. I’m loving teaching them.”

Ms. MacDonald presides over the morning's activities. Before Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide, she had only taught other adults to learn Gaelic.

Banners list some of the letters of the Gaelic alphabet, from E (as in 'each,' or horse) to Ì (as in 'ìm,' or butter).

The school had to start from scratch to build a Gaelic curriculum that works for Canadian children, although it leaned on the expertise from educators in Scotland, where Gaelic immersion programs are common. Ms. MacDonald also uses mentors such as Ms. MacKinnon, who chats in Gaelic with her over cups of tea, while watching videos of the students performing traditional songs.

Mr. MacKenzie hopes the new Gaelic school, which teaches the “Gaelic worldview” of connecting with community and nature, could one day serve as a guide for immersion programs in Nova Scotia’s public school system. While several Nova Scotia universities and public schools have Gaelic classes in their curriculum, the primary school is seen as a major step forward by those trying to preserve the language.

The students’ parents, meanwhile, say it’s important their children are raised in a Gaelic tradition that’s helping them understand their own culture. In Cape Breton, that heritage has most often survived through traditional songs, dance and stories, but typically without the benefit of formal schooling.

“I want to give my children the opportunity that I didn’t have to tap into that identity,” said Clifford Lee, whose son Lochlan attends the school. “We’re hoping to reforge the links to a culture stretching back thousands of years.”

At home, little Lochlan has begun correcting his parents, using Gaelic instead of English for common words and showing he’s not self-conscious about his new tongue. His father, who had a Gaelic-speaking mother and took a few Gaelic classes in school but wishes he could have learned more, sees his forefathers’ language being revived in front of his eyes.

“It’s coming back, and it’s amazing to see,” he said. “For so long we’ve had this negative narrative about the ‘twilight’ of the Gaelic culture. But this is brand new territory, a brand new narrative. We’re actually turning this around, and it gives you hope.”

Bonus podcast: Greg Mercer on The Decibel

Reporter Greg Mercer shares the story of Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide, a little schoolhouse with big implications for the future of Gaelic in Canada. Subscribe for more episodes.

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What does Gaelic sound like? Some simple lessons

Learn basic phrases with this playlist of tutorials from Gaelic Affairs, a branch of Nova Scotia’s heritage ministry.

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