In 1200 C.E., Cornish could be heard on every street corner in Cornwall. Over time, English took over--even in the most remote areas--and by 1777, the Cornish language was extinct. Now, experts worry the same fate may someday meet Welsh. A new study on where and how Welsh is spoken may explain the language's decline and help identify the factors important for keeping it alive.
Welsh is a Celtic language spoken by more than a half-million people. It's most popular in West Wales, where 23% of families have at least one fluent Welsh speaker. Yet census reports indicate that in a quarter of these homes, the language is not successfully passed down to the next generation. Households with two Welsh-speaking parents fare better, passing the language on about 93% of the time.
To understand why some kids pick up Welsh and others don't, Delyth Morris, a linguist at the University of Wales in Bangor, United Kingdom, teamed up with Kathryn Jones from Cwmni Iaith, a Welsh language consulting firm based in West Wales. The researchers conducted in-depth home interviews with 12 families containing only one Welsh speaking parent. Each family was asked to keep a diary of the youngest child's daily activities, and the team conducted follow-up interviews to determine the child's exposure to Welsh during an average day.
The researchers found that only half of the children surveyed were proficient enough to stand a chance of speaking Welsh as adults. Not surprisingly, kids who spent the most one-on-one time with their Welsh-speaking parent had the best language skills. But the researchers were intrigued that other factors, such as exposure to Welsh in school, on TV, or in the community, seemed to have little effect on a child's proficiency with the language.
The findings highlight the challenges facing any endangered language, says Morris. "In the presence of an English-speaking partner, Welsh-speaking parents tend to speak English to their child," Morris says, increasing the chances that the minority language won't stick. In order to keep Welsh around, she says, speakers should make a concerted effort to use Welsh around their children when alone with them. The team presents its findings today in a report released online by the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council.
"It's a highly innovative study," says Tapani Salminen, a linguist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, who notes that few reports have looked at parent-child interactions in homes where only one parent speaks a minority language.