Skip to main content
Has the pattern of your child’s use of Welsh changed recently?

Professor Enlli Thomas, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor-Teaching and Learning (Welsh-medium) at Bangor University, talks about how we all use, retain and reenergise our language skills.

Language learning is a life-long process. We learn new words every day.

Just think—how many of us knew the word ‘furlough’ before 2020? Or used the word ‘noughties’—or even thought about how we might refer to the years between 2000 and 2009 before stumbling a few times over ‘twenty hundreds’?

The brain is home to our mental ‘lexicon’-that’s our own, unique word storage ‘hub.’ It stores all of the words—or what researchers call ‘lexical items’—that we know.

Those hubs are different for each of us, depending on the words and the language(s) we know. They continue to grow as we learn new words.

“Lexical acquisition is completely open-ended. It happens every day, and continues throughout life”

The average adult is estimated to know between 40,000 and 50,000 words in a given language. We learn these words one by one. An individual will only know a given word if they’ve ever come across that word or ever needed to express something that they previously had no word for. That’s how new items enter our vocabulary all the time. And words can change meaning too.

Take the word ‘sick’ for example. For many, this word triggers negative feelings, it’s often associated with illness. But, for young people today it means that something is pretty much ‘awesome.’ A pretty extreme contrast! But that’s the fascinating and dynamic nature of language.

Languages are living things. They adapt and change. And languages exist, of course, through those who can speak them. Some speakers may come into regular contact with a language, at home, at school, at work or out and about in the community. Other speakers may come into regular contact with two. But for most of us, the frequency of contact with a language or a combination of languages will vary. This is why bilingual individuals—like your children if they’re in Welsh-medium education—who are exposed to two languages, tend to have different vocabulary sizes in each language at different ages.

However, when we look at a bilingual person’s storage hub (or what researchers call a ‘conceptual vocabulary knowledge’) their vocabularies are often larger than those of monolinguals.

Some bilingual people will lose contact with a language for various reasons, including migration and changes in family dynamics. During these few months of lockdown, Welsh hasn’t been part of your children’s routine in the way it normally is. But a language learned is a language kept—it’s never erased.

The brain has an astounding capacity to retain information. Did you know that adults who learned Spanish at school, but never used it again, could recall aspects of Spanish vocabulary, even 50 years later? And 50 years is a long time compared to the lockdown months!

And refreshing a language when it’s not been in your routine for a while happens a lot faster rate than learning it in the first place. It’s all still upstairs!

All you need to reactivate language skills is the right environment. Schools are perfect environments to provide the learning experiences children need to progress, retune, and re-engage with their Welsh.

Further reading:

Oller, D. K. (2005). “The Distributed Characteristic in Bilingual Learning.” Yn J. Cohen, K T. McAlister, K. Rolstad, & J. MacSwan (golygyddion), Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, 1744-1749. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Brysbaert. M., Stevens. M., Mandera. P., & Keuleers, E. (2016). “How Many Words Do We Know? Practical Estimates of Vocabulary Size Dependent on Word Definition, the Degree of Language Input and the Participant’s Age”. Frontiers in Psychology, 7 (1116).

Aitchison, J. (2012). Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon (4ydd Argraffiad.). Malden, MA: Wiley.

Bahrick, H. P., Hall, L. K., Goggin, J. P., Bahrick, L. E., & Berger, S. A. (1994). “Fifty years of language maintenance and language dominance in bilingual Hispanic immigrants.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 123(3), 264-283

Bahrick, H. (1984). “Fifty years of second language attrition: Implications for programming research.” Modern Language Journal, 68, 105-111.