LINGUIST List 10.1346

Mon Sep 13 1999

Review: Kouritzin: Face{t]s of First Language Loss

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  1. Ingrid Piller, Review: Kouritzin, Face[t]s of First Language Loss

Message 1: Review: Kouritzin, Face[t]s of First Language Loss

Date: Wed, 25 Aug 1999 11:16:34 +0200
From: Ingrid Piller <>
Subject: Review: Kouritzin, Face[t]s of First Language Loss

Kouritzin, Sandra G. (1999) _Face[t]s of First Language Loss_, Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. xii+230pp. $22.50 (Cloth $49.95)

Reviewed by Ingrid Piller, Hamburg University


Although first language loss (FLL) was identified as an important research
field within Second Language Acquisition (SLA) already in 1982 (Oxford
1982), it has been 'emergent' since then. Particularly, the social and
personal consequences of FLL have been neglected, as most studies in the
field are concerned either with the systematic nature of FLL (i.e. 'which
parts of speech are lost in which order?' see e.g. Segalowitz 1991 or
Skaaden 1998) or with the causes of FLL (e.g. parental education, age, L1
status etc.; see e.g. De Bots & Clyne 1994 or Ammon 1994). The present
volume however is unique within the study of FLL in that it is mainly
concerned with the consequences of FLL and in that it approaches FLL from a
personal, narrative perspective. The data base are learner's life stories,
which have only recently started to be regarded as a legitimate data source
in SLA (cf. McGroarty 1998; Pavlenko 1998).

Kouritzin's volume is not only a timely contribution to the field of FLL
research but also timely from the point of view of the phenomenon under
study itself. According to Wong Fillmore (1991), FLL has both accelerated
and become more wide-spread in the second half of this century -- a
development which has led to a situation in which 'few American-born
children of immigrant parents are fully proficient in the ethnic language,
even if it was the only language they spoke when they entered school, ...
even if is the only one their parents know.' (Wong Fillmore 1991: 324). When
FLL occurs, the implications for the individual can be dramatic: parents can
no longer socialize their children into their culture, morals and values,
the intergenerational transmission of information of all kinds breaks down.
One of Kouritzin's interviewees, for instance, did not even know the rough
age of his parents and similar basic aspects of their lives although he
continued to live with them at the time of the interview.

The volume consists of two main parts: (I) 'Face-Touching: A Story Book,'
and (II) 'Dwelling in the Borderlands.' The first part (pp. 25-145) gives
the stories of five interviewees. All the interviewees (altogether 21) live
in Greater Vancouver, Canada, and have lost various first languages to
English. Each of the five narratives in Part I is prefaced with information
about the interview context (the circumstances under which Kouritzin and the
participants met), about the life history context (a summary about the
personal and familial background of the participants), and about the
narrative context (the most salient features of the participants' narratives
such as recurrent themes or their use of metaphors). The narrative itself is
then presented largely in the participants' own words. The first narrative
is the one of Ariana, who considers her first language Chinese not 'lost'
but 'stolen' by assimilatory pressures. Richard, the second narrator,
re-learnt his first language Cree when he was 30 years old and feels that he
can only know what he had lost because he re-gained it. The next narrator is
Lara, who is a native speaker of English for all practical purposes because
she can remember hardly any Finnish but nevertheless she continues to feel
an outsider to Anglophone society. Next we are introduced to Brian, whose
parents stopped speaking Korean to him at the recommendation of his ESL
teacher in grade school although they had very limited English. As a result
Brian can talk with them about little more than the weather. The fifth narra-
tive is the one of Helena, who also experiences communication difficulties
with her Hungarian-dominant parents because she has lost most of that
language. Although a highly successful marketing expert and communication
trainer, the loss of Hungarian has left her insecure about her linguistic
abilities generally.

Part II (pp. 147-214) identifies the recurrent themes that emerge as
consequences of FLL from all the interviews. Before the consequences are
systematically addressed all the interviewees whose full narrative was not
presented in the first part are briefly introduced. Consequences of FLL are
identified in the following areas: (1) family relationships, (2) self-image
and cultural identity, (3) school relationships, (4) school performance, and
(5) the meaning of loss. Concerning family relationships, a consequence of
FLL is usually a subsequent 'loss' of extended family as communication with
non-English-speaking relatives is no longer possible or restricted to a few
formulaic expressions. Asian and older interviewees -- as opposed to European
and younger interviewees -- expressed most anger and frustration about this
familial breakdown and the severance of the links to the heritage language
and culture.

The subjects' self-image was also negatively affected by the FLL: many
considered themselves stupid despite the fact that most of them were
successful professionals. They experienced shame at their failure to
maintain their first language. Particularly for the 'visible minority'
participants, this negative self-image often resulted in 'racism within a
race' (p. 178). Many of the participants were uncertain about their cultural
identities and could neither identify with their heritage culture nor with
the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture. Rather they considered themselves
'Canadianized,' the meaning of which is explained as follows: 'they were
Canadian citizens, but they were 'not permitted' to be Canadian,
particularly when they were in a group of White Canadians, so they were
Canadianized' (p. 179).

School relationships were often cited as a cause for FLL: when they were
students, the participants wanted to 'fit in' with their peer groups ^� i.e.
they wanted to be monolingual English-speakers. However, school
relationships were also affected by FLL as students became reluctant to be
associated with ESL or other non-native speakers once they had made the
transition. School performance was negatively affected by FLL if teachers
positioned students as 'illiterate', 'behind' or 'uneducated' and did not
help them to transfer concepts from their L1 to their L2. However, most of
the interviewees were highly successful academically and many of them made a
living out of their communicative abilities as journalists, writers, or

In a final chapter on the consequences of FLL, Kouritzin reflects upon the
meaning of FLL: while FLL meant a complete loss of any language ability for
some of her interviewees, for others it meant that they had stopped learning
the language at an early stage and that they had difficulties with fluency,
vocabulary, verb tenses etc. Some associated FLL with 'the loss of lyricism,
vitality, and vibrancy' (p. 202), and some with leaving the L1 community.
The definition of FLL is thus not imposed on the interviewees by the
researcher, but rather a definition from an insider perspective is aimed at.
It would be interesting to have more detailed studies of how FLL is viewed
in different linguistic communities and how the definition of FLL ties in
with ideologies of national, cultural or gender identities for various


This book is a fascinating read -- I read it in one sitting. The book is
indeed, as the blurb suggests, 'important reading for researchers,
practitioners, and graduate students in ESL and bilingual education,
multicultural education, cultural studies, and sociology, ' and, I would
add, sociolinguistics and applied linguistics. The following features make
the book so valuable:

1) Kouritzin brings a very contemporary understanding of language to the
study of FLL: She views language as 'a constantly metamorphosing
intersection between linguistic elements, identity, culture, history,
reality, information and communication' (p. 19). This framework regards
language as a social phenomenon that is shaped by linguistic and social
ideologies, and acknowledges its interdependence with the construction and
co-construction of reality and identity. On this basis she considers the
social context of FLL and analyzes the consequences of becoming monolingual
in a bilingual environment.

2) The volume furthers understanding of FLL under the circumstances of
immigration. While most researchers describe a gradual, smooth process in
which each succeeding generations speaks and understands less of the L1,
Kouritzin shows that FLL is an individual and personal phenomenon. The view
of gradual L1 decline over generations is an idealization: 'There are
first-, second-, and third-generation Canadians involved in this study who
have lost their first languages, and, in each case, it has been the
individuals in one generation that have lost the language. It is they, and
their parents, who must bear the stigma and feel the shame and
disappointment at losing a part of their cultural heritage' (p. 175f).

3) Kouritzin aims to produce an 'academic text that is written with the
intent to delight as well as to inform' (p. xii, note 2) and is by and large
successful in this endeavor. The volume is an inspiring blend of scholarship
and creative writing (some of the chapters are prefaced with impressionistic
vignettes; the book is vaguely modeled on the structure of Chaucer's
_Canterbury Tales_). By giving room to the multiple voices of her
interviewees, Kouritzin achieves a text that is indeed 'polyphonous,
performative, and invitational' (p. x).

4) Kouritzin is honest and frank with her readers about the pitfalls and
difficulties of her research. For instance, when her member checks led to
unexpected results (an interviewee wanted her to re-write her whole story),
the author admits: 'It was not how I imagined research should be' (p. 33).
While one could expect such frankness and honesty to be a hallmark of all
research, the tradition of the objective, transparent and authoritative
voice in Western research (Fleischman 1996: 202) often leads researchers to
write linear research that seems to have followed a 'master plan,' and to
cover up all investigative processes that deviated from the linear path.
Kouritzin however shares her methodological, ethical or procedural dilemmas,
and thereby her book becomes a model of doing and writing research.

5) The volume is further evidence to the fact -- if such evidence is needed
- that native and non-native speakers jointly own the language. This evidence
is two-fold: first, non-native speakers are more realistic role models as
ESL teachers than native speakers: '[The interviewees] considered themselves
particularly lucky if their teachers had also learned English as a second
language, and/or if they were visible minorities' (p. 192). Second, the hard
work that goes into learning an L2 made many of the interviewees 'fall in
love with the English language' (p. 197) and they realized their dreams to
become English-language professionals such as journalists, writers, or


1) Ammon, U. (1994) 'On the German language in North Carolina.'
_Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German_ 27, 34-42.
2) De Bots, K. & M. Clyne (1994) 'A 16-year longitudinal study of language
attrition in Dutch immigrants in Australia.' _Journal of Multilingual and
Multicultural Development_ 15, 17-28.
3) Fleischman, S. (1996) 'Writing a woman's profession: Women's relation to
the scientific voice.' In: Warner, N. et al. (Eds.) _Gender and Belief
Systems_. Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, 201-227.
4) McGroarty, M. (1998) 'Constructive and Constructivist Challenges for
Applied Linguistics.' _Language Learning_, 48, 591-622.
5) Oxford, R. (1982) 'Research on language loss: A review with implications
for foreign language teaching.' _Modern Language Journal_ 66, 160-169.
6) Pavlenko, A. (1998) 'Second language learning by adults: testimonies of
bilingual writers.' _Issues in Applied Linguistics_, 9, 3-19.
7) Segalowitz, N. (1991) 'Does advanced skill in a second language reduce
automaticity in the first language?' _Language Learning_, 41, 59-83.
8) Skaaden, H. (1998) _In Short Supply of Language. Signs of First Language
Attrition in the Speech of Adult Migrants_. Oslo: University of Oslo.
9) Wong Fillmore, L. (1991) 'When learning a second language means losing
the first.' _Early Childhood Research Quarterly_ 6, 323-346.


Ingrid Piller is an assistant professor of English Linguistics at Hamburg
University. She has published on consumer discourse (1996. _American
Automobile Names_. Essen: Blaue Eule) and is currently conducting a research
project on the negotiation of cultural, linguistic and national identities
in the conversations of bilingual (English-German) married couples.
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