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Review of  First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance

Reviewer: Matthias Hutz
Book Title: First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance
Book Author: Monika S Schmid
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 14.2414

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Date: Mon, 08 Sep 2003 09:30:44 +0200
From: Matthias Hutz
Subject: First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance: The Case of
German Jews in Anglophone Countries

Schmid, Monika S. (2002) First Language Attrition, Use and
Maintenance: The Case of German Jews in Anglophone Countries.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., hardback ISBN 90 272 4135 X (Eur.) / 1
58811 190 3 (US), xiv + 258pp, Studies in Bilingualism 24.

Reviewed by Matthias Hutz, University of Giessen, Germany

Language attrition studies have gained some momentum in the last two
decades although there is still a considerable imbalance between
acquisition and attrition studies, possibly because it is more
rewarding to focus on gaining linguistic competence rather than losing

In her study on first language attrition in a second language
environment, Schmid explores the process of language use and language
loss of a group of German Jewish speakers who emigrated to England and
the USA under the Nazi regime. Her overall objective is to establish
the influence of extralinguistic variables, i.e. autobiographical
factors on language attrition, as well as investigate intralinguistic
determinants for language loss after a period of sixty years of
emigration and close contact with English. Her informants who grew up
in the region around Düsseldorf were forced to leave Germany between
1933 and 1939. The study is based on a corpus of free spoken data,
i.e. 54 narrative autobiographical interviews which were not 'at
least initially' collected to be analysed linguistically, but were
part of an Oral History project by the Düsseldorf Holocaust Memorial

In the opening chapter, Schmid discusses various hypotheses and
approaches to the study of language attrition, including, for
instance, Jakobson's regression hypothesis ('last in, first
out'), which claims that the sequence of L1 acquisition might
determine the sequence of attrition. She also briefly re-examines
other major theoretical frameworks and disciplines, such as
Interlanguage Theory, Universal Grammar and psycholinguistics and
discusses their contributions concerning first language attrition.

In the second chapter, Schmid provides a historical overview of the
situation of German Jews, in particular their persecution under the
Nazi regime leading to mass emigration. She identifies three different
emigration groups based upon periods of time in which the extent and
intensity of the persecution differed (1933-1935, 1935-1938 and
1938-1939). It is one of the objectives of her study to establish
whether differences in loss or maintenance of the German L1 can be
found between informants who belong to these three emigration groups.
The individual circumstances of the persecution and emigration,
however, are not explicitly mentioned.

Next, she focuses on several extralinguistic factors, such as age,
education, time span elapsed since emigration, gender, contact,
attitudes, identity and ethnicity, which have often been reported to
influence language attrition. She also addresses some major
methodological problems associated with research designs in language
attrition, in particular data collection and the selection of
linguistic features. Different methodological approaches (e.g.
longitudinal and cross-sectional studies) and conflicting definitions
of the term 'attrition' have led to very contradictory results.
Some researchers have claimed to have found considerable attrition in
individuals, while others claimed to have found very little attrition.
An additional problem is that researchers often make tacit assumptions
about a particular linguistic norm provided by non-attrited speakers
on the basis of their own intuition as a native speaker.

Schmid concludes the third chapter with a very helpful and systematic
overview of previous language attrition studies specifying in each
case not only the results and the linguistic levels examined, but also
the theoretical framework and the elicitation methods used. This
survey clearly demonstrates the very heterogeneous character of
previous research in this field.

In the second part of her study, Monika Schmid presents her own
empirical investigation. So far, most studies have focused on
deviations from an assumed norm rather than examining a speaker's
overall competence, i.e. an individualâ's actual linguistic
repertoire in L1. Thus, in order to provide a comprehensive picture of
the linguistic proficiency of a speaker, Schmid has decided to include
two sets of data in her analysis: interference data and proficiency
data. The investigation of proficiency data entails the overall
assessment of the lexical, morphological, and syntactical complexity,
i.e. the informants' data which conforms to the linguistic norm. The
main focus in her study, however, is on interference data, i.e.
utterances which are in some way felt to be deviant by native speakers
(p. 4).

In the third chapter Schmid provides a highly useful taxonomy of
interferences, including interferences that may occur in the lexicon
(e.g. code-switching and lexical borrowing), in semantics (e.g.
calques), in morphology (e.g. case, gender and plural interferences)
and in syntax (e.g. order of adverbials and verb-final placement in
subordinate clauses where different patterns can be found in English
and German). However, she limits her analysis to those interferences
that occur in the grammatical system, in particular to the domains of
inflectional morphology, morphosyntax and syntax.

Her findings suggest that - at least on the level of morphology -
Jakobson's regression hypothesis may to some extent correctly
predict the outcome of a language loss situation since the amount of
morphological interferences increased proportionally for those
features that are acquired relatively late in the process of German L1
acquisition (e.g. plural morphology). Morphological features that tend
to be acquired relatively early in L1 (e.g. gender), however, do not
seem to be very vulnerable to attrition. In contrast to the lexicon,
the morphological system seems to be generally resistant to language
loss. It is also interesting to note in this context that Schmid did
not find any clear evidence concerning the validity of the regression
hypothesis with regard to the syntactic domain. These conclusions are
quite intriguing especially since Jakobson's theory of invariable
order in progression and regression has hardly been tested with regard
to non-pathological language loss.

The analysis of the extralinguistic variables also yields some
interesting results. Schmid attempts to establish the influence of
some predictor variables, such as the age at the time of emigration,
language use, the degree of 'traumatization' and identification
conflicts. However, she only found statistically significant
influences of these variables for the interference data, but not for
the proficiency data (e.g. with regard to lexical richness and
morphological complexity). If this is indeed correct, this may suggest
that a speaker's linguistic 'errors' may actually be the result
of temporary accessibility problems, but may not indicate actual loss
of L1, even in the case of very restricted language use.

The time at which an informant emigrated seems to be the most
influential extralinguistic factor of all the extralinguistic
variables under investigation and thus the best predictor of
attrition. This factor significantly outweighs other factors, such as
the age of the speaker at the time of emigration or the opportunity
for language use. Thus the lack of extended use of L1 per se does not
result in L1 attrition. This study sheds growing doubt on whether
irregular use of a language as such leads to its attrition.

Instead, the study suggests that there may be an important link
between language attrition on the one hand and a speaker's
self-perception and identification conflicts on the other hand. It is
evident that persecution and the deprivation of one's former
identity as in this case may indeed have negative effects on language
maintenance. Rejection and even persecution are not very likely to
lead to creating favourable attitudes towards the speech community and
may instead foster rapid linguistic assimilation. However, someone who
is interested in remaining a member of a particular speech community
might also be capable of retaining his or her language skills over a
long period of time. Thus an emigrantâ's identity and self-perception
may actually determine the process of language attrition to a very
large degree.

According to Schmid, it is in fact possible to maintain a language
over an extremely long period of emigration since the data on which
her study is based were gained from informants who had lived in the
country of emigration for a minimum of sixty years and who in many
cases had very limited contact with their native language. She found
that the morphological competence and syntax remained largely
unaffected even after a prolonged non-contact with the L1. It would
have been interesting if a detailed analysis of the lexical
interferences had also been undertaken, but that would have been
clearly beyond the scope of this study.

Overall, this monograph not only provides an excellent overview of the
state-of-the-art in language attrition, but also makes a significant
contribution to this field in several respects. Schmid's in-depth
analysis of morphosyntactic features is extremely valuable since the
phenomena under investigation in this study have often been neglected
in previous research. In addition, her attempt to focus not only on
interference data, but also to include proficiency data is laudable.
The consideration of a speaker's overall competence in L1, i.e. the
inclusion of data which is non-deviant from a linguistic norm, is
certainly a step long overdue in language attrition studies and may in
fact lead to a new evaluation of the extent of language attrition
found in emigrants in the future. Furthermore, linking acquisitional
and attritional sequences in the context of Jakobson's regression
hypothesis may provide a useful theoretical framework for other
studies as well.

The findings presented by Schmid speak very strongly for a stronger
incorporation of the emigrants' identity conflicts, their attitude
towards their language community and their self-perception. It might
prove to be interesting to compare the results of these
extralinguistic predictor variables with other groups of emigrants
with different backgrounds. However, since the reasons and
circumstances of emigration are often very individual, it might be
difficult to find a homogeneous emigrant group such as this one.

Throughout the text, Schmid provides a great wealth of examples from
her samples. In addition, there is a CD that is included with the book
which contains 21 samples from the interviews. Although the sound
quality of some of the recordings is rather poor, this is a valuable
bonus providing the reader with some good examples of the process of
language attrition. Overall, the book is extremely well-structured and
very readable.

In conclusion, this innovative and insightful study is a
'must-read' for anyone interested in first language attrition and
will certainly stimulate a new methodological discussion in this
field. It may even start a new and productive research trend since the
approach chosen here has some far-reaching implications for future
research, for example concerning the consideration of proficiency data
and of attitudinal factors. The systematic research design presented
in this book clearly adds very much to our understanding of the
complex and multifaceted process of first language attrition in
immigrant communities.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Matthias Hutz teaches linguistics at the College of Education of Heidelberg, Germany. He has a Ph.D. in English Linguistics from the University of Giessen in Germany. His research interests include issues related to first and second language acquisition, intercultural communication and ESP.