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Review of  First Language Attrition

Reviewer: Xin Wang
Book Title: First Language Attrition
Book Author: Monika S Schmid Barbara Köpke Merel Keijzer Lina Weilemar
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 16.1789

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Date: Sun, 5 Jun 2005 22:28:58 -0700
From: Xin Wang
Subject: First Language Attrition: Interdisciplinary perspectives on
methodological issues

EDITORS: Schmid, Monika S.; Kopke, Barbara; Keijzer, Merel;
Weilemar, Lina
TITLE: First Language Attrition
SUBTITLE: Interdisciplinary perspectives on methodological issues
SERIES: Studies in Bilingualism
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2004

Xin Wang, University of Arizona


The book starts with Barbara Kopke and Monika S. Schmid's attempt
to identify and clarify theoretical and methodological issues in attrition
research by giving an overview of the history, basic issues,
explanatory frameworks and research designs of attrition research
during the past two decades. Besides establishing the ground from
which the following individual papers will proceed, this chapter points
out the papers collected in this book fall into three parts: Part 1
focuses on theoretical and methodological issues in data collection
and analysis; Part 2 contains a number of empirical studies tapping
into the process of attrition in different languages and settings; Part 3
presents a series of papers connecting data with a clearly defined
theoretical framework. To close this book, the last two chapters are
contributed by Monika S. Schmid providing a comprehensive
annotated bibliography of Language Attrition research and projecting
the future direction in this area.


Part I: Theoretical models and methodological aspects

Chapter 1: 'L2 influence and L1 attrition in adult bilingualism' by Aneta
This paper presents a classificatory Cross-linguistic Influence (CI)
framework which differentiates five processes in the interaction
between L1 and L2, arguing that L2 influence on L1 is a phenomenon
in its own right and should be distinguished from evidence of L1
attrition. These five processes are:
1. borrowing (addition of L2 elements to L1, e.g., lexical borrowing),
2. restructuring (deletion or incorporation of L2 elements into L1, e.g.,
syntactic restructuring and semantic extension),
3. convergence (creation of a unitary system distinct from both L1 and
4. shift (a departure from L1 structures or values to L2, e.g., a shift in
category boundaries) and
5. attrition (loss of some L1 elements due to L2 influence).

Chapter 2: 'A socio-cultural approach to language attrition' by Antonio
F. Jimenez Jimenez.
On the basis of Socio-cultural Theory (SCT), this article explores the
possible connection between social participation and linguistic
production in attrition. It is argued that language attrition 'entails the
loss of the once attained level of self-regulation in a language (L1 or
L2) in a particular activity and the momentary return to a previous
stage of object- and/or other-regulation'. To be more specific, under
SCT, assessing language attrition needs to have a longitudinal pretest-
posttest research design and observe the communicative breakdown
experienced by any given speaker and his/her use of compensatory
strategies in solving communicative problems. This view of language
attrition attempts to look at the language, the individual, and the
activity as a whole system and seek evidence revealing L1 or L2
processing difficulties in communication.

Chapter 3: 'Perceived language dominance and language preference
for emotional speech—the implications for attrition research' by Jean-
Marc Dewaele.
Based on previous literature, this empirical paper adopts the view that
L1 retains very strong emotional connotations even if that language is
not used regularly. Through the web questionnaire and self-reported
answers, the qualitative data are collected from a total of 1039
multilinguals in order to investigate 1) which of the four skills in the L1
(speaking, understanding, reading, writing) suffers most from
perceived attrition; 2) the effect of perceived attrition on perceptions of
L1 (useful, colorful, rich, poetic, emotional); 3) how perceived L1
attrition affects the use of L1 in expressing anger, feelings, inner
speech, mental calculation and swearing. The results show perceived
L1 attrition has a significant effect on self-rated proficiency in the L1
(In particular, reception skills are less affected than production skills),
on frequency of use of the L1 when expressing anger, feelings, and
swearing. This perceived L1 attrition also affects perceptions of
certain characteristics of the L1, but not its emotional and poetic
character. These patterns confirm the claim that L1 retains powerful
emotional connotations.

Chapter 4: 'The role of grammaticality judgments in investigating first
language attrition—a cross-disciplinary perspective' by Evelyn P.
Altenberg and Robert M. Vago.
First, the authors make it clear that grammaticality judgment tasks do
not provide a direct window into one's language competence, but
involve performance as well. Second, in the description of the
judgment task as compared to online sentence processing, it is
suggested that L1 attriters are likely to rely heavily on implicit
knowledge in grammaticality judgment tasks. More importantly, the
most productive approach is to conduct carefully constructed
grammaticality judgment tasks in conjunction with other tasks in
attrition research. Third, the authors warn extreme caution when
interpreting the inter-subject and intra-subject inconsistency in
judgment data. Last, methodological issues in setting up a
grammaticality judgment task are raised, such as 'the role of
time', 'magnitude estimation', 'response bias', etc.

Part II: Attrition in progress -- observations and descriptions

Chapter 5: 'Issues in finding the appropriate methodology in language
attrition research' by Kutlay Yagmur.
This paper begins with the definition of "language attrition", the
gradual loss of competence in a given language, and points out its
difference from another phenomenon, "language shift", which is
the "changes in language use on the community level". Then the
author presents several attrition studies reporting 'massive language
loss' which are often caused by insufficient consideration of
methodological issues, thus argues for an appropriate research
design of data collection methods, instruments and informants. In
order to give a concrete view of the importance of choosing
appropriate methodology based on research questions, the author
presents his own research of Turkish immigrants in Sydney illustrating
every step in the study: hypothesis testing, sampling, instrumentation,
measuring attrition in different respects, discussion and
recommendations for future research.

Chapter 6: 'Language contact and attrition -- the spoken French of
Israeli Francophones' by Miriam Ben-Rafael.
The study presented in this chapter employs different methods of data
collection from Francophone immigrants to Israel whose spoken
French has deviated from standard forms and adopted L2 elements.
These methods include interviews, spontaneous conversations,
professional discussions, and narratives. The results show some
lexical attrition in the speakers' more formal speech, such as
narratives, professional meetings, and interviews. In the informal
contexts, like the spontaneous conversations and interviews
conducted by a Franbreophone, lexical changes are less obvious and
code-switching and lexical innovations serve as new vehicles to enrich
speech, characterize specific social realities and express subjective
feelings and self-identities. The analysis of the speakers' syntax
shows that the Hebrew syntax influences French mainly when these
two languages are similar to some other registers of spoken French;
while the French grammar remains predominant in the discourse when
the two systems differ from each other. Therefore, the author argues
that the changes found in Francophone immigrants' L1 should not be
viewed entirely as attrition phenomenon. Some are due to language
loss, but others are contributions to French when the two language
systems are in contact.

Chapter 7: 'Is there a natural process of decay?--a longitudinal study
of language attrition' by Matthias Hutz.
A longitudinal case study, based on personal letters of a German
immigrant in US during the period from 1939 to 1994, is discussed in
this paper in order to investigate which parts of linguistic system tend
to be more resistant to attrition over a long period and which
categories show less resistance to the intrusion of L2 elements.
Through data analysis of different linguistic levels, the study confirms
that lexicon is the most severely affected domain by language attrition,
while morphological and syntactic structures seem to be more
resistant to language loss. As pointed out by the author, due to
several limitations of the data in the study, it is necessary to have data
from a greater number of informants so that a more precise
generalization of the attrition pattern in different linguistic domains can
be made.

Chapter 8: 'In search of the lost language -- the case of adopted
Koreans in France' by Valerie A. G. Ventureyra and Christophe
Two issues are addressed in this study. First, this study considers
individuals who were extracted from L1 environment and immersed in
L2 environment at a relatively early age thus minimizing the
interference from L2 during the attrition of L1. Second, phonology is
the first linguistic level acquired by infants; therefore, it is of interest to
investigate whether phonology is particularly resistant to attrition. The
results from the behavioral experiments and fMRI study suggest that a
possible mechanism for language attrition due to erosion of an unused
language is brain plasticity and that the subjects have a more precise
notion of the sound pattern of their L1 than L2, but no explicit access
to knowledge of L1 lexical items.

Part III: How the study of attrition can contribute to the understanding
of language

Chapter 9: 'Attrition in L1 competence -- the case of Turkish' by Ayse
This paper explores the impact of a dominant L2 English as a
possible cause of language loss or restructuring in the L1 Turkish
grammar of adults who have lived in the L2 environment for an
extended period of time. Using a written interpretation task, a truth-
value judgment task, and a picture identification-listening task, the
author found that the subjects were able to distinguish between the
binding properties of overt and null pronouns and between the two
overt pronouns in Turkish. However, the interpretation of the Turkish
overt pronoun o did show some transfer from L2 English. The
restructuring of the L1 grammar at the syntactic competence level
suggests that native competence of late L2 acquirers is under change
due to extensive L2 exposure and less accessible L1 input.

Chapter 10: 'Methodological aspects of a generative-based attrition
study' by Bede McCormack.
From a generative-based theoretical perspective, this paper
investigates Japanese speakers' knowledge of reflexive binding in
their L2 after their stay in the US. The test results show that most
subjects failed to maintain their initial levels of knowledge of the
English Principle A-related binding phenomena. This L2 attrited
pattern, as concluded by the author, can not be attributed to L1
transfer, nonetheless remains UG constrained.

Chapter 11: 'Convergent outcomes in L2 acquisition and L1 loss' by
Silvina Montrul.
Under the theoretical assumption that the eroded L1 grammars of
bilinguals at a certain state resemble the incomplete grammars of
intermediate and advanced stages of L2 acquisition, the author
hypothesizes that both L2 (Spanish) learners and Spanish heritage
speakers would have difficulty with verb forms indicating the negative
value of the [perfective] feature, because there is a parametric
difference between Spanish and English AspP. Results from the
Sentence Conjunction Judgment Task and the Truth Value Judgment
Task generally confirm the prediction, showing that advanced L2
learners of Spanish and Spanish heritage speakers are similar in the
semantic interpretations of the preterit-imperfect aspectual opposition.
However, these two groups are significantly different from monolingual
Spanish speakers and superior L2 (Spanish) speakers in some areas
of semantic interpretations. It is concluded that incomplete acquisition
in the context of bilingualism is a specific type of language attrition at
the individual and probably at the group level. Furthermore, the author
suggests that the methodologies of L2 acquisition research could be
used in attrition research due to the similarity in the interaction
between L1 and L2 systems when two languages are in contact in
both of L1 attrition and L2 acquisition phenomena.

Chapter 12: 'A modest proposal -- explaining language attrition in the
context of contact linguistics' by Steven Gross.
In the author's view, it is important to identify language attrition from
other linguistic observations which could be mistaken as attrition
phenomena. Specifically, this article presents a language production
model predicting which categories of morphemes are more or less
vulnerable to attrition. Under this model, there are three morpheme
systems at the lemma level: the content morpheme system directly
links to the conceptual level and are conceptually activated (e.g.
nouns and verbs); the early system morphemes are also conceptually
activated but indirectly elected by content morphemes (e.g. English
determiners and plural s); the last category is late system morphemes
which are activated at the functional level and not subject to speakers'
intentions, like subject-verb agreement markers. Data from German
immigrants in US support the predication of this model showing that
content morphemes are most vulnerable to attrition while late system
morphemes are least likely to undergo change.

Chapter 13: 'No more reductions!--to the problem of evaluation of
language attrition data' by Elena Schmitt.
This paper argues that explaining the processes of language attrition
should move beyond the framework of simplification/reduction and
explore convergence and code-switching as the mechanism. This view
is supported by the Abstract Level model which suggests three levels
of abstract lexical structure in modularity: lexical-conceptual, predicate-
argument structure, and morphological realization patterns. Thus,
convergence takes places when access to the abstract lexical
structure of one language is not complete or the influence of the other
language is so powerful that it is used to fill in the gaps. The
production data collected from Russian immigrants in US confirm this
convergence account.


This book collection of 13 papers presents the audience exciting
research during the past decade in attrition research, but certainly
highlights the complexity in this area in terms of theoretical foundation,
methodologies, sampling and analysis. To be more specific, there are
valuable results from the series of research worthwhile to point out
and further pursue along the path. First, these attrition studies have
provided interdisciplinary perspectives and adopted theoretical
frameworks from Sociolinguistics, Theoretical Linguistics and
Psycholinguistics. These frameworks allow the formulation of more
precise and falsifiable hypotheses, and thus more rigorous and
suggestive findings. Second, a variety of research designs and
methods are witnessed in this book to elicit data investigating specific
and local phenomena of language attrition. This has established a
solid grounding in the methods of data collection and analysis for
more detailed and reliable results. Third, this line of research is vital to
investigate the favorable effects on the maintenance of L1 proficiency
in addition to the development of L2 for immigrants (Schmid, 2004).

On the other hand, I would certainly hope to see some development
on the basis of the research I have reviewed from the book. First,
research needs to distinguish the attrition phenomenon due to healthy
aging from language contact. Goral (2004) reported similarities and
differences in lexical retrieval difficulties in both bilingual and healthy
aging groups. However, what mechanisms associate with these two
different contexts still remain unanswered. Second, most studies
assume the complete acquisition of L1 prior to the process of attrition.
Results could be different if this variable is well-controlled.
Furthermore, it might be worthwhile to compare subject groups whose
L1 proficiency is different, such as the contrast between children and
adults' L1 attrition in the same language context. Third, several
studies of different groups of bilinguals have concluded that syntax is
more resistant to attrition/change compared to lexicon, including
Montrul (2004)'s recent research of subject and object expressions in
Spanish heritage speakers. However, it is not clear whether this issue
is cross-linguistic in the sense that how similar or different bilinguals'
two language systems are would affect the attrition process. I would
suggest more replication studies to confirm the general patterns at
different linguistic levels as well as emphasize the more detailed cross-
linguistic characters.


Goral, M. (2004). First-language decline in healthy aging: implications
for attrition in bilingualism. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 17, 31-52.

Montrul, S. (2004). Subject and object expression in Spanish heritage
speakers: A case of morphosyntactic convergence. Bilingualism:
Language and Cognition, 7 (2),125-142.

Schmid, S. M. (2004). A new blueprint for language attrition research.
In M. S. Schmid, B. Kopke, M. Keijzer & L. Weilemar (Eds.), First
Language Attrition: Interdisciplinary perspectives on methodological
issues (349-362). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing


Xin Wang is a PhD student enrolled in the Second Language
Acquisition and Teaching Program at the University of Arizona. Her
research interest is in L2/Bilingual Language Processing and Second
Language Acquisition. Currently, her research uses Masked Priming
Paradigm investigating the mechanism of cross-language priming.