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Review of  Language Attrition

Reviewer: Bahar Otcu-Grillman
Book Title: Language Attrition
Book Author: Monika S Schmid
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.460

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“Language Attrition”, as its name suggests, is a book that provides “an overview of what attrition is, how it manifests itself, and how we can investigate it” (6). The book is composed of five main sections. The first two sections are about the theoretical and background issues regarding language attrition: Part I introduces and discusses the linguistic aspects, and Part II the extralinguistic aspects. Parts III to V describe the test battery and are concerned with the methodological aspects of language attrition research: Part III specifically provides guidelines about conducting research on language attrition and discusses preliminary considerations; Part IV outlines experimental designs for attrition research and introduces the language attrition test battery; and Part V is about coding and analyzing data. The book also includes a list of figures and tables, a preface, a glossary, notes, references, and an index.

In Chapter 1, the Introduction, the author tells the stories of the two main data sources to whom she frequently refers throughout the book: Gertrud U. and Albert L. Here, she clarifies the differences between terms that are used in sociolinguistic research, such as forgetting versus losing, language loss versus language attrition, attriter versus non-attriter, and incomplete first language (L1) acquisition versus L1 attrition. This is where she also introduces frequently used terms throughout the book, such as cross-linguistic influence (CLI) and native-like or near-native. She indicates that the book is concerned with speakers who have immigrated after puberty. Part I, Chapter 2 displays the discrepancy between the proficiency levels of German attriters, and answers questions about what attrition is and where it begins. Here, background about bilingualism is provided with the definitions of compound, coordinate and compound II bilingualism, and is accompanied by figures as well as a discussion of the Activation Threshold Hypothesis. Next, Chapter 3 discusses the mental lexicon as an area that is mostly affected by attrition and CLI by providing beliefs and attitudes towards these concepts and revealing evidence from former studies. Concepts like borrowing, code-switching, disfluency, restructuring, semantic bleaching, convergence, and shift are introduced and discussed, as inspired by Pavlenko’s (2004) framework. Furthermore, in Chapter 4, the author demonstrates how a reduction of lexical diversity takes place in the speech of attriters. Examples show how L1 lexical items may become inaccessible with attrition. Here, it is important to note that “to detect attrition, we have to investigate what is not there” (41), which is hard to achieve in experimental settings. Concepts of lexical diversity (e.g. type-token ratio), lexical sophistication (e.g. lexical frequency profiles), and lexical accessibility (e.g. disfluency patterns) are discussed in this chapter. Schmid recommends investigating language attrition in the daily language of people. Finally, Chapter 5 investigates if linguistic subsystems (i.e. phonetics and phonology, morphology, and syntax) can be vulnerable to attrition effects, considering that they are reinforced most in interaction. Like in the previous chapter, this chapter employs Pavlenko’s (2004) framework in explaining the differences between attriters and native speakers in terms of phonetics and phonology as well as grammar. Here, components of foreign accents, and terms such as global accent, voice onset time (VOT), and open-class systems versus closed-class systems of words are introduced.

While Part I introduces some characteristics of attrited languages, Part II investigates how speakers differ in their amount of attritional features by looking at extralinguistic aspects. Chapter 6 investigates the impact of personal background factors on language attrition. The section on “age” is where Schmid delves into a discussion on the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH). She points to the fact that age is not an important indicator of language skills. Language transmission and international adoption, adolescence, identification, acculturation, and length of residence are other extralinguistic factors focused on here. Subsequently, Chapter 7 asks essential questions regarding the role of L1 input and output in attrition. The motto introduced here regarding attrition is “use it or lose it”. Frequent examples are continually used from the original research participants, Gertrud U. and Albert L. Interestingly, we learn about “direct evidence that the degree to which a language system will attrite depends on the amount to which the language is being used in everyday life” (82). The chapter also provides an overview of Grosjean’s (2001) concept of language mode (i.e. monolingual, bilingual, and intermediate mode language use), and offers a caveat about the language mode of attriters in research. Quality versus quantity of contact with the L1 is also offered as a caveat to attrition researchers. Another important concept reviewed in this chapter is Social Network Theory. Through this theory, Schmid delves into variations in the density and multicomplexity of immigrant communities’ L1 network. Also of interest for the foundation of this chapter is the Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1985), which Schmid suggests may shift from I+1 to I-1 in cases of attrition. The chapter concludes by suggesting the importance of the affective filter (Krashen, 1985) in preventing L1 attrition, as well as a list of interacting variables affecting it, which namely involve “the opportunity to use a language, the willingness to do so and the attitudes and emotions which a speaker has towards this language” (95). Additionally, Chapter 8 delves into the issues of identity and emotional affiliation and their effects on the attrition process. Here, the author points to two important methodological problems in attitude research. First, language attrition is a process and it takes years for the linguistic system to be changed. Second, attitudes cannot be readily observed and the participants’ expressions need to reflect them. However, most of the time this is not the case, since people report what is expected of them rather than their reality. Furthermore, the discussion of identity and identification here mentions Ethnolinguistic Vitality (EV). The author offers a comparison of different migrant groups in order to understand the extent to which identity and EV determine language attrition. Schmid concludes that frequent use and positive attitudes may help maintain the native language.

Part III of the book is dedicated to research on language attrition. The author first introduces preliminary considerations such as test populations and types of linguistic knowledge. Chapter 9 gives practical advice on issues that range from recruiting participants for language attrition research to Institutional Review Board (IRB) recommendations. Next, in Chapter 10, Schmid provides details on data elicitation techniques within the framework of implicit and explicit knowledge, online and offline tasks, spoken and written language, and production-comprehension-processing. The chapter underlines the importance of researchers being clear on what their research tasks will eventually investigate.

Part IV suggests various experimental designs for attrition research, mentioning that there was no consistent research methodology in the field in the past. Chapter 11 focuses on the use of lexical tasks in language attrition research, namely picture naming tasks, picture word matching tasks, and verbal fluency tasks. Moreover, Chapter 12 delves into grammaticality judgment tasks (GJT), which are very popular in language attrition research. Different types of GJTs, such as the pen-and-paper method, speeded GJTs, self-paced reading, and eye-tracking are explained through different examples. In Chapter 13, we see other grammatical tasks, such as interpretation and ambiguous sentences, word inflections, and c-tests, which are discussed with self-explanatory examples. Here, Schmid points to the advantages and disadvantages of all the methods discussed and offers a caveat; the research population may have a problem with a particular task rather than with a grammatical or lexical feature. Hence, in Chapter 14, she recommends free speech data (i.e. talk data) to researchers, while providing guidelines on how to elicit, transcribe and code such data.

Part V is the last part of the book and is dedicated to coding and analyzing data. Here, an important rule of thumb for researchers is “code first, analyze later” (197). Chapter 15 discusses transcribing and coding free speech data by introducing a system developed by Brian MacWhinney in the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) project. The author provides links to CHILDES and lays out advantages of using this database, one of which is having access to numerous finished projects on language attrition. With sample transcriptions and detailed transcription conventions, CHILDES’ transcription system, called CHAT, is explained, as is its transcription analysis system, called CLAN. In Chapter 16, we read about how various data types can be coded, described, and then presented in tables and graphs. The author introduces ordinal and interval data, dependent and independent variables and discusses the basics of descriptive statistics. Chapter 17, on the other hand, is about inferential statistics, or interpreting data. Analysis and interpretation of probabilities, group differences (e.g. t-test, ANOVA, and ANCOVA), and within group variation (e.g. correlation and regression) are explained through several examples. At the end of the chapter, the author provides a step-by-step guide to data analysis in language attrition research, which summarizes the preceding statistical discussions. Chapter 18 is the concluding chapter of the book. The author makes three important recommendations to prospective language attrition researchers: study and understand the language of research; be aware of the existing literature; and know your speakers. The book concludes by inviting researchers to pursue further studies and understandings.


In this book, every crucial aspect of language attrition research is highlighted and clearly explained. Each chapter starts with essential questions that describe its focus and main ideas. In doing so, each chapter acts as a scaffold for the following one, and the reader is well-prepared and trained for what is next. The short and succinct notes in colored tables in each chapter provide personal insights and practical ideas about the main discussion. These informal notes are the places where we most feel that the author is a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend. The author writes as if candidly speaking about past research experiences, or rather teaching the reader through experience. We see this aspect from the start, for example, in Schmid’s preface about her research and how the idea for the book developed throughout her years of studying language attrition.

The interactive features of the book can be noticed frequently, especially when the author gives a task to the reader in order to make better sense of the reading. In Chapter 6, for instance, Schmid invites readers to make a list of extralinguistic factors before advancing further in the chapter. This is a good exercise for readers that allows them to better assimilate such factors. Throughout the book, we also see the author offering caveats, frequently about important details in language attrition research. Again in Chapter 6, for example, the author draws attention to the difference between pre- and post-puberty immigrants’ proficiency. She emphasizes that only speakers “who emigrated when they were older than 12 years can be called ‘L1 attriters’” (74), as opposed to heritage speakers or incomplete learners/acquirers.

The general tone of the book indicates the significance of this work in language attrition research. When the author provides a succinct literature review of the field, she deliberately points to gaps and inaccuracies in previous research. In Chapter 7, for instance, Schmid points to the fact that there is only one attrition research study which has used Social Network Theory in an experimental setting (Hulsen, 2000). This is again the chapter where the author calls for a fine-grained approach to distinguish between three types of L1 use: interactive, non-interactive, and inner language. She elaborates on these three types throughout the chapter, just like the many other concepts she thoroughly reviews and explains in other chapters. Almost all chapters include a memorable quote or a motto regarding the topic being discussed. This helps key information stick in the readers’ minds. For instance, a quote to remember from Chapter 7, regarding interactive L1 use, points to how we represent ourselves in our speech: “Whether we are aware of this or not, whenever we talk, we constantly put out signals about who we are” (83).

Overall, this is a reader-friendly book about language attrition research and methodology which has so much to offer. It can be an invaluable resource for master’s and doctoral students writing theses and researchers studying language attrition. Professors teaching the subject in their classes can use it as a textbook, and people with a special interest in immigration and language attrition issues can simply read it for further information. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in language attrition and as a reference in linguistics and bilingual education courses.


Grosjean, F. (2001). The bilingual’s language modes. In Janet L. Nicol (ed) One Mind, Two Languages. Bilingual Language Processing, Oxford: Blackwell. 1-22.

Hulsen, M. (2000). Language Loss and Language Processing: Three Generations of Dutch Migrants in New Zealand. Ph. D. thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen.

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. London: Longman.

MacWhinney, B. (2000). The CHILDES Project: Tools for Analyzing Talk. Third Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pavlenko, A. (2002). Bilingualism and Emotions. Multilingua, 21(1), 45-78.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Bahar Otcu-Grillman is an Assistant Professor of TESOL/Bilingual Education in the department of Literacy and Multilingual Studies at Mercy College, New York. She is currently teaching graduate courses in introduction to linguistics, methods of teaching English as a second language, bilingual education, and clinical practice. Her research interests include bilingual education, applied linguistics, language policies and ideologies, discourse analysis, and pragmatics. She is the co-editor of the recently published volume titled

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