LINGUIST List 24.460

Thu Jan 24 2013

Review: Cognitive Science; Sociolinguistics: Schmid (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 14-Jan-2013
From: Bahar Otcu-Grillman <>
Subject: Language Attrition
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Monika S SchmidTITLE: Language AttritionSERIES TITLE: Key Topics in SociolinguisticsPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2011

REVIEWER: Bahar Otcu-Grillman, Mercy College


“Language Attrition”, as its name suggests, is a book that provides “anoverview of what attrition is, how it manifests itself, and how we caninvestigate it” (6). The book is composed of five main sections. The first twosections are about the theoretical and background issues regarding languageattrition: Part I introduces and discusses the linguistic aspects, and Part IIthe extralinguistic aspects. Parts III to V describe the test battery and areconcerned with the methodological aspects of language attrition research: PartIII specifically provides guidelines about conducting research on languageattrition and discusses preliminary considerations; Part IV outlinesexperimental designs for attrition research and introduces the languageattrition test battery; and Part V is about coding and analyzing data. Thebook 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 maindata sources to whom she frequently refers throughout the book: Gertrud U. andAlbert L. Here, she clarifies the differences between terms that are used insociolinguistic research, such as forgetting versus losing, language lossversus language attrition, attriter versus non-attriter, and incomplete firstlanguage (L1) acquisition versus L1 attrition. This is where she alsointroduces frequently used terms throughout the book, such as cross-linguisticinfluence (CLI) and native-like or near-native. She indicates that the book isconcerned with speakers who have immigrated after puberty. Part I, Chapter 2displays 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 wellas a discussion of the Activation Threshold Hypothesis. Next, Chapter 3discusses the mental lexicon as an area that is mostly affected by attritionand CLI by providing beliefs and attitudes towards these concepts andrevealing 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 reductionof lexical diversity takes place in the speech of attriters. Examples show howL1 lexical items may become inaccessible with attrition. Here, it is importantto note that “to detect attrition, we have to investigate what is not there”(41), which is hard to achieve in experimental settings. Concepts of lexicaldiversity (e.g. type-token ratio), lexical sophistication (e.g. lexicalfrequency profiles), and lexical accessibility (e.g. disfluency patterns) arediscussed in this chapter. Schmid recommends investigating language attritionin the daily language of people. Finally, Chapter 5 investigates if linguisticsubsystems (i.e. phonetics and phonology, morphology, and syntax) can bevulnerable to attrition effects, considering that they are reinforced most ininteraction. Like in the previous chapter, this chapter employs Pavlenko’s(2004) framework in explaining the differences between attriters and nativespeakers in terms of phonetics and phonology as well as grammar. Here,components of foreign accents, and terms such as global accent, voice onsettime (VOT), and open-class systems versus closed-class systems of words areintroduced.

While Part I introduces some characteristics of attrited languages, Part IIinvestigates how speakers differ in their amount of attritional features bylooking at extralinguistic aspects. Chapter 6 investigates the impact ofpersonal background factors on language attrition. The section on “age” iswhere Schmid delves into a discussion on the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).She points to the fact that age is not an important indicator of languageskills. Language transmission and international adoption, adolescence,identification, acculturation, and length of residence are otherextralinguistic factors focused on here. Subsequently, Chapter 7 asksessential questions regarding the role of L1 input and output in attrition.The motto introduced here regarding attrition is “use it or lose it”. Frequentexamples are continually used from the original research participants, GertrudU. and Albert L. Interestingly, we learn about “direct evidence that thedegree to which a language system will attrite depends on the amount to whichthe language is being used in everyday life” (82). The chapter also providesan overview of Grosjean’s (2001) concept of language mode (i.e. monolingual,bilingual, and intermediate mode language use), and offers a caveat about thelanguage mode of attriters in research. Quality versus quantity of contactwith the L1 is also offered as a caveat to attrition researchers. Anotherimportant concept reviewed in this chapter is Social Network Theory. Throughthis theory, Schmid delves into variations in the density and multicomplexityof immigrant communities’ L1 network. Also of interest for the foundation ofthis chapter is the Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1985), which Schmid suggestsmay shift from I+1 to I-1 in cases of attrition. The chapter concludes bysuggesting the importance of the affective filter (Krashen, 1985) inpreventing L1 attrition, as well as a list of interacting variables affectingit, which namely involve “the opportunity to use a language, the willingnessto do so and the attitudes and emotions which a speaker has towards thislanguage” (95). Additionally, Chapter 8 delves into the issues of identity andemotional affiliation and their effects on the attrition process. Here, theauthor points to two important methodological problems in attitude research.First, language attrition is a process and it takes years for the linguisticsystem to be changed. Second, attitudes cannot be readily observed and theparticipants’ expressions need to reflect them. However, most of the time thisis not the case, since people report what is expected of them rather thantheir reality. Furthermore, the discussion of identity and identification herementions Ethnolinguistic Vitality (EV). The author offers a comparison ofdifferent migrant groups in order to understand the extent to which identityand EV determine language attrition. Schmid concludes that frequent use andpositive attitudes may help maintain the native language.

Part III of the book is dedicated to research on language attrition. Theauthor first introduces preliminary considerations such as test populationsand types of linguistic knowledge. Chapter 9 gives practical advice on issuesthat range from recruiting participants for language attrition research toInstitutional Review Board (IRB) recommendations. Next, in Chapter 10, Schmidprovides details on data elicitation techniques within the framework ofimplicit and explicit knowledge, online and offline tasks, spoken and writtenlanguage, and production-comprehension-processing. The chapter underlines theimportance of researchers being clear on what their research tasks willeventually investigate.

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

Part V is the last part of the book and is dedicated to coding and analyzingdata. Here, an important rule of thumb for researchers is “code first, analyzelater” (197). Chapter 15 discusses transcribing and coding free speech data byintroducing a system developed by Brian MacWhinney in the Child Language DataExchange System (CHILDES) project. The author provides links to CHILDES andlays out advantages of using this database, one of which is having access tonumerous finished projects on language attrition. With sample transcriptionsand detailed transcription conventions, CHILDES’ transcription system, calledCHAT, is explained, as is its transcription analysis system, called CLAN. InChapter 16, we read about how various data types can be coded, described, andthen presented in tables and graphs. The author introduces ordinal andinterval data, dependent and independent variables and discusses the basics ofdescriptive statistics. Chapter 17, on the other hand, is about inferentialstatistics, or interpreting data. Analysis and interpretation ofprobabilities, group differences (e.g. t-test, ANOVA, and ANCOVA), and withingroup variation (e.g. correlation and regression) are explained throughseveral examples. At the end of the chapter, the author provides astep-by-step guide to data analysis in language attrition research, whichsummarizes the preceding statistical discussions. Chapter 18 is the concludingchapter of the book. The author makes three important recommendations toprospective language attrition researchers: study and understand the languageof research; be aware of the existing literature; and know your speakers. Thebook concludes by inviting researchers to pursue further studies andunderstandings.


In this book, every crucial aspect of language attrition research ishighlighted and clearly explained. Each chapter starts with essentialquestions that describe its focus and main ideas. In doing so, each chapteracts as a scaffold for the following one, and the reader is well-prepared andtrained for what is next. The short and succinct notes in colored tables ineach chapter provide personal insights and practical ideas about the maindiscussion. These informal notes are the places where we most feel that theauthor is a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend. The authorwrites as if candidly speaking about past research experiences, or ratherteaching the reader through experience. We see this aspect from the start, forexample, in Schmid’s preface about her research and how the idea for the bookdeveloped throughout her years of studying language attrition.

The interactive features of the book can be noticed frequently, especiallywhen the author gives a task to the reader in order to make better sense ofthe reading. In Chapter 6, for instance, Schmid invites readers to make a listof extralinguistic factors before advancing further in the chapter. This is agood exercise for readers that allows them to better assimilate such factors.Throughout the book, we also see the author offering caveats, frequently aboutimportant details in language attrition research. Again in Chapter 6, forexample, the author draws attention to the difference between pre- andpost-puberty immigrants’ proficiency. She emphasizes that only speakers “whoemigrated 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 inlanguage attrition research. When the author provides a succinct literaturereview of the field, she deliberately points to gaps and inaccuracies inprevious research. In Chapter 7, for instance, Schmid points to the fact thatthere is only one attrition research study which has used Social NetworkTheory in an experimental setting (Hulsen, 2000). This is again the chapterwhere the author calls for a fine-grained approach to distinguish betweenthree types of L1 use: interactive, non-interactive, and inner language. Sheelaborates on these three types throughout the chapter, just like the manyother concepts she thoroughly reviews and explains in other chapters. Almostall chapters include a memorable quote or a motto regarding the topic beingdiscussed. This helps key information stick in the readers’ minds. Forinstance, a quote to remember from Chapter 7, regarding interactive L1 use,points to how we represent ourselves in our speech: “Whether we are aware ofthis 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 andmethodology which has so much to offer. It can be an invaluable resource formaster’s and doctoral students writing theses and researchers studyinglanguage attrition. Professors teaching the subject in their classes can useit as a textbook, and people with a special interest in immigration andlanguage attrition issues can simply read it for further information. I wouldstrongly recommend this book to anyone interested in language attrition and asa 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 ofDutch Migrants in New Zealand. Ph. D. thesis, Katholieke UniversiteitNijmegen.

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

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

Pavlenko, A. (2002). Bilingualism and Emotions. Multilingua, 21(1), 45-78.


Bahar Otcu-Grillman is an Assistant Professor of TESOL/Bilingual Education inthe department of Literacy and Multilingual Studies at Mercy College, NewYork. She is currently teaching graduate courses in introduction tolinguistics, methods of teaching English as a second language, bilingualeducation, and clinical practice. Her research interests include bilingualeducation, applied linguistics, language policies and ideologies, discourseanalysis, and pragmatics. She is the co-editor of the recently publishedvolume titled

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