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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Language Attrition

Reviewer: Pamela Villar González
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Language Attrition
Book Author: Monika S. Schmid Barbara Kopke
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 31.3689

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The handbook under review presents a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to the topic of language attrition. From the basic theory to the last results in current research, this handbook explores the concept of attrition, that is to say, the loss of language without any pathology or injury involved but due to cross-linguistic interference and to the lack of use of the language.

To cover different research approaches to attrition, this handbook has been divided into six sections. These sections present not just the last insights from the fields of theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, and sociolinguistics but also the differences considering the language (first language, second language, or heritage languages) that has been lost. Before and after these core sections other chapters complete the information; worth mentioning are an Introduction, the List of Abbreviations, and the information regarding the contributors as well as the End Matter with concluding remarks, references, and index and an extensive annotated bibliography.

The first four chapters are devoted to the attrition of first language or mother tongue (L1);, the next one focuses on the loss of second languages or foreign languages (L2); and the last one is about the loss of inherited languages (HL). Inside every section, the information is presented in different subsections dealing with the different approaches to language attrition.

In the first section, language attrition is examined from the theoretical linguistic perspective; the title is “Theoretical Implications of Language Attrition” and it is edited by Monika S. Schmid and Barbara Köpke. Different models and hypothesis are presented and examined, and there are the following subsections:

Language Attrition and the Competition Model by Brian MacWhinney
According to the author, the Competition Model, which approaches language as a biological system that appears from processes of competition, is designed to provide an integrated approach to solve the main issues presented in attrition: permastore, variation across levels, childhood forgetting and catastrophic interference.

Language Attrition and the Feature Reassembly Hypothesis by Michael T. Putnam, Silvia Perez-Cortes, and Liliana Sánchez
The Feature Reassembly Hypothesis defends the claim that linguistic information is associated with atomic feature bundles and functional heads. Starting from this, the authors address the topics of attrition and restructuring as the loss and/or reduction in connections.

The Interface Hypothesis as a Framework for Studying L1 Attrition by Gloria Chamorro and Antonella Sorace
Authors present the Interface Hypothesis, whose core is the proposition that structures at the interface between syntax and other cognitive domains, such as pragmatics, have more options to be affected by attrition than other structures that do not involve such an interface, for example, semantics. This chapter also reviews research that supports that individual L1 attrition affects only the ability to process interface structures that allows the recuperation of the language, called reversibility.

Implications of the Bottleneck Hypothesis for Language Attrition by Roumyana Slabakova
According to The Bottleneck Hypothesis, functional morphology presents the biggest challenge to acquisition, while syntax and semantics are relatively easier to acquire. In this chapter, this hypothesis is studied, taking into account the maturation factor for differentiating between early attriters (before puberty) and late attriters (native language grammar was acquired entirely).

A Complex Dynamic Systems Perspective on Personal Background Variables in L1 Attrition by Conny Opitz
The author’s focus in this chapter is the importance of background information in language attrition research. Apart from the typical information registered in language attrition studies (gender, age of bilingualism), they highlight that it is necessary to collect other information like the age of L2 acquisition, the age of L1 attrition, the time since onset of attrition, the level of education, the attitudes with respect to the attriting language, and the frequency, amount and settings of use of the attriting language. All this information is necessary to homogenise the results obtained in studies and make them easier to contrast.

In the second section, language attrition is encompassed from an experimental path: Psycholinguistic and Neurolinguistic research is presented here. “Psycholinguistic and Neurolinguistic Approaches to Language Attrition” edited by Barbara Köpke and Merel Keijzer starts with an introduction written by the editors where the brain processes and mechanism, models, and theories have been presented the rest of the subsections focus in the following aspects:

Language Attrition as a Special Case of Processing Change: A broader cognitive perspective by Michael Sharwood Smith
This chapter examines how language processing has been treated in both the attrition and the acquisition literature. With this frame of reference, language attrition will be examined concerning language processing mechanisms, the relation between this and other cognitive processing, and the representational change.

Memory Retrieval and Language Attrition: Language loss or manifestations of a dynamic system? by Jared A. Linck and Judith F. Kroll
Authors examine if native language attrition is indeed the language loss or instead it reflects an intricate language system that is continually altered due to other processes like the retrieval, forgetting the consequences of use, and immersion.

How Bilingualism Affects Syntactic Processing in The Native Language: Evidence from eye movements by Paola E. Dussias, Jorge R. Valdés Kroff, Michael Johns, and Álvaro Villegas
Based on sentence comprehension (syntactic and morpho-syntactic processing) and how exposure to a second language can impact the processing in the native language, the authors present here the importance of the technique of eye-tracking in the study of attrition.

First Language Attrition and Developmental Language Disorder by Elma Blom, Tessel Boerma, and Jan de Jong
In this chapter, the authors indicate the overlap between the research about attrition and the bilingual children whose language abilities are below their peers’ and who may have Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). The focus is on bilingual children whose L1 may be subject to attrition.

Ageing as a Confound in Language Attrition Research: Lexical retrieval, language use, and cognitive and neural changes by Eve Higby, Aviva Lerman, Marta Korytkowska, Taryn Malcolm, and Loraine K. Obler
Here, the authors consider the possibility of neurophysiological changes playing a role in both language attrition and non-pathological ageing to hypothesise if the neurobiological sources of these two processes are similar.

Linguistic Regression in Bilingual Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease by Melissa Barkat-Defradas, Frédérique Gayraud, Barbara Köpke, and Laurent Lefebvre
The authors address here the controversial Babylonian benefit, which suggested that bilingualism helps to delay the onset of AD, arguing that lifelong bilingualism creates a cognitive reserve. In this chapter difficulties of bilinguals with AD are studied.

Electrophysiological Approaches to L1 Attrition by Karsten Steinhauer and Kristina Kasparian
Authors provide here an overview of the first few Event-Related brain Potential (ERP) studies on language attrition and discuss their results as well as future directions. Authors consider ERP studies appropriate to attrition research due to their accuracy to track changes in cognitive processing. They propose as well, to be consistent with the terminology and use ‘attrition’ and ‘attriter’ just when individuals present neuro-cognitive changes in how they process language, being these changes non-pathological.

Neuroimaging Perspectives on L1 Attrition and Language Change by Eleonora Rossi, Yanina Prystauka, and Michele T. Diaz
This chapter discusses the neuroimaging literature on language attrition, focusing on the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and neural oscillations. Authors present how these methods allow us to understand better changes in neural activity correlating to changes in language.

After studying language attrition from a theoretical and a practical point of view, the next two subsections consider both the linguistic (Section VI) and the non-linguistic (Section V) factors. Both start with an introduction with a broad visit of literature and explaining briefly what will be developed in every subsection.

With regards to the third section “Linguistic Factors in Language Attrition” edited by Monika S. Schmid and Esther de Leeuw, we find these subsections after the introduction (written by the editors):

Phonetic Drift by Charles B. Chang
The author uses the term ‘phonetic drift’ to refer to L2-influenced phonetic change in an individual’s L1. Included are findingsin the literature regarding which characteristics are present, what is the cognitive mechanism behind it, and which factors increase (or decrease) the probability of phonetic drift.

Phonetic Attrition by Esther De Leeuw
The author defines phonetic attrition as the changes in native speech upon acquisition of a second language or dialect after adolescence. Several studies are mentioned about segmental and prosodic attrition.

Phonological Attrition by Chiara Celata
This chapter looks at how the study of L1 phonological attrition reveals that the system of phonological contrasts of the L1 may change as a consequence of L2 acquisition in adulthood, and not just in the production.

Morphological Attrition by Elena Schmitt
This chapter provides a review of research on morphological aspects of L1 attrition, focusing on derivational and inflectional morphology in various languages. Morphological attrition is considered from perspectives of the Markedness Theory, Regression Hypothesis, Activation Threshold Hypothesis, Interface Hypothesis, and the 4-M Model.

Lexical Attrition by by Scott Jarvis
After a clarification about what L1 lexical attrition is, the chapter focuses on a synthesis of the literature about the topic, paying particular attention to the three hypotheses that have been formulated to account for how, why, when, and where L1 lexical attrition will occur: dormant language hypothesis, threshold hypothesis, and interference hypothesis. Additionally, the chapter introduces and describes the proper use of methods for measuring L1 lexical attrition with lexical accuracy, fluency, and complexity.

Null and Overt Pronouns in Language Attrition by Ayşe Gürel
This chapter provides an overview of studies on the use and interpretation of L1 pronominals by late bilinguals who immigrated as adults living and speaking mostly in L2.

In the fourth section “Extralinguistic Factors in Language Attrition”, after the introduction chapter written by the editors of this section Monika S. Schmid and Mirela Chercio, these topics are addressed:

Age Effects in Language Aattrition by Emanuel Bylund
The present chapter discusses the age effects in L1 attrition. Three accounts are discussed: the impediment account, the psychosocial account, and the maturational account. According to the author, the maturational account has the most significant explanatory potential.

The Impact of Frequency of Use and Length of Residence on L1 Attrition by Monika S. Schmid
This subsection offers a review of the empirical evidence on the impact of frequency of L1 use and length of residence in the country where that is the primary language spoken.

L1 Attrition, L2 Development, and Integration by Gülsen Yılmaz
This chapter inspects the research on the attrition of L1 in late bilinguals about their L2 development and integration into the L2 society. The author remarks on the necessity of studies that integrate language and culture. After a review of the literature, the author proposes the presence of an integrated super-system in which both languages affect each other at all levels and find that the degree of attrition or retention of the L1 is therefore by no means a direct indication of L2 proficiency.

Language Contact and Language Attrition by Claudia Maria Riehl
This chapter explains critical terms such as borrowing, transference, and convergence. The typical language contact phenomena in various language attrition settings such as lexical transference, processes of semantical restructuring, syntactic transference/convergence, and morphological/phonological transfer are addressed, and the impact of external factors is discussed.

The next section, number five, entitled Second Language Attrition and edited by Teodora H. Mehotcheva and Barbara Köpke, is devoted to second language and foreign-language (L2) attrition, introducing the topic, exploring the extralinguistic factors, and separating the linguistic factors in Syntax and Phonology, and Lexical Attrition. Furthermore, a possible form of measuring the learning and loss of a foreign language is mentioned in the last part of this section. After an introductory subsection, we find the following parts:

Exploring the Impact of Extralinguistic Factors on L2/FL Attrition by Teodora H. Mehotcheva and Kleopatra Mytara
Based on the Dynamic Systems Theory approach, this chapter analyses the essential extralinguistic variables involved in the study of L2 attrition. Apart from these terms, the role of context and length of exposure/residence are studied, and other important terms such as incubation are introduced.

Syntax and Phonology in L2 Attrition: Modularity and resilience by Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig and David Stringer
This chapter explores whether syntax and phonology are resistant to L2 attrition and if a critical period exists for the acquisition or attrition of these areas. Due to the difficulty to assess syntax independently for other areas, the authors suggest an alternative conceptualisation of the critical period based on the mental lexicon.

L2 Lexical Attrition by Jenifer Larson-Hall
This chapter presents Meara’s constant decay hypothesis and reviews significant research results in L2 lexical attrition. It focuses on how attrition is affected by several factors like age of learning, length of incubation, types of words, and target language.

Attrition studies on Japanese returnees by Hideyuki Taura
This chapter outlines significant studies conducted in Japan on the second language (L2) attrition in Japanese returnees .

Event-related Potentials as Metrics of Foreign Language Learning and Loss by Lee Osterhout, Ilona Pitkӓnen, Judith McLaughlin, and Margarita Zeitlin
Authors present a study adult English speakers (L1) who were enrolled in a university course on the Finnish language (L2). The electroencephalography technique has been used, and ERPs were recorded near the start, middle, and end of the instructional period, and during a post-instruction language attrition session. Their results support a processing-based version of the regression hypothesis: learners gradually transitioned from a lexical processing model to a grammatical processing mode during the learning phase, with the contrary occurring once instruction has ended.

The sixth and last section of the core, entitled Heritage Languages, has been edited by Silvina Montrul, Maria Polinsky, and Tuğba Karayayla. After the introduction (written by Silvina Montrul and Maria Polinsky) we have these subsections:

Quantifying Language Experience in Heritage Language Development by Sharon Unsworth by Fatih Bayram, Diego Pascual Y Cabo, and Jason Rothman
This chapter reviews several parental questionnaires which are the most frequently used method for quantifying language experience in bilingual language acquisition research.

Intra-Generational Attrition: Contributions to heritage speaker competence by Fatih Bayram, Diego Pascual Y Cabo, and Jason Rothman
This chapter remarks that some of the heritage speaker differences could be related to the fact that the primary linguistic input to which heritage speakers are exposed is different from that which monolingual speakers received.

2L1 Simultaneous Bilinguals as Heritage Speakers by Tanja Kupisch
The chapter deals with simultaneous bilinguals (2L1s). Findings from developing heritage bilinguals and adult HSs are presented, and divergent acquisition outcomes (from monolinguals) are discussed. Among other factors, the distance to the homeland is considered.

Language Loss and Language Learning in Internationally Adopted Children: Evidence from behaviour and the brain by Lara J. Pierce, Fred Genesee, and Denise Klein
Internationally adopted (IA) children unable to speak/understand their L1 language completely, commonly suffer attrition after adoption, where the L2 will become their first language. However, as adults IA test participants show certain advantages in this “lost L1” in comparison to monolingual speakers never exposed to it; this suggests the retention of the L1 and compelling assumptions regarding neuroplasticity and acquisition.

Childhood Language Memory in Adult Heritage Language (Re)Learners by Janet S. Oh, Terry Kit-fong Au, Sun-Ah Jun, and Richard M. Lee
This chapter inspects the potential benefits of early childhood exposure to a heritage language on later language (re)learning among immigrant-background adults. The results support an advantage for the re-learners (adoptees) vs the others.

Language Development in Bilingual Returnees by Cristina Flores
The author examines language development in bilingual returnees, that is second or third generation ex-migrants, who have lived for an extended period in a migration context and have, at some point in their life, returned to their (or their parents’) country of origin. This kind of research allows us to analyse the effects of loss of contact with the previous language and of the experiences increasing exposure to the heritage and now the primary language (back in the homeland).


The Handbook of Language Attrition edited by Monika S. Schmid and Barbara Köpke is a comprehensive and multidisciplinary study of Language attrition from different disciplines. In the back cover of the book, it is written that thanks to some extra materials the book is suitable for researchers new in the topic of attrition. I would like to extend this to students from different fields, especially linguistics, psychology, speech therapy, and medicine. In my opinion, due to the extensive and detailed study of the different approaches of the topic, this book is suitable for complete beginners that need an overview of the history and latest insights into the study of language attrition.

The sections are clear and well organised, and the provided order makes perfect sense and allows for a precise reading to get familiar with the topic in general or to find a subtopic easily to answer a question directly or go deeply into a concise issue.

The handbook of language attrition comes to fill a gap in the study of language loss without any speech or brain pathology. Even for some experts in the field of language and/or speech recovery, the concept of attrition could remain blurred until now. Moreover, for the researchers involved in the study of language attrition, there are fascinating ideas to approach the topic from a multidisciplinary perspective and with a shared theoretical frame.

As a result of the internal coherence of the handbook, it is easy to follow the arguments and to appreciate the differences between the theoretical sections and their arguments and hypothesis and the results provided in the practical section.

As it is possible to see in the dates of the cited works, the study of attrition has increased recently. To keep this handbook as a main reference in the field, I will suggest expanding for later editions the psycho-and neurolinguistic section to clarify the role of the different parts of the brain involved in what will be helpful for the better understanding of language learning, processing, and production.

In a nutshell, I will strongly recommend being familiar with the content of the book to students and researchers interested in the field, not just of language attrition, but in the fields of language acquisition and language learning, speech pathologies, and speech recovery.
Pamela Villar González works as a researcher at the Department of Neurodevelopmental Psychology at the University of Warsaw (Poland). She has a B.A. in English Studies from the University of Oviedo (Spain) and an M. Sc. in Cognitive Science from the Ruhr University Bochum (Germany). Her previous works are in diverse fields like neuroscience (memory, the study of biomarkers in healthy ageing and dementia, sleep) and psycholinguistics (brain lateralization of language, whistled languages). Apart from research, she has taught Spanish language (Ruhr Universität Bochum, and University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany) and trained medical students (Ruhr Universität Bochum) in Neuropsychology and master students in different behavioural and neuroimaging techniques (MRI, TMS-EEG, and eye-tracking among others). Her research interests include as well language pathologies, speech science, bilingualism, communication, literature, culture, machine learning, in vivo-imaging methods, and science divulgation.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198793595
Pages: 656
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