Language attrition refers to the process whereby an individual’s ability to speak and understand a language is reduced. The term used of loss of language at a community level is language shift.
Language Attrition and Language Shift
While language attrition (Hansen 2001) is for the most part a psycholinguistic process which takes place at an individual level, it is strongly influenced by a number of social variables. Language shift, however, occurs at the societal level and is usually a result of language contact. Across the world, large numbers of languages have been lost as a result of contact between two or more languages, particularly where one language is dominant and is considered to be a prestige language.
Types of Language Attrition
Van Els (1986) identified four types of attrition, determined by two dimensions—firstly, what is lost, and secondly, the environment in which it is lost.
Where it was lost
What is lost
Loss of the first language as a result of ageing and/or some pathological conditions
Loss of a foreign or second language upon return to the first-language environment or through lack of contact with the second language owing to end of schooling, moving, etc.
Loss of the first language as a result of emigrating to a country in which a different language is spoken; especially likely to apply to children who emigrate
Language loss late in life after emigrating to a country in which a different language is spoken (may also be related to pathological conditions)
The most common types of language attrition are the loss of a second language in a first-language environment and the loss of a first language in a second-language environment. In these situations, attrition occurs naturalistically in environments in which another language or languages are dominant (Olshtain 1989).
Hypotheses about Language Attrition
Jokobson (1941) proposed the Regression Theory. He proposed, in the context of aphasia, language attrition was the reverse process of language acquisition—what was learned, in terms of language, would be first lost in the process of attrition. Although Jakobson’s hypothesis was designed to explain language attrition in aphasics, aphasic language attrition is not progressive and the hypothesis has not been empirically supported.
The Activation Threshold hypothesis (1997) takes into account the frequency with which a linguistic term is used. As Gürel points out, this theory predicts that individual’s ability to access a particular linguistic feature is use-dependent, such that if an item is not used frequently, it will be more difficult to activate (that is, it will have a higher activation threshold).
Second-Language Loss in a First-Language Environment
There are numerous cognitive and social factors which may impact on the degree of attrition of an individual’s language. When it comes to language attrition, age appears to be clear advantage.
Olshtain (1981) examined the English attrition of younger (five to eight-year-olds) and older (eight to fourteen-year-olds) children who returned to Israel after living for a minimum of two years in an English-speaking environment. She found attrition to be more rapid for the younger group than for the older group.
Cohen (1989) investigated his own children’s loss of their language, Portuguese, when they returned to Israel at the age of nine and thirteen (their two other languages are Hebrew and English). His findings correlated with those of Olshtain in that he found the younger child’s language loss was more rapid than that of the older child.
Cohen was interested in the attrition of productive lexicon, pointing out that there are four aspects of vocabulary that can contribute toward the forgetting of a particular lexical item (Cohen 1986). These are the form of the word, the position of the word, the function of the word, and the meaning of the word.
Cohen tested his hypothesis in the study of his own children, testing them at the end of the first, third month, and ninth month after their return to Israel. He found that although they were unable to produce the same number words at nine months that had been present in one and three months, they were able to identify these words at eleven months.
Cohen concluded that there are differences in the ways in which receptive vocabulary and productive vocabulary are lost, with receptive vocabulary appearing less vulnerable to attrition that productive vocabulary. Cohen argued that the issue is thus more related to lexical access than to actual memory loss.
Reetz-Kurashige (1999) used storytelling and retelling form a picture book and examined English verb usage. She elicited data from three groups of nine-year-old children:
- 18 Japanese returnees who had spent an average of 2.4 years living in the US
- A baseline Japanese group who were living in Honolulu
- A group of native English-speaking children resident in the US
The language of the returnee children was evaluated two or three times over a 12 to 19-month period following their return to Japan. Her findings revealed attrition in the verbal system, where irregular verbs were regularized and phrasal verbs were replaced with single verbs. She also found that more proficient speakers had lower levels of attrition. Reetz-Kurashige argues, this supports the inverse hypothesis, which proposes that the higher the subject’s proficiency, the lower the degree of attrition (1991:41).
Yoshitomo (1999) used a variety of data collection techniques in her longitudinal study of four girls returning to live in Japan after three to four years in the US. Yoshitomo had three main findings:
- She found less attrition that she had expected.
- She found that the girls’ abilities to combine their language sub skills reduced over time.
- She found that language attrition appeared to take place to a greater extent when the children had few opportunities for interaction with native speakers.
Yoshitomo argued that the testing of the girls’ language made them aware of the fact that they were suffering from some language attrition, and that this acted as a motivational factor which encourages them to work on maintaining their language.
Gardner et al. (1987) examined the second-language attrition of a group of students learning French as a second language, and found little relationship between the rate of retention of language and motivation, but found that level of proficiency was important.
First-Language Loss in a Second-Language Environment
Isurin (200) documented the loss of Russian by a nine-year-old child who was adopted and moved to the US. This detailed longitudinal study focused on vocabulary loss by the child once she no longer had access to her native language while having extensive exposure to English.
Three different types of picture-naming tasks were used. In one task, the child had to name the picture in Russian and then in English; in another, the language used for picture naming was not specified; and in third task, picture naming was in Russian, but the stimuli were labeled in English. Reaction times were also measured.
The study found that nouns tended to be lost and acquired more rapidly than verbs, which underwent a slower transition, and that, in particular, high-frequency words, cognates, and semantically convergent pairs were the most vulnerable group.
Anderson (2001) followed two L1 Spanish-speaking siblings over a two-year period, beginning approximately two years after they had moved with their parents to the United States.
At the time of the move, the children were 1;6 and 3;6; they had lived for several years in the United States at the time of the study and were both attending elementary school. They were recorded interacting with their mother, in Spanish, for about 30 minutes every one to two months, for a period of 22 months. The focus of the analysis was on the verbal inflectional morphology—Spanish verbs inflect for person, number, mood, tense, and aspect, usually as suffixes.
Differences were found in the attrition rates of the two children, with the younger child’s languages appearing to be more susceptible. The younger child also tended to use more English in the recorded sessions, and appeared reluctant to use Spanish while other child expressed a desire to develop her Spanish skills.
It is important to note that although children may lose productive skills in their first language, the maintenance of a passive knowledge of the language even if they do not speak it, does appear to correlate positively with first-language recovery (Uribe de Kellet 2002).