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HandWiki. Language Attrition. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 24 April 2024).
HandWiki. Language Attrition. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed April 24, 2024.
HandWiki. "Language Attrition" Encyclopedia, (accessed April 24, 2024).
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HandWiki. "Language Attrition." Encyclopedia. Web. 30 November, 2022.
Language Attrition

Language attrition is the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language by either a community or an individual. Language attrition is related to multilingualism and language acquisition. Many factors are at play in learning (acquisition) and unlearning (loss) the first and second languages. This can be a simple reversal of learning. In other cases, the type and speed of attrition depends on the individual, also on his or her age and skill level. For the same second language, attrition has been affected differently depending on what is the dominant first language environment. In many cases, attrition could well be case-by-case. Those language learners motivated to keep their first and second languages may very well maintain it, although to do so will likely involve continuous study, or regular use of both.

multilingualism first language second language

1. Academic Study Origins

Only in the past few decades has the study of language attrition become a sub-field of linguistics beginning with a 1980 conference at the University of Pennsylvania titled Loss of Language Skills (Lambert and Freed, 1982). The aim of this conference was to discuss areas of second language (L2) attrition and to ideate on possible areas of future research in L2 loss. The conference revealed that attrition is a wide topic covering different types of language loss and that there are many possible reasons for the loss. A related phenomenon is the loss of language due to contact with other, more dominant languages, possibly leading to language death.

2. Definitions and Areas of Loss

Within the individual, four areas of language loss can be defined; depending on what is lost -L1 (first language) or L2 (second language) - and where it is lost - in an L1 or an L2 environment.

The description of language attrition based on these criteria is known as the "van Els taxonomy".

van Els terminology: possible attrition
X Language environment(L1) Language environment(L2)
L1 loss L1 (e.g. aphasia) L1 (e.g. minority communitites or immigrants)
L2 loss L2 (e.g. language students) L2 (e.g. older immigrants who revert to their L1)

L1 loss in an L1 environment can be observed for example in people with dementia or those with aphasia. L1 loss in an L2 setting can be observed amongst immigrants who lose their first language in their new environment. L2 loss in an L1 setting is usually observed in individuals who have lost the ability to use an L2 that was perhaps studied at school in their L1 setting. Finally, L2 loss in an L2 environment is most commonly observed amongst immigrant communities without formal training in their L2 who lose that L2 as they age and revert to their L1.

Hansen (2001) modified van Els taxonomy to relate to Japanese contexts. She defined eight areas of possible language attrition. Four of these areas are possible L1 loss:

1. L1 Japanese (dementia and aphasia). 2. L1 minorities in Japan (Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans, Chinese and Nikkei. 3. L1 Japanese emigrants living abroad. 4. L1 foreigners living in Japan.

Four of these are possible L2 loss:

5. L1 Japanese foreign language learners. 6. L1 Non-Japanese studying Japanese outside of Japan. 7. L1 Japanese who lived abroad and returned to Japan. 8. L1 Japanese learning and attrition abroad.

While Hansen's taxonomy refers to Japan and Japanese contexts, it could easily be adapted to other countries and language contexts.

3. Problem Areas in Research on Attrition

When studying the loss of languages (either the L1 or the L2), a number of problems arise. What follows below are areas in the study of attrition where problems may occur.

3.1. L1

Jaspaert, Kroon & van Hout (1986) identify a number of difficulties and problem areas related to L1 language attrition.


  • 1. Trying to measure what is lost may be enough to re-activate or cause learning.
  • 2. Language change and language loss are not identical.
  • a.Lexical borrowing does not indicate loss. English language items, often related to science technology, or pop culture, can be found in many languages throughout the world. And many of those languages have given language items to English. Recent borrowings into English for example are sushi and tsunami from Japanese.
  • b.Morpho-syntactic change does not indicate loss (see African American Vernacular English or Creoles for example).
  • 3. Progress over time is not linear and therefore, regression may not be as well.

Comparing Groups

  • 4. Control groups may have undergone a different or unnoticed change due to various politico-socio-economic factors.
  • 5. Studied groups may have had incomplete learning or acquisition.
  • 6. Static immigrant communities have different characteristics from those with constant influx of new members.

Comparing Individuals

  • 7. Each individual L1 or L2 speaker is unique with her/his own language system, structured according to her/his own experiences in the L1 and L2 environments.
  • 8. Therefore, defining a norm or a standard is difficult.

Using Grammars or Dictionaries

  • 9. These are idealized forms of language which the majority of L1 or L2 speakers never attain.

Using Self-Reporting/Can-Do Scales

  • 10. Subjects may under-rate their present linguistic abilities compared with past abilities.
  • 11. Asking subjects to think about what they can and cannot do may re-activate what was previously learned. (See 1 above.)

3.2. L2

Lambert and Moore (1986) attempted to define numerous hypotheses regarding the nature of language loss, crossed with various aspects of language. They envisioned a test to be given to American State Department employees that would include four linguistic categories (syntax, morphology, lexicon, and phonology) and three skill areas (reading, listening, and speaking). A translation component would feature on a sub-section of each skill area tested. The test was to include linguistic features which are most difficult, according to teachers, for students to master. Such a test may confound testing what was not acquired with what was lost. Lambert, in personal communication with Kopke and Schmid (2004), described the results as 'not substantial enough to help much in the development of the new field of language skill attrition'.

The use of translation tests to study language loss is inappropriate for a number of reasons: it is questionable what such tests measure; too much variation; the difference between attriters and bilinguals is complex; activating two languages at once may cause interference.

Yoshitomi (1992) attempted to define a model of language attrition that was related to neurological and psychological aspects of language learning and unlearning. She discussed four possible hypotheses and five key aspects related to acquisition and attrition. The hypotheses are:

  • 1. Reverse order: last learned, first forgotten. Studies by Russell (1999) and Hayashi (1999) both looked at the Japanese negation system and both found that attrition was the reverse order of acquisition. Yoshitomi and others, including Yukawa (1998) argue that attrition can occur so rapidly, it is impossible to determine the order of loss.
  • 2. Inverse relation: better learned, better retained. Language items that are acquired first also happen to be those that are most reinforced. As a result, hypotheses 1 and 2 capture the main linguistic characteristics of language attrition (Yoshitomi, p. 297).
  • 3. Critical period: at or around age 9. As a child grows, she becomes less able to master native-like abilities. Furthermore, various linguistic features (for example phonology or syntax) may have different stages or age limits for mastering. Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson (2003) argue that after childhood, in general, it becomes more and more difficult to acquire "native-like-ness", but that there is no cut-off point in particular. Furthermore, they discuss a number of cases where a native-like L2 was acquired during adulthood.
  • 4. Affect: motivation and attitude.

According to Yoshitomi, the five key aspects related to attrition are: neuroplasticity, consolidation, permastore/savings, decreased accessibility, and receptive vs. productive abilities.

4. Hypotheses

Attempting to understand how language is maintained or lost, a number of hypothesis have been proposed.

  • A. Order of Acquisition (last thing learned, first thing lost):

Citing the studies on the regression hypothesis that have been done, Yukawa (1998) says that the results have been contradictory. It is possible that attrition is a case-by-case situation depending on a number of variables (age, proficiency, literacy, the similarities between the L1 and L2, and whether the L1 or the L2 is attriting). The threshold hypothesis states that there may be a level of proficiency that once attained, enables the attriting language to remain stable.

  • B. Frequency of Use (things learned best are retained most):

de Bot, Gommans, and Rossing (1991) discussed L1-Dutch loss in an L2-French environment and how it is related to two factors time (length of stay in France) and contact (number of L1 regular contacts). For their study, they found a number of Dutch immigrants living in France and categorized them according to two factors. They discovered that the length of time away from the Netherlands would not cause attrition for this generation of immigrants if they had many regular L1 contacts. [T]ime only becomes relevant when there is not much contact with the language.

Olshtain and Barzilay (1991) studied lexical retrieval difficulties in L1-English loss in an L2-Hebrew environment. A unique feature of this study is that it looked at the loss of a prestige L1. The reseachers found that while whole concepts, general ideas, and meanings remained, specific words could not be produced. This study is not without its limitations, however. Both the experimental group (15) and the control group (6) were small in number. The items analyzed were limited to cliff, pond, deer, gopher, and jar. Only the first two are in the 2000-Word List and these two remained most intact.

Obler (1993) believes that less-frequently used items are more difficult to retrieve. The speed of retrieving a correct form or the actual production of an incorrect form is not indicative of loss but may be retrieval failure instead. In other words, what appears to be lost is in fact difficult to retrieve.

The savings paradigm - what is leaned remains - is related to frequency of use. A brief exposure is sufficient to boost accessibility.

  • C. Age and pre-Proficiency Levels:

In Hansen & Reetz-Kurashige (1999), Hansen cites her own research on L2-Hindi and Urdu attrition in young children. As young pre-school children in India and Pakistan, the subjects of her study were often judged to be native speakers of Hindi or Urdu; their mother was far less proficient. On return visits to their home country, the United States, both children appeared to lose all their L2 while the mother noticed no decline in her own L2 abilities. Twenty years later, those same young children as adults comprehend not a word from recordings of their own animated conversations in Hindi-Urdu; the mother still understands much of them

Yamamoto (2001) found a link between age and bilinguality. In fact, a number of factors are at play in bilingual families. In her study, bicultural families that maintained only one language, the minority language, in the household, were able to raise bilingual, bicultural children without fail. Families that adopted the one parent - one language policy were able to raise bilingual children at first but when the children joined the dominant language school system, there was a 50% chance that children would lose their minority language abilities. In families that had more than one child, the older child was most likely to retain two languages, if it was at all possible.Younger siblings in families with more than two other brothers and sisters had little chance of maintaining or ever becoming bilingual.

  • D. Motivation:
  • E. Linguistic Features:

Berko Gleason (1982) wrote that since children learn different linguistic features at different times, they will attrite in different areas at different times. Linguistic features are then linked to age and the activation threshold hypothesis. Older children would have developed more linguistic features through greater usage, and thus, more likely to retain more of the attriting language than younger children. Yukawa (1998) discussed intra-linguistic features (within the attriting language) and inter-linguistic ones (between the attriting language and the one replacing it). Attriters will apply incorrect regular rules to the attriting language and or will select linguistic features from the replacing language to minimize mechanisms needed for both languages. Akinci, wrote that the further the two languages are apart linguistically, the more the attriting language will be maintained (plus la différence typologiques entre les langues en contact est grande, plus la langue minoritaire se maintient) (p.5).

  • F. Other Factors:

Murtagh (2003) noted that schooling may be a factor. In her study of L2-Irish, students who attended an Irish immersion school performed better and attrited less than students in non-immersion schools. Students in immersion may develop a speech-feeling for the language that encourages them to search out places and situations to use their L2-Irish. 

5. Other Studies on Bilingualism and Attrition

Gardner, Lalonde, & Moorcroft (1987) investigated the nature of L2-French skills attriting by L1-English grade 12 students during the summer vacation, and the role played by attitudes and motivation in promoting language achievement and language maintenance. Students who finished the L2 class highly proficient are more likely to retain what they knew. Yet, interestingly, high achievers in the classroom situation are no more likely to make efforts to use the L2 outside the classroom unless they have positive attitudes and high levels of motivation. The authors write: "an underlying determinant of both acquisition and use is motivation”(p. 44).

In fact, the nature of language acquisition is still so complex and so much is still unknown, not all students will have the same experiences during the incubation period. It is possible that some students will appear to attrite in some areas and others will appear to attrite in other areas. Some students will appear to maintain the level that they had previously achieved. And still, other students will appear to improve.

Murtagh (2003) investigated retention and attrition of L2-Irish in Ireland with second level school students . At Time 1, she found that most participants were motivated instrumentally, yet the immersion students were most likely to be motivated integratively and they had the most positive attitudes towards learning Irish. Immersion school students were also more likely to have opportunities to use Irish outside the classroom/school environment. Self-reports correlated with ability. She concludes that the educational setting (immersion schools, for example) and the use of the language outside the classroom were the best predictors for L2-Irish acquisition. Eighteen months later, Murtagh finds that the majority of groups 1 and 2 believe their Irish ability has attrited, the immersion group less so. The results from the tests, however, do not show any overall attrition . 'Time' as a factor did not exert any overall significant change on the sample's proficiency in Irish (Murtagh, p. 159).

Fujita (2002), in a study evaluating attrition among bilingual Japanese children, says that a number of factors are seen as necessary to maintain the two languages in the returnee child. Those factors include: age on arrival in the L2 environment, length of residence in the L2 environment, and proficiency levels of the L1. Furthermore, she found that L2 attrition was closely related to another factor: age of the child on returning to the L1 environment. Children returning around or before 9 were more likely to attrite than those returning later. Upon returning from overseas, pressure from society, their family, their peers and themselves force returnee children to switch channels back to the L1 and they quickly make effort to attain the level of native-like L1 proficiency of their peers. At the same time, lack of L2 support in the schools in particular and in society in general results in an overall L2 loss .

6. In Sum

A number of factors are at play in L1 and L2 acquisition and attrition. In some cases, attrition is the reverse of acquisition. Different language hearer-speakers at different proficiency levels have different rates and experiences of attrition. Different ages learn and unlearn differently. For the same L2, different results in different L1 environments were seen. In many cases, attrition could well be case-by-case. Learners motivated to keep their attriting L1 or L2 may very well maintain it.

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