What factors influence first language (L1) attrition in bilingual people?

Term Paper, 2014

13 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. What is language attrition?

3. Sociolinguistic factors in L1 attrition
3.1 Sociolinguistic factors in adults
3.2 Sociolinguistic factors in children

4. Psycholinguistic factors in L1 attrition

5. A case study in L1 attrition

6. Conclusion

7. List of references


Every child will acquire at least one language. A lot of people learn more languages during their lifetime e.g. during emigration in a country with another language. During situations like these the first language (from now on referred to as L1) might get lost while the second language (from now on referred to as L2) establish as the new dominant language. But not every emigrant discovers language attrition. The different factors of language attrition in bilingual people will be presented in this term paper.

At the beginning I give you a short definition about the forms of language attrition. To discuss the reasons for attrition and its outcome I will separate the factors in sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic ones. To start with sociolinguistic factors I explain certain effects of attitude with the study from Ben-Rafael and Schmid. A study from Matthias Hutz demonstrates the effect of time in attrition. Code-switching also appear in bilingualism. A further study from Ben-Refael and Schmid explains this with Russian immigrants in Israel. Language-specific pragmatics also suffer from attrition. The effect will be explained by the study from Paradis. Additionally this chapter deals about the more dramatic effects in attrition by children. A case study of a Japanese-English child and a Russian-English child will provide these effects.

The fourth chapter deals about the psycholinguistic factors in L1 attrition. One factor is plasticity, which is defined. The next step is described as four stages of attrition from a study of Norbert Francis. Matthias Hutz' analyses explains utterances of an person from Germany that emigrated in the USA.

A case study will be in chapter five. While this study explains the situation about the emigrated woman very well. After listing the outcome of her attrition I want to consider if the factors of attrition which I listed in the chapters before are also true for a case of a single person.

2. What is language attrition?

Chin and Wigglesworth define Language attrition as a reduction of a person's ability to speak or understand a language. The most common types of language attrition appear trough shortage of contact to the language.1 (Chin & Wigglesworth 2007: 72-75) Monika S. Schmid describes “[...] attrition investigates the situation where a speaker (of an L1 or an L2) can no longer do something which s/he had previously been able to do”. (Schmid 2009: 171) One example of L2 attrition which was learned in school is losing contact to that language. As this term paper focuses on L1 the main reason for attrition is emigrating to a country of a different language that causes reduced L1 use. In this case the lack of contact to L1 is the reason of the language attrition. Further factors are discussed in later chapters.

Language shift is another form of language attrition that affects a whole speaking community. This happens in multilingual environments with two or more languages when one language is more dominant over others. The children will acquire the dominant language as their L1 because it has a prestige status and will not learn the traditional language. Therefore the traditional language gets lost after a few generations. (Chin and Wigglesworth 2007: 72)

3. Sociolinguistic factors in L1 attrition

3.1 Sociolinguistic factors in adults

The way people speak is an indicator for their personality thus language is a part of identity. An attitude on a certain language influences the success of learning that language.

The Attitude/Motivation Test Battery (AMTB) measures the factors e.g. motivation and it resulted a positive attitude signifies a better success in L2 learning. While motivation is an indicator for L2 learning, to become a part of a community, it can also help to depart from the L1 speaking community, e.g. immigrants of German Jews during the Nazi regime. (Ben-Rafael & Schmid 2007: 206-209) As people speak like people they want to be like and dress like people they want to like, they also avoid certain indicators of communities. German Jews had good reasons to learn the language as quick as possible. In their new countries they were recognizable with their non-native English. In fear to be known as Germans they invested every effort to lose their native language as quick as possible. (Schmid 2009)

Time is another factor in attrition. Matthias Hutz pointed out the time since emigration influences L1 competence. In other words adult immigrants who emigrated a long time ago need more time to response in their L1 than immigrants who had emigrated after a short time. But there is also a factor that must be considered, if the immigrants did have contact with their L1. With regular contact with the L1 the competence will not be affected. In this case time is less relevant. Hutz gives an example of an 83-year-old Dutch who hat lived in the USA for over sixty years. He wrote 29 letters to the Netherlands over a period of seven years. The result is only five per cent of the verbs have affected by loss. (Hutz 2004: 191-192)

Every language has expressions that are unique in that community. These expressions are also used by immigrants. When talking in their L1 they do not translate that expressions in their native language. At a study about Russian immigrants in Israel a Russian immigrant reports about this phenomenon.

estestvenno v moem slovare mnogo ivritskih slov: ni odin russkij ne skazhet “Institut natsional'nogo strachovania” ili “ipotechnaia ssuda”; oni govoriat “bituach leumi” “mashkanta” (Lena)

'It's natural in my vocabulary there are many Hebrew words: no Russian would say “Institute of national insurance” or “mortgage loan”; they say: “bitukh leumi, mashkanta”. (Ben-Rafael & Schmid 2007: 218)

The immigrants are familiar with the Hebrew expressions and keep then even when they talk with members who also speak their L1. The Russian immigrants came to Israel for pragmatic reasons, to get a higher living standard. They have homesickness and miss their home country. But they wanted to be part of the community and do not regret coming to Israel. The Russian families in Israel want to pass their native language to their children as a part of their culture. Nevertheless Hebrew is a part of their language use and is integrated in their daily life. (Ben-Rafael & Schmid 2007)

There is also a attrition in language-specific pragmatics in changing certain expressions or behaviour. One example is a French person who gets frequent compliments in American communication would actually respond to a compliment with a little explanation about it but after several time the person will get into the habit to say thank you. Another example was found by Japanese students who have spent a year abroad and lost the use of politeness markers when addressing to older people or professors. (Paradis 2007: 128-129)

3.2 Sociolinguistic factors in children

The age at migration is an important factor in attrition by children. If children immigrate in a country with a different language before the acquisition of their L1 is complete the deterioration will be more dramatic. Without further contact to the L1 of the child it will experience a different learning situation. Instead of additive bilingualism it will be in subtractive bilingualism. To put it in another way the child does not acquire a L2 and is able to speak two languages. At subtractive bilingualism the L1 system is replaced by the L2 system. The L2 will become the new mother tongue. There is no exact point in time when L1 will be replaced, but the dramatical change is witnessed when the L2 acquisition (from now on referred as to as SLA) takes place before the onset of puberty. (Schmid 2009: 172-175) The younger the child the more likely it finds itself in subtractive bilingualism.

Even in cases where the immigrated family want to keep L1 as their home language and pass it on to their children it becomes difficult to encourage the children to use the native language. Children acquire their L2 at least in Kindergarten and discover more L2 context and L2 role models. As language is a indicator of personality and identification children tend to keep to their L2 role models. When children have siblings in school age they can communicate with each other in their L2 and form a united L2 front when talking at home.(Schmid 2009)

A good example in how dramatic is attrition in children is a case study of a five-year-old Japanese-English bilingual. After three month in an English speaking community the boy showed difficulties in his L1, Japanese. And only after four month English became his dominant language while his Japanese production decreased to zero. (Francis 2012) The like of the Japanese-English Child has been documented by a case study about a Russian nine-year-old child that was adopted by a family from the USA. She had extensive exposure to English but lost access to her L1. To test these datas the child had to name pictures at first in Russian, in the second test the language was not specified and in the third test in English. The result is there is a connection between L1 attrition and SLA. (Chin & Wigglesworth 2007) Further influences will be explained in the next chapter.

4. Psycholinguistic factors in L1 attrition

The next step is to look what happens at attrition. As mentioned before there is a connection between SLA and L1 attrition. Plasticity is the idea that synaptic connections are not fully matured at the beginning of everyone's life. They make mature later while acquiring a language. A similar situation happens to immigrants. A radical change in their environment includes learning a new language. The younger the person the quicker a language can be learned. While the brain plasticity has an easier adaptation a second language can be acquired but also a L1 can easier be forgotten. Older immigrants need more time to learn a new language but they will learn them in addition an have still access to their native language system. (Köpke 2007: 10-11)

Francis study mentioned a case study about immigrants in the USA. The bilinguals are native speaker of Hebrew. They speak Hebrew at home and their children have their first contact to English in Kindergarten. The attrition is described in four stages:

1. onset, three months after initial contact with English (age 2;9-3;1);
2. a short, one-month bilingual period;
3. disintegration of the Hebrew verbal system (age 3;2-3;5); and
4. reconstruction of the derivational and inflectional system, reducing it to a single form, used productively by the child (age 3;5-4;6).

(Francis 2012: 147)

A mixing of both languages happened in stage two. These stages show the slow process of replacing Hebrew as the L1 with English as the L2.

Another case study from Matthias Hutz about a German immigrant in die USA. Lexical features appear to be loose integrated in the language system and attrition will at first affect the lexicon. Later it will also affect on morphological categories and the syntactic categories. Speakers with L1 attrition will search for loanwords to fill the gaps in their lexical category. In cases where there is no equivalent in the L1 e.g. phenomena that are linked to other cultures, the speaker uses necessary loanwords, e.g. Peter geht nächstes Jahr in die High School. Another case is when the speaker uses a word that did not exist at the time of emigration, e.g. Ich bin nun ein Senior Citizen. At least the speaker can hope for the listener shares the languages skills and understands the words, the phenomena is called strategic borrowing. The last lexical borrowing is transference of single lexical items/code-switching. The speaker uses L2 words because s/he is not familiar with the L1 word, e.g. Ich bin dem Fahrrad 10 Meilen outside of Denver gefahren. (Hutz 2004)

The semantic transfer has different forms. One is semantic over-generalisation:

Er *geht mit dem Flugzeug zurück. (1984)

'He goes back by plane.'” (Hutz 2004: 198)

While in English to go is right in this context, the German gehen is wrong and should be replaced with fliegen. A homophonous borrowing is better known as a false friend:

Ich bin *gültig. (1985)

'I am guilty.'” (Hutz 2004: 198)

Gültig and guilty are phonological very similar but have different meanings. The German word for guilty is valid. Furthermore morpheme-by-morpheme translations may have also errors because they work in one language structure but not in others:

*Ich renne kurz an Briefpapier. (1978) (instead of: mein Briefpaper wird knapp)

'I am running short of letter-paper.'” (Hutz 2004: 199)

The semantic is affected in the first decades after attrition has set in.

The morphological domain is also affected by language attrition. It may be a “[...] result in a move from synthetic structures to more regularised or analytical ones”. (Hutz 2004: 199) As German has a more complex morphosyntactic system than English, some areas, e.g. case marking, plural marking, gender assignment are more affected by errors. An example in case marking:

*Deinen Vater habe ich schon geschrieben. (1984)

'I wrote to your father already.'” (Hutz 2004: 200)

In this sentence the person used accusative that is not right in German, a grammatical correct sentence in German would need a dative in this example. German has more irregular plural allomorphs. They depend on grammatical gender, word ending2.

mit Ausnahme *Bananas (1987)

'except bananas'” (Hutz 2004: 200)

In this case the German plural morpheme -en is required. At last German has three grammatical genders instead of one in English language.

*das Sehkraft (1986)

'the vision'” (Hutz 2004: 200)

In this case the neuter gender is used but the feminine gender is required.

At last syntax is affected by attrition as well. The word order is a result of cross-linguistic influences. It is assumed by the word order of the L2 but languages have different word orders. In this example the finite part of the verb must be in the final position:

..., dass E. *wollte mit L. in Briefwechsel treten. (1954)

'that E. wanted to correspond with L.'” (Hutz 2004: 201)

The first sign of language attrition is the length of time that a speaker needs to retrieve certain words or expressions. That also means re-acquiring a language is easier than acquiring it for the first time. To recall a language system it must be recognized which is far easier than activate a whole language system. The comprehension of a language is longer possible than producing it.(Paradis 2007) Just in cases when children acquire a L2 and have no touch to their L1 the language system might be complete forgotten.

5. A case study in L1 attrition

Doris Stolberg (2010: 19-31) investigated a case of a German woman (BJ) who immigrated to the USA at the age of 28 in 1953. At the time of the first recording she had been living there for almost 50 years. She is married to a American man and speaks only English. BJ learned English in Germany before her immigration and worked for American families in Germany. She does not want to return to Germany or to live there. Her German contact is very rare, she only has loose contact to one relative in Germany. (Stolberg 2010: 19-20)


1 The other types may appear as an ageing result or the language attrition is related to pathological conditions.

2 Determiners and adjetives also need plural marking.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


What factors influence first language (L1) attrition in bilingual people?
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar I)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Bilingualism, Bilingualität, Englisch, Spracherwerb, Language attrition, Liguisics, Sprachwissenschaft, English attrition, L1 attrition, L2 attrition
Quote paper
Melitta Reinerth (Author), 2014, What factors influence first language (L1) attrition in bilingual people?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1009916


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