19.1857, Review: Psycholinguistics: Kopke et al (2007)

Wed Jun 11 20:33:41 UTC 2008

LINGUIST List: Vol-19-1857. Wed Jun 11 2008. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 19.1857, Review: Psycholinguistics: Kopke et al (2007)

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Date: 10-Jun-2008
From: Julia Deák < jdeak at dolphin.upenn.edu >
Subject: Language Attrition


-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2008 16:05:17
From: Julia Deák [jdeak at dolphin.upenn.edu]
Subject: Language Attrition
E-mail this message to a friend:

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-2777.html 

EDITORS: Köpke, Barbara; Schmid, Monika S.; Keijzer, Merel; Doster, Susan 
TITLE:Language Attrition 
SUBTITLE: Theoretical Perspectives 
SERIES: Studies in Bilingualism 33 PUBLISHER: John Benjamins 
YEAR: 2007  

Julia Deák, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania  

This book follows up on the 2004 volume on first language (L1) attrition edited
by three of the same authors (Schmid, Köpke, Keijzer & Weilemar 2004). The focus
of this volume is on theory, and the 14 chapters cover a wide range of
perspectives and methodologies. As the introductory chapters make clear, there
are cognitive and neuropsychological perspectives to explore as well as social,
emotional, and life circumstance perspectives that look to patterns of language
use and language attitudes to explain attrition.   

The first three chapters, by Köpke, Sharwood Smith, and de Bot, are the most
overarchingly theoretical. Köpke's chapter argues for a multicomponential view
of attrition in which no one factor can be expected to explain the incidence of
attrition. She first considers four brain mechanisms. The first is plasticity
associated with age effects, which explains the higher incidence of attrition
among young immigrants versus older ones. Second, she mentions activation
thresholds (also discussed in Paradis' chapter) which may render some existing
information in the brain irretrievable after long periods of disuse. Next she
discusses the inhibitory effects of neurons which might explain temporary L1
retrieval difficulties in people actively trying to learn L2 (second language)
as well as difficulty inhibiting a very active L2 when trying to access a
long-dormant L1. She also discusses emotions as a brain mechanism, suggesting
that in cases of early trauma associated with an L1, or a high emotional
investment in L2, the activity of subcortical structures that are associated
with emotion could cause attrition effects. Köpke's main point is that these
many factors interact, and they should be studied together whenever possible.
Studying attrition as an individual neurological or cognitive phenomenon ignores
important variation determined by social or circumstantial factors. Although
Köpke identifies some clusters of factors, such as those related to age, or the
linguistic and cultural environment, she concludes that no cluster or individual
factor is dominant, and in fact the weight of influence of each may depend on
the context, for example in cases of low or high language proficiency. Aligning
herself with Cook's (1992) multicompetence model, she concludes that attrition
should not be studied as if it were an unusual condition with specific symptoms
and one clear cause, but rather as another dimension of variation in
multilingual individuals, stemming from multiple causes, and often ''remaining
within the range of perceived native-like proficiency'' (p. 31).     

Sharwood Smith's chapter provides an overview of the Modular Growth and Use of
Language (MOGUL) theory, making the point that development includes both
acquisition and attrition. MOGUL is a way to conceptualize both acquisition and
attrition by processing. It isbased on a theory of language in the brain which
posits that linguistic forms inthe mind come into existence through the repeated
processing of linguistic input by phonological, syntactic, and
conceptual-semantic processors (Jackendoff 2002). Input is not directly
translated into forms as in a pure connectionist model, since the architecture
of the processors, perhaps influenced by Universal Grammar (UG), constrain how
structures are built or activated. The theory thus includes concepts from both
connectionist and UG approaches. Competition is also invoked, as several
existing structures compete for selection during both comprehension and
production. MOGUL adds to this theory by positing that growth
or decline in language comprehension and production can be understood as changes
in the long-term memory store of forms, or as changes in the accessibility and
use of these forms.   

De Bot's chapter argues that research on the ''how'' and ''why'' of language
attrition could benefit from concepts from lifespan developmental psychology and
dynamic systems theory. In developmental psychology, there is more and more work
on the later stages of life, beyond those most often studied by language
researchers. Also, psychologists consider the importance of major life events in
development, and de Bot encourages attrition researchers to look at the effects
of ''language-related major life events,'' such as entry into bilingual
schooling, contact with speakers of other languages, study abroad, migration,
etc. Regarding Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), De Bot emphasizes that language
should be seen as an ever-changing system in which growth and decline are two
outcomes of the same process, which depends on input and internal reorganization.   

The next three chapters draw the most from theoretical linguistics.
Myers-Scotton studies language shift in Xhosa-English bilinguals, and tries to
show that the shift to English grammar is abrupt and not gradual. She does this
by exploring whether there is a stage in which the speaker uses ''critical
grammatical morphemes'' from English in Xhosa phrases or clauses. The hypothesis
is that the speakers move from inserting English lexical items directly into
Xhosa to producing full English clauses. Myers-Scotton uses cluster analysis to
divide her sample into three groups which represent different stages of shift;
however, the groups overlap in terms of how many English clauses they produced.
She also finds support for her Abruptness Hypothesis because critical
grammatical morphemes from Xhosa are retained, except in ''embedded English
phrases or EL islands'' (p. 81).  

Tsimpli explores which areas of L1 grammar are vulnerable to attrition under a
theoretical model based on the Minimalist Program (Chomsky 1995). Hers is an
empirical study based on offline data from one group (N=19), which learned an L2
to near-native levels after childhood, and online data from another group (N=4),
consisting of immigrants' children who learned two languages during childhood.
Her first experiment shows evidence that a completely learned L1 can be
influenced by a strong L2 learned after childhood; the Greek-English bilinguals
showed a ''change in the direction of preference for postverbal subjects'' but
still produced postverbal subjects, showing that their L1 settings were not
completely changed by their L2 (p. 90). The second experiment showed that the
bilingual young adults had trouble judging the grammaticality of Greek
determiners. Both experiments were used to argue that attrition affects
interface properties but not pure syntactic L1 options.  

Gürel attempts to show transfer from L2 Turkish to L1 English in terms of the
binding of the overt pronoun in a set-theoretic transfer model. Her 2002 paper
concerned the reverse case of transfer from L2 English to L1 Turkish. In that
case, the L1 binding options for the Turkish pronoun o were loosened in
accordance with the L2 English settings for him/her. For the present
experiments, Gürel expected the English L1 settings for possible antecedents for
himself/herself to be loosened towards the less restrictive Turkish L2 settings
for kendisi. The experiments reported in this chapter yielded no significant
findings, which prompted Gürel to invoke an explanation based on frequency of
use of the English L1 of the current group as contrasted with the Turkish L1 of
the prior group.  

Paradis' chapter on neurolinguistic theories related to language attrition
stands alone as a theoretical piece that is actually cited by many of the other
chapters. Paradis uses his neurolinguistic theory of bilingualism (2004) to
predict how frequency of use, declarative vs. procedural storage of knowledge,
and motivation impact the selective attrition of some parts of language before

The next chapter, by Schmid, investigates the relationship between language use and
attrition in German-born immigrants in Canada and the Netherlands (N=106) who
had immigrated at least 10 years earlier (most immigrated about 35 years
earlier). She finds evidence of some attrition, but there is great individual
variation and no straightforward relationship between use and attrition.  

Pallier discusses the critical period hypothesis and examines data from a group
of Korean adoptees in France, who were adopted at ages 3-10 and learned French
to nativelike proficiency. The adoptees performed similarly to French
monolinguals on recognition tests of Korean sentences, words, speech segments,
and phonemes, showing that one's first language is not permanently imprinted in
infancy, and a new first language can be learned up to age 10 in some subjects
if contact with the original language is completely severed.   

Footnick's chapter investigates the first language knowledge of a French subject
whose contact with his family's African language was not completely severed,
though he claims to have undergone almost complete attrition. Footnick was able
to help her subject CK recover his ability to understand and speak Mina, a local
Togolese variant of Ewe, through hypnosis. Footnick argues that hypnosis reduces
activity in the anterior cingulated cortex, an area associated with pain and
conflict, which is why it can reverse the ''active forgetting'' that may be the
cause of attrition for a language associated with painful childhood memories,
though it is unclear whether her subject's experience was actually painful.  

The final three chapters seem to address the question of how attrition actually
affects people. Prescher investigates the transcultural identity of immigrants
and their perceptions of attrition. She interviewed 20 German-born individuals
who immigrated to the Netherlands at least 10 years prior. All informants
reported experiencing some L1 attrition, and Prescher finds support for
Yoshizawa Meaders' (1997) model of transcultural identity development, which
includes an initial period of assimilation followed by a struggle to define the
transcultural identity and a return to identification with the original culture. 

Ben-Rafael and Schmid also look at the connection between attitudes, motivation
and emotion on the one hand and language attrition on the other. The authors
compare two groups of immigrants who vary in their motivations for immigrating
and learning Hebrew: Francophone immigrants who came to Israel for ideological
reasons and Russian speakers who left home more for pragmatic reasons.
Unfortunately, the groups also differ in length of residence in Israel: 45 years
on average for the Francophones and 14 years on average for the Russians. The
Francophones were found to code-switch more and to use borrowed grammatical
items as well as individual words in their L1 speech, indicating a possible link
between motivation and attrition of L1.  

In the final chapter of the book, Jiménez writes about the method of using
stimulated recall to probe heritage language speakers' use of compensatory
communicative strategies. He gave heritage speakers of Spanish a narrative task,
videotaped their monologues, quickly transcribed their speech, and then played
the video back for them, asking them to explain what they were thinking when
they paused, used circumlocutions, or made various errors. His results give
insight into the types of production problems that attriters or incomplete
acquirers of a language face, as well as showing compensatory strategies for
these problems in action. 

This book successfully presents many of the theories and methodologies currently
used to study language attrition, but it also claims to encourage an integration
of the many methods and viewpoints. While it makes clear what the various
dimensions of the phenomenon are likely to be, it does not really set a standard
for future research or argue convincingly for a comprehensive theoretical
framework that future researchers can use. While the book contains an
interesting collection of research papers, the empirical studies appear to
ignore the theoretical directions argued for in the early chapters. Köpke's plea
for an integrated, comprehensive approach is not answered by any of the
empirical papers. For example, Sharwood Smith's MOGUL theory is introduced in
his chapter, but then does not appear in any of the subsequent chapters. Most
chapters, perhaps because of their limited length, explore only one aspect of
language acquisition, either linguistic, psychological, neurological,
sociolinguistic or emotional. The fact that a few of the chapters presented
inconclusive results underscores the importance of a more comprehensive model
that includes all possible influencing factors at once.  

Nevertheless, the collection of diverse works in this volume gives a wide
snapshot of ideas about language attrition today. For one, the book includes
data on what appear to be different types of attrition, from slight variation or
code-switching patterns still within the category of native or near-native
competence, to transfer from one known language to another, to active forgetting
of a language associated with trauma. Moving away from a view that attrition is
only a pathological occurrence, language attrition is reconceptualized as a
natural and universal part of multilingualism. The processing-based accounts of
language development in the book can easily accommodate predictions of attrition
as well, connecting attrition with a wide body of research on acquisition and
multilingualism. It is also notable that the connection with language attitudes,
long-standing in the language shift literature, is here brought to bear on
studies of individual speakers as well. In short, the volume is a broad
introduction to theory and research in various language-related fields, and it
sets the stage for a broader discussion of language attrition in years to come.  

Cook, V.J. (1992). Evidence for multi-competence. _Language Learning_, 42, 4,

 Jackendoff, R. (2002). _Foundations of language: Brain, meaning, grammar,
evolution_. New York: Oxford UP.  

Paradis, M. (2004). _A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism_. Amsterdam: John

Schmid, M.S., Köpke, B., Keijzer, M. & Weilemar, L. (Eds.) (2004). _First Language
Attrition: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Methodological Issues_. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins.  

Yoshizawa Meaders, N. (1997). The transcultural self. In P.H. Elovitz & C. Kahn
(Eds.), _Immigrant experiences: Personal narrative and psychological analysis_
(pp. 47-59). Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.  

Julia Deák is a PhD Candidate in Educational Linguistics at the University of
Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. She studies second language
development using corpus methods and is interested in language attrition and
re-learning among college-aged heritage language learners.

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