24.460, Review: Cognitive Science; Sociolinguistics: Schmid (2011)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-24-460. Thu Jan 24 2013. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 24.460, Review: Cognitive Science; Sociolinguistics: Schmid (2011)

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Date: Thu, 24 Jan 2013 18:47:29
From: Bahar Otcu-Grillman [gotcu at mercy.edu]
Subject: Language Attrition

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-3581.html

AUTHOR: Monika S Schmid
TITLE: Language Attrition
SERIES TITLE: Key Topics in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2011

REVIEWER: Bahar Otcu-Grillman, Mercy College


“Language Attrition”, as its name suggests, is a book that provides “an
overview of what attrition is, how it manifests itself, and how we can
investigate it” (6). The book is composed of five main sections. The first two
sections are about the theoretical and background issues regarding language
attrition: Part I introduces and discusses the linguistic aspects, and Part II
the extralinguistic aspects. Parts III to V describe the test battery and are
concerned with the methodological aspects of language attrition research: Part
III specifically provides guidelines about conducting research on language
attrition and discusses preliminary considerations; Part IV outlines
experimental designs for attrition research and introduces the language
attrition test battery; and Part V is about coding and analyzing data. The
book also includes a list of figures and tables, a preface, a glossary, notes,
references, and an index.

In Chapter 1, the Introduction, the author tells the stories of the two main
data sources to whom she frequently refers throughout the book: Gertrud U. and
Albert L. Here, she clarifies the differences between terms that are used in
sociolinguistic research, such as forgetting versus losing, language loss
versus language attrition, attriter versus non-attriter, and incomplete first
language (L1) acquisition versus L1 attrition. This is where she also
introduces frequently used terms throughout the book, such as cross-linguistic
influence (CLI) and native-like or near-native. She indicates that the book is
concerned with speakers who have immigrated after puberty. Part I, Chapter 2
displays the discrepancy between the proficiency levels of German attriters,
and answers questions about what attrition is and where it begins. Here,
background about bilingualism is provided with the definitions of compound,
coordinate and compound II bilingualism, and is accompanied by figures as well
as a discussion of the Activation Threshold Hypothesis. Next, Chapter 3
discusses the mental lexicon as an area that is mostly affected by attrition
and CLI by providing beliefs and attitudes towards these concepts and
revealing evidence from former studies. Concepts like borrowing,
code-switching, disfluency, restructuring, semantic bleaching, convergence,
and shift are introduced and discussed, as inspired by Pavlenko’s (2004)
framework. Furthermore, in Chapter 4, the author demonstrates how a reduction
of lexical diversity takes place in the speech of attriters. Examples show how
L1 lexical items may become inaccessible with attrition. Here, it is important
to note that “to detect attrition, we have to investigate what is not there”
(41), which is hard to achieve in experimental settings. Concepts of lexical
diversity (e.g. type-token ratio), lexical sophistication (e.g. lexical
frequency profiles), and lexical accessibility (e.g. disfluency patterns) are
discussed in this chapter. Schmid recommends investigating language attrition
in the daily language of people. Finally, Chapter 5 investigates if linguistic
subsystems (i.e. phonetics and phonology, morphology, and syntax) can be
vulnerable to attrition effects, considering that they are reinforced most in
interaction. Like in the previous chapter, this chapter employs Pavlenko’s
(2004) framework in explaining the differences between attriters and native
speakers in terms of phonetics and phonology as well as grammar. Here,
components of foreign accents, and terms such as global accent, voice onset
time (VOT), and open-class systems versus closed-class systems of words are

While Part I introduces some characteristics of attrited languages, Part II
investigates how speakers differ in their amount of attritional features by
looking at extralinguistic aspects. Chapter 6 investigates the impact of
personal background factors on language attrition. The section on “age” is
where Schmid delves into a discussion on the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).
She points to the fact that age is not an important indicator of language
skills. Language transmission and international adoption, adolescence,
identification, acculturation, and length of residence are other
extralinguistic factors focused on here. Subsequently, Chapter 7 asks
essential questions regarding the role of L1 input and output in attrition.
The motto introduced here regarding attrition is “use it or lose it”. Frequent
examples are continually used from the original research participants, Gertrud
U. and Albert L. Interestingly, we learn about “direct evidence that the
degree to which a language system will attrite depends on the amount to which
the language is being used in everyday life” (82). The chapter also provides
an overview of Grosjean’s (2001) concept of language mode (i.e. monolingual,
bilingual, and intermediate mode language use), and offers a caveat about the
language mode of attriters in research. Quality versus quantity of contact
with the L1 is also offered as a caveat to attrition researchers. Another
important concept reviewed in this chapter is Social Network Theory. Through
this theory, Schmid delves into variations in the density and multicomplexity
of immigrant communities’ L1 network. Also of interest for the foundation of
this chapter is the Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1985), which Schmid suggests
may shift from I+1 to I-1 in cases of attrition. The chapter concludes by
suggesting the importance of the affective filter (Krashen, 1985) in
preventing L1 attrition, as well as a list of interacting variables affecting
it, which namely involve “the opportunity to use a language, the willingness
to do so and the attitudes and emotions which a speaker has towards this
language” (95). Additionally, Chapter 8 delves into the issues of identity and
emotional affiliation and their effects on the attrition process. Here, the
author points to two important methodological problems in attitude research.
First, language attrition is a process and it takes years for the linguistic
system to be changed. Second, attitudes cannot be readily observed and the
participants’ expressions need to reflect them. However, most of the time this
is not the case, since people report what is expected of them rather than
their reality. Furthermore, the discussion of identity and identification here
mentions Ethnolinguistic Vitality (EV). The author offers a comparison of
different migrant groups in order to understand the extent to which identity
and EV determine language attrition. Schmid concludes that frequent use and
positive attitudes may help maintain the native language.

Part III of the book is dedicated to research on language attrition. The
author first introduces preliminary considerations such as test populations
and types of linguistic knowledge. Chapter 9 gives practical advice on issues
that range from recruiting participants for language attrition research to
Institutional Review Board (IRB) recommendations. Next, in Chapter 10, Schmid
provides details on data elicitation techniques within the framework of
implicit and explicit knowledge, online and offline tasks, spoken and written
language, and production-comprehension-processing. The chapter underlines the
importance of researchers being clear on what their research tasks will
eventually investigate.

Part IV suggests various experimental designs for attrition research,
mentioning that there was no consistent research methodology in the field in
the past. Chapter 11 focuses on the use of lexical tasks in language attrition
research, namely picture naming tasks, picture word matching tasks, and verbal
fluency tasks. Moreover, Chapter 12 delves into grammaticality judgment tasks
(GJT), which are very popular in language attrition research. Different types
of GJTs, such as the pen-and-paper method, speeded GJTs, self-paced reading,
and eye-tracking are explained through different examples. In Chapter 13, we
see other grammatical tasks, such as interpretation and ambiguous sentences,
word inflections, and c-tests, which are discussed with self-explanatory
examples. Here, Schmid points to the advantages and disadvantages of all the
methods discussed and offers a caveat; the research population may have a
problem with a particular task rather than with a grammatical or lexical
feature. Hence, in Chapter 14, she recommends free speech data (i.e. talk
data) to researchers, while providing guidelines on how to elicit, transcribe
and code such data.

Part V is the last part of the book and is dedicated to coding and analyzing
data. Here, an important rule of thumb for researchers is “code first, analyze
later” (197). Chapter 15 discusses transcribing and coding free speech data by
introducing  a system developed by Brian MacWhinney in the Child Language Data
Exchange System (CHILDES) project. The author provides links to CHILDES and
lays out advantages of using this database, one of which is having access to
numerous finished projects on language attrition. With sample transcriptions
and detailed transcription conventions, CHILDES’ transcription system, called
CHAT, is explained, as is its transcription analysis system, called CLAN. In
Chapter 16, we read about how various data types can be coded, described, and
then presented in tables and graphs. The author introduces ordinal and
interval data, dependent and independent variables and discusses the basics of
descriptive statistics. Chapter 17, on the other hand, is about inferential
statistics, or interpreting data. Analysis and interpretation of
probabilities, group differences (e.g. t-test, ANOVA, and ANCOVA), and within
group variation (e.g. correlation and regression) are explained through
several examples. At the end of the chapter, the author provides a
step-by-step guide to data analysis in language attrition research, which
summarizes the preceding statistical discussions. Chapter 18 is the concluding
chapter of the book. The author makes three important recommendations to
prospective language attrition researchers: study and understand the language
of research; be aware of the existing literature; and know your speakers. The
book concludes by inviting researchers to pursue further studies and


In this book, every crucial aspect of language attrition research is
highlighted and clearly explained. Each chapter starts with essential
questions that describe its focus and main ideas. In doing so, each chapter
acts as a scaffold for the following one, and the reader is well-prepared and
trained for what is next. The short and succinct notes in colored tables in
each chapter provide personal insights and practical ideas about the main
discussion. These informal notes are the places where we most feel that the
author is a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend. The author
writes as if candidly speaking about past research experiences, or rather
teaching the reader through experience. We see this aspect from the start, for
example, in Schmid’s preface about her research and how the idea for the book
developed throughout her years of studying language attrition.

The interactive features of the book can be noticed frequently, especially
when the author gives a task to the reader in order to make better sense of
the reading. In Chapter 6, for instance, Schmid invites readers to make a list
of extralinguistic factors before advancing further in the chapter. This is a
good exercise for readers that allows them to better assimilate such factors.
Throughout the book, we also see the author offering caveats, frequently about
important details in language attrition research. Again in Chapter 6, for
example, the author draws attention to the difference between pre- and
post-puberty immigrants’ proficiency. She emphasizes that only speakers “who
emigrated when they were older than 12 years can be called ‘L1 attriters’”
(74), as opposed to heritage speakers or incomplete learners/acquirers.

The general tone of the book indicates the significance of this work in
language attrition research. When the author provides a succinct literature
review of the field, she deliberately points to gaps and inaccuracies in
previous research. In Chapter 7, for instance, Schmid points to the fact that
there is only one attrition research study which has used Social Network
Theory in an experimental setting (Hulsen, 2000). This is again the chapter
where the author calls for a fine-grained approach to distinguish between
three types of L1 use: interactive, non-interactive, and inner language. She
elaborates on these three types throughout the chapter, just like the many
other concepts she thoroughly reviews and explains in other chapters. Almost
all chapters include a memorable quote or a motto regarding the topic being
discussed. This helps key information stick in the readers’ minds. For
instance, a quote to remember from Chapter 7, regarding interactive L1 use,
points to how we represent ourselves in our speech: “Whether we are aware of
this or not, whenever we talk, we constantly put out signals about who we are”

Overall, this is a reader-friendly book about language attrition research and
methodology which has so much to offer. It can be an invaluable resource for
master’s and doctoral students writing theses and researchers studying
language attrition. Professors teaching the subject in their classes can use
it as a textbook, and people with a special interest in immigration and
language attrition issues can simply read it for further information. I would
strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in language attrition and as
a reference in linguistics and bilingual education courses.


Grosjean, F. (2001). The bilingual’s language modes. In Janet L. Nicol (ed)
One Mind, Two Languages. Bilingual Language Processing, Oxford: Blackwell.

Hulsen, M. (2000). Language Loss and Language Processing: Three Generations of
Dutch Migrants in New Zealand. Ph. D. thesis, Katholieke Universiteit

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. London:

MacWhinney, B. (2000). The CHILDES Project: Tools for Analyzing Talk. Third
Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pavlenko, A. (2002). Bilingualism and Emotions. Multilingua, 21(1), 45-78.


Bahar Otcu-Grillman is an Assistant Professor of TESOL/Bilingual Education in
the department of Literacy and Multilingual Studies at Mercy College, New
York. She is currently teaching graduate courses in introduction to
linguistics, methods of teaching English as a second language, bilingual
education, and clinical practice. Her research interests include bilingual
education, applied linguistics, language policies and ideologies, discourse
analysis, and pragmatics. She is the co-editor of the recently published
volume titled

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