factors affecting language attrition

The Powerful Hidden Forces: 13 Factors affecting LANGUAGE ATTRITION disclosed by research

first language acquisition, language attrition, second language acquisition

Unravel the intricate web of FACTORS AFFECTING LANGUAGE ATTRITION! Do you know how factors like age, language management, and language attitudes impact the extent of language attrition? Uncover the truth in this article now.

In my previous article about LANGUAGE ATTRITION on this website, we undertook an expedition into the intricate labyrinth of linguistic change, albeit one that was intriguing and mind-boggling. In response, a stream of feedback flowed from fellow language educators, thirsting for deeper insights into the FACTORS AFFECTING LANGUAGE ATTRITION, particularly on how the degree or rate of language attrition may be modulated. Let me forge ahead today, by addressing the curiosity by shedding light on the known mechanisms underpinning this phenomenon.

A convolution of factors affecting LANGUAGE ATTRITION

While LANGUAGE ATTRITION is primarily caused by reduced exposure and usage of the language in focus and cross-linguistic influence from competing languages, there are a number of factors that interact and contribute to the degree of attrition – insights that come from quantitative analyses in a multivariate study of language attrition as well as accumulated studies across decade from the field of language attrition.

Some of these factors can be manipulated to mitigate the effects of attrition, while others are beyond our control. In addition, some factors are relatively more salient in first language attrition (L1 attrition) while some others are fundamentally relevant only to second language attrition (L2 attrition).

What we do need to know, though, is that many of these factors are difficult to isolate for research purposes in the sense that they usually interact with one another in an actual attritional process. Guided by this understanding, let us set forth on the expedition aimed at uncovering the different factors affecting language attrition.

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1. Quantity (and frequency) of language input and output in relativity

quantity of input
Photo from Envato Elements / A child buried in toys to represent the amount of language input

Language scientists who extensively studied second language acquisition have unravelled insights about language input characteristics that can influence the degree of acquisition of a target language. Likewise in the case of language attrition, some of these characteristics also have an impact on the extent of language attrition. Factors 1 and 2 are related to such characteristics. 

The relative quantity of input and output in L2(s) compared to the native language(s) for L1 attrition, or L2(s) compared to other languages for L2 attrition, is one important factor. We have established in my earlier article the causes of language attrition as either the reduced input of the target language, or the cross-linguistic influence from the competing languages. More recently, the emerging understanding is that acquisition and attrition form both sides of a coin such that both L1 and L2 must be taken into consideration (Gallo et al., 2021; Sorace, 2020).

Consequently and unsurprisingly then, the relative quantity in amount and frequency of the L1(s) and L2(s) then play a crucial role in modulating LANGUAGE ATTRITION, as they directly reflects the level of exposure and stimulation in a target language.

When individuals are frequently exposed to and actively engage a language, they are also activating the relevant neural networks used specifically for language processing, thus enabling them to constantly reinforce their knowledge and skills in that language. Such recurrence helps solidify the information in their memory, thereby reducing the likelihood of forgetting.

In contrast, reduced exposure to the language implies a lack of stimulation in that language. Without regular input and output, individuals may not have the opportunity to practise and maintain their language skills. This lack of exposure can then lead to a decreased level of proficiency and potentially contribute to language attrition. Over time, their knowledge and skills may deteriorate gradually.

Adding on to these, the relatively diminished role of the target L1 or L2 exacerbates such effects. If individuals are primarily using another language in replacement of the target L1 or L2 in their daily lives, their representation mechanisms of the target language are replaced by the competing but more active language(s). To continue using the target L1 or L2, they would then need to actively suppress the more active language(s). In doing so, this places greater cognitive demands on them.

2. Quality of language input and output for complexity and standards

quality of input
Photo from Envato Elements / A quality ink stamp

Similar to acquisition, the quality of language input and output in the target language also plays a crucial role – arguably a more significant role – in the degree of language attrition experienced by an individual. Here, quality refers to the alignment with monolingual native-speaker standards, contextual domains and complexity of the language used in communication.

We know that bilinguals/multilinguals tend to engage in translanguaging as part of their natural unfiltered language practices. These practices include code-switching and code-mixing, where individuals alternate between different languages (or sometimes codes) in a conversation.

There are studies which has found a higher degree of L1 attrition as associated with the frequency of daily codeswitching than the overall quantity of exposure to L1 (Gallo et al., 2021). The argument is that codeswitching induces the interplay of L1(s) and L2(s), thus facilitating the cross-linguistic influence that may cause the “restructuring” of the L1 norms, leading to LANGUAGE ATTRITION (Gallo et al., 2021; Köpke, 2007; Yılmaz, & Schmid, 2019).

On the contrary, bilinguals/multilinguals who frequently use their L1(s) in contexts where code-switching is uncommon or discouraged tend to experience less of such fluid interaction between languages in their linguistic repertoire, thereby exhibiting lower levels of L1 ATTRITION (Gallo et al., 2021; Yılmaz, & Schmid, 2019). In fact, they may develop stronger inhibitory mechanisms to suppress the competing L2(s).

Such arguments are further substantiated with the findings that bilinguals/multilinguals who engage in the frequent use of their L1(s) in formal contexts are better able to resist changes in the L1(s) in contrast to those who generally only use their L1(s) in informal contexts Gallo et al., 2021; Schmid, 2007).

Formal contexts involve the use of language in academic, professional, or official settings, where a higher level of monolingual proficiency and correctness is expected (e.g. code-switching discouraged). Informal contexts, on the other hand, involve the use of language in social, casual, or personal interactions, where there is greater flexibility and informality. In this sense, the complexity of language use by monolingual standards become important in protecting against attrition.

Now, how the same findings and arguments play out in the context of L2 ATTRITION remains uncertain due to less attention of researchers in this area. However, the notion of their congruence in L2 attrition would probably not strike me as exceedingly surprising.

3. Age as a critical factor (especially in L1 Attrition)

different generations of a family
Photo from Envato Elements / Different generations of family members

We probably would heard – if not be very engaged with – the “Critical Period Hypothesis” in the course of our work. According to the hypothesis, there is an age range (albeit a very controversial one) where individuals can acquire a language under naturalistic conditions (i.e. through mere exposure). Beyond that, they are argued to have lose the “cerebral flexibility” (Dewaele, 2009) or “neural plasticity” (Pallier, 2007) to do so. The general consensus is that there are age-related effects to language acquisition, where it gets increasingly more challenging to acquire it naturally as one matures, though the exact age or period has been debated widely.

Research has shown that age also plays a critical role in exacerbating or insulating against LANGUAGE ATTRITION (Gallo et al., 2021; Montrul, 2013; Schmid, 2011; Schmid & Köpke, 2007; Steinkrauss & Schmid, 2017), and it runs opposite to the proposals of the “Critical Period Hypothesis” – the younger an individual experiences a reduction in exposure and usage of a target language in focus and / or cross-linguistic influence from competing languages, the more likely or quickly he/she is expected to undergo attrition. It can be observably dramatic for those directly observing the individuals (usually children).

On the other hand, beyond the age of puberty, there seems to be stronger resistance against LANGUAGE ATTRITION. The same argument of brain plasticity applies here, whereby older individuals generally experience reduced brain plasticity (Köpke, 2007). This hinders their acquisition of L2s as they may find it more difficult to adjust to new systems of representation; but it also provides insulation against attrition, due to the heightened resistance exhibited by the systems already assimilated.

4. Time for learning and time since onset of the attrition process

a retro clock on display
Photo from Envato Elements / A retro clock on display

While the correlation between time and age might seem like a matter of common sense to us, the intricacies of this relationship deserve further clarification within the scope of our discussion. The significance of age becomes pivotal, especially when distinguishing between a child and a pubescent adolescent. The adolescent has a longer runway for language acquisition than the child, thus having more time to reinforce the neural networks to construct the native language system(s) and fortifying it against ATTRITION.

The same principle holds true for L2 learning. The presence of a longer extended period affords L2 learners the chance to construct deeply ingrained representations of the L2 grammar. Of course, this is premised on the assumption that the L2 learners leverage the extended time frame to engage in additional learning endeavours, such as enrolling in an increased number of L2 language courses. One influential longitudinal study of language attrition found that learners who partook in a larger quantity of language courses over their learning phase tend to retain more of their L2 learning long after the end of learning (Bahrick, 1984).

Time operates not only as a determinant during the learning phase but also on the attrition aspect. In this sense, the amount of time elapsed from attrition onset (e.g. cessation of target L2 learning, emigration where the target L1 or L2 is hardly used, learning of a completely new L2) can also significantly influences the extent of ATTRITION. Scholars generally agree that the bulk of “language loss” happens within the first few years since the onset of ATTRITION, regardless of L1 or L2 attrition (Bahrick, 1984; Köpke & Schmid, 2004; Schmid, 2006).

However, one interesting finding stands out from these. Beyond the initial years, attrition seems to “fossilise” as well, despite the following perspectives that attempt to explain how attrition works:

  • Attrition is akin to forgetting, which is generally a “gradual process of information decay” (Jessner & Megens, 2019);
  • In the context of attrition, old information has been replaced by new ones such that linguistic knowledge relevant to the less engaged language is competing for memory space (Jessner & Megens, 2019); and
  • The threshold to activate retrieval of a cognitive system (e.g. language) is raised through disuse of the system (Köpke, 2007; Paradis, 2007), and thus attrition happens when the thresholds are raised too high over long-term disuse resulting in lowered performance.

If that is so, it is quite a perturbing question why the L1 or L2 does not just fall back to ground zero after a given number of years of disuse. In fact, beyond the initial years, there is the “surprising longevity of linguistic knowledge” of the L1 or L2 (Bahrick, 1984; Schmid, 2006). This is also partly why scholars study language attrition as a separate field from general forgetting. For us as language educators, this is definitely a comforting note – there is at least a portion (hopefully substantial enough) of language use and language learning by our learners that is very resistant to attrition.

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5. Ultimate Attainment in the target L1 or L2

A man standing on the peak of a mountain
Photo from Envato Elements / A man standing on the peak of a mountain

Ultimate Attainment in a target language refers to the highest level of proficiency that an individual can achieve at the end point of acquisition. It is a holistic construct that encompasses not only fluency in speaking, but also capability across other linguistic skills (e.g. literacy) and dimensions (e.g. grammatical competence, vocabulary).

The notion of ultimate attainment is a notion borne out of second language research and is thus more applicable to L2 than L1, as L2 learners show varying levels of achievement and are inconsistent in relation to success in learning. On the other hand, “native speakers” are usually assumed to have complete grasp of their L1. Yet, this is challenged in the case of children who have yet to fortify their L1 and subsequently start to undergo attrition. As such, ultimate attainment is not completely irrelevant to L1 acquisition.

Nevertheless, it has been suggested that a critical mass of skills and knowledge has to be acquired in a L2 before it can be stabilised (Schmid, 2006). Many additional studies have established that ultimate attainment upon onset of ATTRITION serves as the most robust indicator for predicting LANGUAGE ATTRITION or retention.

Notwithstanding such, we cannot ignore the fact that attrition of the L1 exists – even fully developed adults who are commonly thought to have achieved a remarkably high proficiency in their L1 can be affected by attrition. As such, we can only say that while attrition can happen in absolute terms, individuals who have achieved a high level of proficiency in a language are more likely to withstand the effects of ATTRITION by “retaining a larger proportion of the language” upon perceived language loss and language processing difficulties. Conversely, the language learner with limited acquisition might retain only a small proportion of previous linguistic performance due to ATTRITION.

6. Type of linguistic component and forms

type of forms
Photo from Envato Elements / The different shapes and structures of wooden blocks that signify the different linguistic components and forms

Till date, research in language attrition has generally substantiated the selectivity of attrition across the different components of the language system (Altenberg, 1991; Gürel, 2007; Perpiñán, 2013; Sorace, 2004, 2020; Tsimpli, 2007; Tsimpli, Sorace, Heycock & Filiaci, 2004).  In my previous article covering language attrition, I have also briefly touched on this when discussing how attrition affects the lexicon, phonetics and phonology as well as morphosyntax. The key message is that specific linguistic traits tend to be more susceptible to ATTRITION, while others exhibit a higher degree of retention.

The most vulnerable component amenable to ATTRITION is the lexicon. The lexicon is usually the area where initial signs of attrition are observed (Gross, 2004; Hutz, 2004; Köpke, 2007; Montrul, 2013; Schmid, 2006, 2007, 2011; Yılmaz & Schmid, 2019). This can be demonstrated through perception of a diminished vocabulary size, an escalation in the difficulty of retrieving lexical items and a decline in the speed in accessing lexical items.

Morphological and syntactic forms, while more resistant than lexicon, are also not spared. First and foremost, infrequent and unpredictable forms are more susceptible to ATTRITION (Altenberg, 1991; Gürel, 2007). This is because such forms are either less commonly used in everyday speech and may therefore more likely to be forgotten or replaced by L2 equivalents over time; or that such forms need to be deliberately retrieved and cannot be generated by predictable grammatical rules (e.g. adding -s to a noun to make it plural in English).

Another type of vulnerable form refers to those that exist at the interfaces between syntax and pragmatics or discourse Sorace, 2004, 2020; Tsimpli, 2007; Tsimpli, Sorace, Heycock & Filiaci, 2004), where the morphosyntactic forms are dependent upon information across sentences (e.g. anaphora resolution in Italian) or cues in the actual communicative contexts (e.g. relationship between interlocutors in Japanese or Korean). 

It would appear that phonetic and phonological forms are the least amenable to LANGUAGE ATTRITION, particularly for L1 ATTRITION (Schmid, 2011; Schmid & Köpke, 2007). Individuals who undergo L1 attrition may pronounce or speak differently, but the degree of change is usually negligible in the sense that they would not be perceived as foreigners of the L1 in question.

7. Anchoring language skill set for target L1 or L2: oracy vs literacy

development of literacy skills
Photo from Envato Elements / A student reading in the library

With the resilience of phonetic and phonological forms against attrition, we might form the impression that oracy skills are part of an impenetrable fortress immunised from the forces of attrition.

However, if we stop to think a bit further, we would also understand that oracy is not just a composite construct of phonetic and phonological forms, but it also integrates elements from other components of the language system (e.g. lexicon, morphosyntax). As such, it continues to be affected by attrition.

In fact, the maintenance of oracy skills is premised on frequent real-time interaction with other interlocutors using the same language. Individuals who are undergoing attrition, however, face relatively unfavourable circumstances since the language environment in which they operate has changed; opportunities to engage in immediate communication using the target language are markedly diminished (e.g. attrition in immigrants who moved to regions where their L1 or L2 is not used in the larger society).

On the other hand, literacy has been found to be a strong predictor of maintenance over a long period of time (Bardovi-Harlig, & Stringer, 2010; Köpke, 2007). This is because literacy acts as an anchor for a target language during its acquisition. By processing and learning written forms of the language, literacy contributes to the grounding of a language in memory as it adds “orthographic representations” and “new synaptic connections” between language elements, affording the formation of more stable linguistic representations (Köpke, 2007). This helps to solidify the language in one’s long-term memory, making it more resistant against attrition.

Furthermore, literacy also provides an additional source of input that is more stable compared to oracy (Bardovi-Harlig, & Stringer, 2010; Köpke, 2007), since reading and writing can be very individual activities that need not require the presence of interlocutors. Even in situations where a target language lacks widespread presence in the larger society, individuals can still independently access reading materials – even more so with the aid of internet and technology these days. To a certain extent, the effective use of literacy to maintain the language can also translate to a higher level of maintenance of the oracy in the language (Hansen & Chantrill, 1999).

8. Domain of linguistic knowledge: implicit vs explicit

what is language attrition
Photo from Envato Elements / Letter cards scattered on the ground

Earlier, we examined how certain types of linguistic forms tend to undergo attrition more than others. However, what I haven’t delved into yet are the explanations put forth by scholars that underpin this phenomenon. Why are phonetic and phonological forms more resistant? Why is the lexicon most vulnerable? Why are some types of morphosyntactic forms more amenable to attrition than others?

One of the most influential explanations is the associated knowledge type anchoring those forms – whether it is implicit or explicit linguistic knowledge. Implicit and explicit knowledge are two distinct types of knowledge that individuals possess. Implicit knowledge refers to knowledge that is acquired through experience and practice but cannot be easily easily verbalised or put in words. It is often referred to as procedural knowledge because it is related to how to do things or perform certain tasks. This type of knowledge is typically automatic and intuitive, requiring little conscious effort or thought.

On the other hand, explicit knowledge refers to knowledge that can be articulated and communicated in a verbal or written form. It is often referred to as declarative knowledge as it involves knowing facts, concepts, or rules that can be consciously stated. Unlike implicit knowledge, explicit knowledge is not automatic and requires conscious effort to access and employ.

The main difference between these two types of knowledge lies in their nature and accessibility. Implicit knowledge is typically gained through practical experience and cannot be easily put into words, while explicit knowledge can be learned through formal education or instruction and is readily verbalisable.

Why is lexical attrition usually most prominent? The lexicon is said to be sustained by declarative memory (Paradis, 2007) and is generally driven by declarative knowledge processing during production – we have to actively think of the words that we want to say or write. As such, retrieval of the lexical items in a target language becomes more difficult when it is less activated frequently (reduction in use) or when there is competing interference from two language systems or more (Gallo et al., 2021). This is unsurprising – many of our students forget many details of the content learned in Math, Science and Humanities sometimes right after the exams. 

For syntactic forms that are dependent on conscious interpretation of the context (e.g. syntax that occurs at the interface with pragmatics or discourse), the declarative knowledge is engaged for processing. Again, this is also possibly why they are more vulnerable than syntactic forms that are governed by internal rules – the latter activates the implicit knowledge for processing.

Amongst all, the processing and demonstration of phonetic and phonological knowledge are mostly implicit. We hardly still go through every single consonant and vowel consciously before we comprehend or produce a string of words in a language that we have already acquired. If we draw parallels to other skills like walking, cycling, or swimming, we noticed that certain forms of knowledge are harder to “unlearn” following acquisition. These thus explain the varied extent of attrition in different linguistic domains.

Does this imply that implicit linguistic knowledge remains completely impervious to attrition? The reality is a bit more nuanced. Remember that I have also mentioned that there is still some change even at the phonetic and phonological level, albeit minimal.

Also, while explicit linguistic knowledge is laid vulnerable to attrition, they are still part and parcel of language learning. While not necessarily leading to enhanced linguistic performance in the long run, the explicit understanding of grammatical rules can to some extent be revived in the future to counteract the impacts of attrition. Exploring this phenomenon in greater depth would undoubtedly be a valuable endeavor for a forthcoming article.

9. Type of interlocutors in frequent contact

type of interlocutors
Photo from Envato Elements / A group of professionals in discussion

Upon circumstances that bring upon the onset of attrition, an associated predictor whether the effects are mitigated or worsened is the general group of interlocutors in the target language with whom an individual can get frequent contact. Scholars have explained this using the social network theory, which suggests that the quality of language input and output (as an important factor as explained earlier) is influenced by target language communities in which an individual is embedded (De Bot, 2007; Schmid, 2011).

Various kinds of interlocutors initiate different predominant patterns of language use (Schmid, 2007, 2011). If the target language users an individual hangs out tend to engage in professional or academic use of the language, there is a stronger expectation of fluency and accuracy by monolingual standards. On the other hand, if the target language users an individual engages often in communication tend to use language at very basic levels (for daily use or fundamental transactions) or purpose it for building intimate relationships, there is a higher likelihood of language use that is more characterised by unfiltered use which can eventually lead to attrition.

To further extend this argument, the availability of different interlocutors in proximity would also thus impact on quantity and quality of language input and output, consequently affecting the degree of ATTRITION. For instance, considering the standpoint of L1 attrition due to emigration, individuals speaking minority languages as L1 who reside within tightly-knit communities where extensive monolingual use of the L1 is still prevalent may face a slower attrition process; on the contrary, those who live in isolation or are scattered amidst speakers of different languages that drive predominant L2 use would expedite the L1 attrition.

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10. Ethnolinguistic Vitality: strength and status of a language within a given context

enoshima road signs
The relative presence of languages in a given street

The Ethnolinguistic Vitality of a target language can have a significant impact on the degree and rate of language attrition. Ethnolinguistic Vitality refers to the perceived strength and status of a language as defined for an ethnic group within a given context, such as a geographical region.

The determination of the Ethnolinguistic Vitality of a particular language hinges on factors such as economic status, geographic concentration, and political representation of the ethnic group in question within the given context. The greater the ethnolinguistic vitality of a language, the greater the likelihood of its members uses and maintain that language. One way of observing the level of ethnolinguistic vitality is by investigating the linguistic landscape within the targeted context (e.g. location).

In general, as a factor that is associated with the type of interlocutors in frequent contact, if individuals experiencing ATTRITION stay in areas where their affected language has high ethnolinguistic vitality, the effects of ATTRITION are mitigated. Such is the case of Turkish and Moroccan immigrant communities in the Netherlands, where their heritage languages maintain enough prestige for the vitality to remain strong and language attrition is kept in check (Schmid, 2011).

On the other hand, if they reside in areas where the ethnolinguistic vitality of the target language is low, effects of attrition are exacerbated. This is especially the case observed for adolescents experiencing attrition while facing the demand to learn a new L2 (Schmid, 2011). They are more inclined to abandon their previously acquired languages in favour of the new L2 (the dominant language) so as to integrate into the new community.

11. Composition of languages in the linguistic repertoire

inventory of languages
Photo from Envato Elements / What are already in our inventory of languages?

The study of language attrition is usually positioned in the study of bilingualism/multilingualism or language contact (e.g. for those that experienced L1 attrition without learning a L2). In such situations, what happens is that the individuals in question experienced changes within their linguistic repertoire through the introduction of new languages. However, what if the “new language” actually reinforces the already acquired language(s)?

This thus pertains to the inventory of language(s) within individuals experiencing attrition. In my article deliberating on the difference between language and dialect (or variety), I have made the argument that the construct of language can be more sociopolitical than linguistic. This implies that a multitude of languages under observation could represent a collection of entities distinguished predominantly through socio-political mechanisms, where the entities are not too different from one another linguistically.

With that, an imperative question surfaces: What is the relationship between languages that are linguistically similar with languages that vastly differ from one another in the context of language attrition?

Let’s construct this theoretically from emigration from one English-speaking country to another one, where the main impact comes from a change of dialects (varieties) instead of language per se (e.g. emigration from the UK to the USA). We would not expect the degree of language attrition to be significant enough that laypersons may feel – granted that the lexicon (the most vulnerable linguistic dimension) may still be slightly hit (e.g. pants vs trousers).

This is indeed an argument found within research (Altenberg, 1991; Steinkrauss & Schmid, 2017). Where the composition of languages in the linguistic repertoire tend to reinforce one another positively, such that can crosslinguistic influence leaned to strengthening rather than restructuring, the effects of LANGUAGE ATTRITION are very much diminished. We can think about movement between “languages” that are close linguistically which shares similar grammatical rules, such as German vs Dutch or the Scandinavian languages.

However, if the composition of languages provide the conditions for crosslinguistic influence that promotes re-structuring, the process of language attrition could potentially become more facile. For instance, language attrition in relation to linguistically different languages may tend to happen more at the interfaces between syntax and pragmatics where decision-making from contextual clues is clouded with different rules; while language attrition in relation to linguistically similar languages with conflicting grammatical rules (e.g. gender rules) may also result in more difficulty during gender assignment.

12. Attitudes and Motivation toward the target L1 or L2 

group of multiracial friends
Photo from Envato Elements / Multicultural friends engaged in conversation

Language attitudes and motivation have been theorised and validated to have profound effects on language learning. As practitioners, we have no lack of examples of very motivated individuals who have beaten all odds to learn a L2 successfully; while also facing the numerous examples of disengaged learners who did not manage to progress much due to lack of positive attitudes and motivation towards the L2 or the learning itself.

Scholars have generally recognised attitudes and motivation as key determinants in the resistance against LANGUAGE ATTRITION, with a subset of them arguing that it can potentially outweigh other factors (Gallo et al., 2021; Insurin & Wilson, 2023; Köpke & Schmid, 2004; Paradis, 2007; Schmid, 2006, 2011; Seliger & Vago, 1991). Consider the familiar scenario encountered by individuals investigated in language attrition research: the majority of them have transitioned to environments where the target language under examination holds a lesser position in societal dominance; and in the majority of instances, these languages constitute minority languages. Undoubtedly, the maintenance of such languages would require a tremendous amount of effort. It would certainly be remarkable if the deficiency in attitudes and motivation could bring about such an outcome.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that a positive attitude towards the L1 generally leads to a desire to preserve that language among first-generation immigrants (Insurin & Wilson, 2023). On the other hand, as mentioned in an earlier example, adolescent emigrants often strive to integrate into the L2 community as quickly as possible; the desire to assimilate into the new community in a fast manner can overshadow the importance of preserving their language and cultural heritage, thus driving their choice to use the L2 in favour of the L1 (Schmid, 2011). Another classic example relates to the severe attrition in the German language by German Jewish refugees who fled to the English-speaking countries; the main factor as the negative attitudes towards the German language in the context of World War II (Gallo et al., 2021).

Why does attitudes and motivation affect the behaviours and choices made by individuals, in the context of language attrition? One good explanation is the emotional attachment to the previously acquired language(s) in the context of the new environment. Emotional attachment refers to the sentimental value placed on a language, often linked to personal experiences, cultural heritage, and family connections. Such emotional attachment can also be a function of the individuals’ sense of identity. When individuals have a strong emotional attachment to a language, they are more likely to make efforts to preserve and maintain their proficiency.

13. Language policy as implemented by language managers

Spolsky's Model of Language Policy
Photo from Envato Elements / Spolsky’s Model of Language Policy

Language policy can have profound effects on the amount of organic exposure and usage of any language in question. The term “policy” here is not exclusively “the business of government” as we may commonly perceive but should be framed more widely as “all the language practices, beliefs and management decisions of a community or polity” (Spolsky, 2004). For more thorough discussion on language policy, you can read this article instead.

An integral component of language policy is Language Management. This is the intentional actions taken by individuals or groups (known as “language managers”) to modify or control the language use and attitudes of a particular speech community. These language managers can be various entities such as governmental bodies, policymakers, family members with authority, school administrators and teachers, business owners, and executives, among others.

The language management decisions made by these entities can have both positive and negative impacts on language usage. For example, a government body implementing a language policy that supports the use of a particular language in public institutions can promote its usage and improve its status (and thus elevating its ethnolinguistic vitality), while parents discouraging the use of a particular language at home may contribute to its attrition.

Furthermore, language management decisions can influence language attitudes, which in turn affect language usage. For example, if a language is perceived as prestigious or useful, language users are likely to have positive attitudes towards it, leading to increased usage. Conversely, negative attitudes towards a language can lead to decreased usage, where speakers eventually switch to another language as the preferred choice and causes attrition in the previously acquired language(s).

Conclusion: What can language educators do?

So, we have combed through the list of factors affecting language attrition in this article. The question now arises: how can we address these factors? How might we provide assistance to our learners in averting prospective attrition in the target language(s) they are currently acquiring within our educational settings?

To address this thoroughly, I would probably need the space of another article to do so. For now, below is a simple list of strategies that we can adopt (without further elaboration):

  • Learn the target language for as high a level and as long a time as possible;
  • Teach the target language with a strong focus on metalinguistic awareness;
  • Do not just teach the language as a subject; address the attitudes and motivation to frame the language as an important heritage and asset of the learners;
  • Balance the language learning with the development of literacy skills;
  • Integrate the learners into the target language communities around the world;
  • Provide languaging opportunities for the target language in professional and formal contexts; and
  • Empower learners with strategies for language maintenance (e.g. leveraging technologies and online social communities).

Before we conclude, let me try to counter some of the concerns that might have taken over us as we read the article. First and foremost, let us acknowledge that specific components of language possess an inherent resilience to attrition (e.g., implicit linguistic knowledge) – attributes that set them apart from content found in other subject areas. Second, while attrition happens rapidly and furiously usually within the first few years upon its onset, the remaining knowledge and content have surprising longevity – even more than 60 years (Bahrick, 1984; Schmid, 2006, 2023). Third, even when the process of language attrition becomes inevitable, there are means to reverse the trend – something that is sought to be addressed in future research.

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References

Altenberg, E.P. (1991). Assessing first language vulnerability to attrition. In Seliger, H.W., & Vago, R.M. (Eds.), First language attrition (pp. 189-206). Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Stringer, D. (2010). Variables in second language attrition: Advancing the state of the art. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32(1). 1–45.

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