LINGUIST List 14.2414

Fri Sep 12 2003

Review: Anthropological Linguistics: Schmid (2002)

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  • Matthias Hutz, First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance

    Message 1: First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance

    Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 11:25:05 +0000
    From: Matthias Hutz <>
    Subject: First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance

    Schmid, Monika S. (2002) First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance: The Case of German Jews in Anglophone Countries. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., hardback ISBN 90 272 4135 X (Eur.) / 1 58811 190 3 (US), xiv + 258pp, Studies in Bilingualism 24.

    Announced at

    Matthias Hutz, University of Giessen, Germany

    Language attrition studies have gained some momentum in the last two decades although there is still a considerable imbalance between acquisition and attrition studies, possibly because it is more rewarding to focus on gaining linguistic competence rather than losing it.

    In her study on first language attrition in a second language environment, Schmid explores the process of language use and language loss of a group of German Jewish speakers who emigrated to England and the USA under the Nazi regime. Her overall objective is to establish the influence of extralinguistic variables, i.e. autobiographical factors on language attrition, as well as investigate intralinguistic determinants for language loss after a period of sixty years of emigration and close contact with English. Her informants who grew up in the region around D�sseldorf were forced to leave Germany between 1933 and 1939. The study is based on a corpus of free spoken data, i.e. 54 narrative autobiographical interviews which were not 'at least initially' collected to be analysed linguistically, but were part of an Oral History project by the D�sseldorf Holocaust Memorial Center.

    In the opening chapter, Schmid discusses various hypotheses and approaches to the study of language attrition, including, for instance, Jakobson's regression hypothesis ('last in, first out'), which claims that the sequence of L1 acquisition might determine the sequence of attrition. She also briefly re-examines other major theoretical frameworks and disciplines, such as Interlanguage Theory, Universal Grammar and psycholinguistics and discusses their contributions concerning first language attrition.

    In the second chapter, Schmid provides a historical overview of the situation of German Jews, in particular their persecution under the Nazi regime leading to mass emigration. She identifies three different emigration groups based upon periods of time in which the extent and intensity of the persecution differed (1933-1935, 1935-1938 and 1938-1939). It is one of the objectives of her study to establish whether differences in loss or maintenance of the German L1 can be found between informants who belong to these three emigration groups. The individual circumstances of the persecution and emigration, however, are not explicitly mentioned.

    Next, she focuses on several extralinguistic factors, such as age, education, time span elapsed since emigration, gender, contact, attitudes, identity and ethnicity, which have often been reported to influence language attrition. She also addresses some major methodological problems associated with research designs in language attrition, in particular data collection and the selection of linguistic features. Different methodological approaches (e.g. longitudinal and cross-sectional studies) and conflicting definitions of the term 'attrition' have led to very contradictory results. Some researchers have claimed to have found considerable attrition in individuals, while others claimed to have found very little attrition. An additional problem is that researchers often make tacit assumptions about a particular linguistic norm provided by non-attrited speakers on the basis of their own intuition as a native speaker.

    Schmid concludes the third chapter with a very helpful and systematic overview of previous language attrition studies specifying in each case not only the results and the linguistic levels examined, but also the theoretical framework and the elicitation methods used. This survey clearly demonstrates the very heterogeneous character of previous research in this field.

    In the second part of her study, Monika Schmid presents her own empirical investigation. So far, most studies have focused on deviations from an assumed norm rather than examining a speaker's overall competence, i.e. an individual�'s actual linguistic repertoire in L1. Thus, in order to provide a comprehensive picture of the linguistic proficiency of a speaker, Schmid has decided to include two sets of data in her analysis: interference data and proficiency data. The investigation of proficiency data entails the overall assessment of the lexical, morphological, and syntactical complexity, i.e. the informants' data which conforms to the linguistic norm. The main focus in her study, however, is on interference data, i.e. utterances which are in some way felt to be deviant by native speakers (p. 4).

    In the third chapter Schmid provides a highly useful taxonomy of interferences, including interferences that may occur in the lexicon (e.g. code-switching and lexical borrowing), in semantics (e.g. calques), in morphology (e.g. case, gender and plural interferences) and in syntax (e.g. order of adverbials and verb-final placement in subordinate clauses where different patterns can be found in English and German). However, she limits her analysis to those interferences that occur in the grammatical system, in particular to the domains of inflectional morphology, morphosyntax and syntax.

    Her findings suggest that - at least on the level of morphology - Jakobson's regression hypothesis may to some extent correctly predict the outcome of a language loss situation since the amount of morphological interferences increased proportionally for those features that are acquired relatively late in the process of German L1 acquisition (e.g. plural morphology). Morphological features that tend to be acquired relatively early in L1 (e.g. gender), however, do not seem to be very vulnerable to attrition. In contrast to the lexicon, the morphological system seems to be generally resistant to language loss. It is also interesting to note in this context that Schmid did not find any clear evidence concerning the validity of the regression hypothesis with regard to the syntactic domain. These conclusions are quite intriguing especially since Jakobson's theory of invariable order in progression and regression has hardly been tested with regard to non-pathological language loss.

    The analysis of the extralinguistic variables also yields some interesting results. Schmid attempts to establish the influence of some predictor variables, such as the age at the time of emigration, language use, the degree of 'traumatization' and identification conflicts. However, she only found statistically significant influences of these variables for the interference data, but not for the proficiency data (e.g. with regard to lexical richness and morphological complexity). If this is indeed correct, this may suggest that a speaker's linguistic 'errors' may actually be the result of temporary accessibility problems, but may not indicate actual loss of L1, even in the case of very restricted language use.

    The time at which an informant emigrated seems to be the most influential extralinguistic factor of all the extralinguistic variables under investigation and thus the best predictor of attrition. This factor significantly outweighs other factors, such as the age of the speaker at the time of emigration or the opportunity for language use. Thus the lack of extended use of L1 per se does not result in L1 attrition. This study sheds growing doubt on whether irregular use of a language as such leads to its attrition.

    Instead, the study suggests that there may be an important link between language attrition on the one hand and a speaker's self-perception and identification conflicts on the other hand. It is evident that persecution and the deprivation of one's former identity as in this case may indeed have negative effects on language maintenance. Rejection and even persecution are not very likely to lead to creating favourable attitudes towards the speech community and may instead foster rapid linguistic assimilation. However, someone who is interested in remaining a member of a particular speech community might also be capable of retaining his or her language skills over a long period of time. Thus an emigrant�'s identity and self-perception may actually determine the process of language attrition to a very large degree.

    According to Schmid, it is in fact possible to maintain a language over an extremely long period of emigration since the data on which her study is based were gained from informants who had lived in the country of emigration for a minimum of sixty years and who in many cases had very limited contact with their native language. She found that the morphological competence and syntax remained largely unaffected even after a prolonged non-contact with the L1. It would have been interesting if a detailed analysis of the lexical interferences had also been undertaken, but that would have been clearly beyond the scope of this study.

    Overall, this monograph not only provides an excellent overview of the state-of-the-art in language attrition, but also makes a significant contribution to this field in several respects. Schmid's in-depth analysis of morphosyntactic features is extremely valuable since the phenomena under investigation in this study have often been neglected in previous research. In addition, her attempt to focus not only on interference data, but also to include proficiency data is laudable. The consideration of a speaker's overall competence in L1, i.e. the inclusion of data which is non-deviant from a linguistic norm, is certainly a step long overdue in language attrition studies and may in fact lead to a new evaluation of the extent of language attrition found in emigrants in the future. Furthermore, linking acquisitional and attritional sequences in the context of Jakobson's regression hypothesis may provide a useful theoretical framework for other studies as well.

    The findings presented by Schmid speak very strongly for a stronger incorporation of the emigrants' identity conflicts, their attitude towards their language community and their self-perception. It might prove to be interesting to compare the results of these extralinguistic predictor variables with other groups of emigrants with different backgrounds. However, since the reasons and circumstances of emigration are often very individual, it might be difficult to find a homogeneous emigrant group such as this one.

    Throughout the text, Schmid provides a great wealth of examples from her samples. In addition, there is a CD that is included with the book which contains 21 samples from the interviews. Although the sound quality of some of the recordings is rather poor, this is a valuable bonus providing the reader with some good examples of the process of language attrition. Overall, the book is extremely well-structured and very readable.

    In conclusion, this innovative and insightful study is a 'must-read' for anyone interested in first language attrition and will certainly stimulate a new methodological discussion in this field. It may even start a new and productive research trend since the approach chosen here has some far-reaching implications for future research, for example concerning the consideration of proficiency data and of attitudinal factors. The systematic research design presented in this book clearly adds very much to our understanding of the complex and multifaceted process of first language attrition in immigrant communities.


    Matthias Hutz teaches linguistics at the College of Education of Heidelberg, Germany. He has a Ph.D. in English Linguistics from the University of Giessen in Germany. His research interests include issues related to first and second language acquisition, intercultural communication and ESP.