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What Is Language Attrition?

Language attrition is the gradual loss of proficiency in a language due to lack of use. It's a natural process that can affect any language speaker, especially expatriates or those not regularly immersed in their native tongue. Understanding this phenomenon can help in preserving linguistic skills. How might you be experiencing language attrition without even realizing it? Let's explore further.
Marty Paule
Marty Paule

Language attrition occurs when people lose fluency in their native language as a result of becoming bilingual or multilingual. The process of acquiring new languages can affect a person's usage of the language that they were born into as well as those used later in life. With international immigration becoming much more common in the 20th century, the field of applied linguistics has created models to better understand how acquisition of new languages results in language attrition. Loss of language skills can be the result of many different factors and can can ultimately lead to what linguists term "language death."

Linguists use the term "first language attrition" to describe the gradual loss of a first language (L1) as the migrant gains proficiency in a second language (L2). It has been observed that language attrition works in both directions. Native speakers' L1 skills can undergo changes in fluency while they acquire L2 skills. The extent to which L1 is impacted can be correlated with the degree to which L2 becomes dominant in the person's life, combined with diminishing exposure to L1 and its surrounding culture. Linguists have tried to identify the degree to which interference between L1 and L2 can be considered normal versus abnormal, but, without a standard of language "normalcy," current thinking tends to see language attrition as a continuum rather than a series of fixed events.

The process of learning a new language can affect a person's native language skills.
The process of learning a new language can affect a person's native language skills.

Research has shown that both first language acquisition (FLA) and second language acquisition (SLA) are impacted by external factors, such as the degree of language exposure, as well as the person's language aptitude and motivation. These external factors tend to affect L2 acquisition more so than L1. Both those undergoing L1 attrition and L2 learners often use the language in ways that differ from native speakers, especially in the areas of grammar and syntax. These changes appear to be the result of incompatibilities between the two language systems rather than a change in the speaker's underlying linguistic skills and understanding.

The process of language attrition is still a theoretical field of study. Some of the factors linguists continue to investigate include the regression hypothesis, which holds that L2 loss occurs more quickly than that of L1 due to psychological as well as social factors. The age at which one acquires his or her L1 and L2 skills can influence how quickly either may be subject to attrition. Studies of pre- and post-puberty migrants indicate that prepubescent language learners tend to lose their L1 skills more slowly while acquiring fluency in L2 more quickly.

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Discussion Comments


@ZipLine-- You must continue to expose your child to the first language.

I'm bilingual. I could have experienced attrition with my native language as well but since I continued to use both my first and second languages on a regular basis, that did not happen. If I was studying my second language at school, I was reading and writing in my first language at home. I read a lot of novels and newspapers daily and I continued to speak to my family in my first language.

As far as I understand, as long as the brain continues to use a language, it doesn't forget it, the language doesn't die. The key is to continue to use it.


@ZipLine-- That happened to my cousin who came to the States from Mexico as a child. Her parents were keen on her learning English well and quickly. So they didn't even speak Spanish at home to help her learn English. But the result was that after a few years, she forgot Spanish for the most part. Her English was excellent but she ended up losing her native language. Since you continue to speak to your son in his first language though, attrition may not occur. I'm not sure.


I'm afraid of this happening to my child. We came to the US from India and although we speak our native language at home, my seven year old has become more distant to our native language after beginning kindergarten here and now elementary school. He is only exposed to our native language at home, so evenings and weekends. But he has stopped responding to us in our native language. He is speaking English all the time now although we continue to speak to him in our native language?

Is it enough for him to hear his native language to maintain it? Or will he forget it and replace with English completely?

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    • The process of learning a new language can affect a person's native language skills.
      By: michaeljung
      The process of learning a new language can affect a person's native language skills.