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Understanding Language Loss

Why and how do bilinguals lose a language?

Over the years, I have written several posts on the impact that major life changes can have on the languages of bilinguals. Events such as changing schools or employment, moving to another region or country, or losing a close family member with whom a language was used exclusively, may lead to a change in the relative importance of the languages that are used.

They may also result in the permanent influence of a second language on the first even when the second language was acquired in adulthood. And they may even lead to a person's bilingualism becoming dormant all the way to actual language loss.

On this latter topic, I reviewed the fascinating literature, which asks whether a first language acquired as a very young child can be totally forgotten when no longer used.

The field that examines issues such as these is called language attrition and the bilinguals undergoing such changes, language attriters. One of the foremost researchers in the field is Monika S. Schmid, professor of linguistics at the University of Essex in England.

In order to help us better understand her field and its recent findings, she has very kindly accepted to answer our questions. We thank her wholeheartedly.

Does language attrition concern language knowledge or language use or both?

If you define "knowledge" to be the deeply rooted fundamental structure of the language which allows you to produce and understand it in the first place, and "use" as any concrete instance of it, such as an individual utterance, language attrition tends to affect mainly "use."

People can develop a foreign accent in their native language, they make occasional grammatical mistakes, they become less fluent and use a less diverse vocabulary, but generally speaking, they are still able to speak and understand the language, albeit with more effort or difficulty.

In your writings, you state that in adult bilinguals, as opposed to bilingual children, the atrophy of language knowledge of the first language is minimal. Is there an age after which a language will no longer suffer as much?

The situation I describe above only pertains to those speakers who have lived in an environment where their first language (L1) is spoken as one of the majority languages until around age 12, and then there is a change in their language situation. There are many indications that this age is a turning point.

Before then, language knowledge is extremely vulnerable, even if a child appears to be using a language in the same way as other native children of around the same age. Children can and do lose such languages almost entirely if they stop using them.

What are the linguistic manifestations of attrition?

One of the first things that most people experience is a lack of fluency. Attriters like myself tend to fumble for words an awful lot of the time, in particular when one of their languages has a word that could credibly belong to the other language. This is very similar to what people who learn a second language experience.

For example, just recently, I was warned that if I want to introduce myself in my very basic Spanish, I need to take care to use the verb presentar, as introducer in Spanish means ‘insert’. Similarly embarrassing mistakes often creep into the native language, particularly when it is very similar to the language of the environment.

Apart from lack of fluency and getting words mixed up, attriters can also struggle with some of the more complex grammatical phenomena–the way in which a subordinate clause has to be structured, for example, or which grammatical case to use with a particular verb.

It is also often difficult to maintain the knowledge on how to speak "appropriately," for example, in languages like French, which use different pronouns (tu and vous) depending on the relationship between the speakers. I often find myself confused as to how to address a particular person in my native German, which also has the distinction.

For a long while, researchers thought that frequency of use of a language was a main factor in language attrition. You have shown that it really depends on the language mode the bilinguals are in (see here). Can you explain?

Over the years, research into attrition tended to assume that it is a form of "forgetting" the language, that the knowledge stored in the brain simply "evaporates" after some time–the "use it or lose it’" assumption. However, we have found that even speakers who have not used their first language for decades can be all but perfect in it.

What seems to be more problematic is if you frequently speak the language with other bilinguals, and then mix and drop in words from your second language whenever you cannot think of them in your first language. This means that you may not use the "muscles" you need to push the second language out of the way in order to speak the native one. Of course, people can also pick up mixed speech from each other, and begin to think that these are the correct words to use, as you yourself showed in a study you did with Bernard Py in 1991.

Some bilinguals lose their language(s) over the years more readily than others. What are the factors that explain this?

I think that this is one of the areas about which we still know the least. There are some people who are simply more talented at learning a second language, but we don’t know whether it is the same people who will also experience more (or less) attrition. Other so-called "individual differences" might play a role, such as working memory capacity, or level of education. So far the experimental findings on these matters are slim.

In your first book based on your thesis, you showed that emotional factors can greatly influence attrition. Can you tell us about it?

What this study showed is that if you no longer want to be a native speaker of a particular language, that is a goal you can achieve. In that study, I looked at German Jews who fled from the Holocaust, and I showed that the degree to which their German had deteriorated was linked to how much persecution and trauma they had experienced. They had very good reasons for no longer wanting to be German, and this affected their language.

You wrote back in 2002 that the overwhelming majority of language attrition studies have concentrated on "what is lost" to the exclusion of "what is retained." Please explain.

I think you yourself were one of the first researchers to make the argument that people who use more than one language should not be seen as deficient, as falling short of the "norm" of the monolingual native speaker. Instead, we should think of them as individuals who are capable of doing a wide range of things in several languages–the linguist Vivian Cook coined the term "multicompetent" for this.

In a similar vein, my assumption was that the way in which a monolingual speaker, and an attriter of the same language, use that language will probably overlap to a huge degree, and that it would be interesting to explore this, instead of staring at the relatively few mistakes they make.

Finally, language attrition is a very sensitive issue for those losing a language. Many feel ashamed, others refuse to speak the language they are losing, others still are in denial. What do you say to these people as a linguist?

Let me address them directly: Firstly, you should always keep in mind that anyone who mocks or denigrates you for such things probably knows fewer languages than you do. Secondly, you are not alone–pretty much anyone who has lived abroad for any length of time, or even uses a foreign language a lot while remaining in the same country, will have experienced the same thing.

Thirdly, why should we have such unrealistic and high expectations? As I said above, I’m now trying to learn Spanish. It is still extremely basic and I cannot say a single sentence without at least five mistakes, but I can’t wait to go on holiday and try it out–that’s the way a language develops.

After all, what is so terrible about making mistakes? And if anyone still remarks on any of your own mistakes, send them to my website!

For a full list of "Life as a Bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here, or visit François Grosjean's website.


Yilmaz, Gülsen & Schmid, Monika S. (2018). First language attrition and bilingualism: Adult speakers. In David Miller, Fatih Bayram, Jason Rothman and Ludovica Serratrice (Eds.). Bilingual Cognition and Language: The State of the Science Across its Subfields, pp. 225-249. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schmid, Monika S. & Köpke, Barbara (2017). The relevance of first language attrition to theories of bilingual development. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 7(6), 637–667.

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