In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section First Language Attrition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • General Overview Articles in Handbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Theoretical Frameworks
  • Edited Volumes
  • Special Journal Issues

Linguistics First Language Attrition
Monika Schmid
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0266


The term “language attrition” refers to any process by which a language which an individual commands may be restructured, modified, or otherwise affected by another language in such a way that it less closely resembles the idealized version known and used by monolingual speakers than it did before this crosslinguistic influence started. The phenomena seen under such circumstances are often similar to those experienced in the acquisition of a second or other language (L2), where pre-existing language knowledge or habits interfere with the establishment and use of newly acquired knowledge, comprising features such as a reduction in complexity, accuracy, and/or fluency. They differ from such phenomena in that, in language attrition, the traffic occurs in the “reverse” direction, from the new to the established language. While language attrition has been investigated most often in the context of changes and modifications experienced in the native language (L1) by speakers who have acquired a second language after puberty and who have shifted their language use patterns until this new language is the one they use most often in their daily lives (i.e., among adult migrants), other kinds of situations—such as the attrition of a second language due to non-use or due to the acquisition of further languages (L3 acquisition), or changes to the L1 that occur in instructed second language learners at low levels of proficiency and early stages of development—also fall under the umbrella of language attrition. As such, the term “attrition” has sometimes been considered misleading, suggesting structural or representational alterations away from the “monolingual standard,” while research has shown that the differences observed between monolinguals and attriters in all of these contexts usually occur at the level of processing/use and do not affect underlying knowledge. The term “attrition” here is used without prejudice to the nature of crosslinguistic influence, but where not otherwise indicated, it will refer to traffic from L2 or Lx to L1.

General Overviews and Textbooks

While the systematic and empirical study of language attrition is a comparatively new topic within the wider field of language development, descriptive and anecdotal accounts of attrition reach back much longer, as the treatise on language and immigration Haugen 1938 shows. The field was put on a more solid empirical basis in the 1980s, with important contributions in the form of some early theoretical considerations like Andersen 1982 regarding what questions and hypotheses should guide future investigations. Following this, for a long time a major consideration remained the question of how much of language attrition can be ascribed to competence change, and what proportion is merely surface/performance related, and how to assess the difference between the two, something discussed in Sharwood Smith 1989 and Seliger and Vago 1991. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the psycholinguistic turn in bilingualism research also was also visible in language attrition studies like Hansen 2001 and Köpke and Schmid 2004, with the field becoming more experimentally oriented. This is also echoed in the only existing textbook on language attrition to date, Schmid 2011. Since the 2010s, the discussion has focused on the overall contribution that attrition studies are capable of making to the broader understanding of bilingualism and the human language ability in works like Schmid 2013 and Schmid and Köpke 2017.

  • Andersen, R. W. 1982. Determining the linguistic attributes of language attrition. In The loss of language skills. Edited by R. D. Lambert and B. Freed, 83–117. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

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    A research manifesto for an emerging field, drawing on research from related areas and formulating a set of assumptions and hypotheses. Andersen proposes that attrition research should focus on language use, linguistic form, compensatory strategies, and the nonlinguistic consequences of linguistic erosion.

  • Hansen, L. 2001. Language attrition: The fate of the start. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 21:60–73.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0267190501000046E-mail Citation »

    An overview of how attrition emerged from its niche status and evolved into an integral part of second language acquisition research. Hansen discusses theoretical accounts that have dominated attrition research, such as Jakobson’s Regression Hypothesis and the codeswitching-based accounts of the 4-M and Abstract Level model. She also devotes attention to the increase in disfluency and hesitation phenomena often witnessed in language attrition. In this, Hansen’s paper is in line with what could be referred to as the “psycholinguisticturn” in language attrition studies.

  • Haugen, E. 1938. Language and immigration. Norwegian-American Studies 10.1: 1–43.

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    Probably the earliest systematic look at the deterioration of language skills across the lifespan of individual immigrants. Purely descriptive, it gives an account of the phenomena to be observed that is still relevant in the early 21st century.

  • Köpke, B., and M. S. Schmid. 2004. First language attrition: The next phase. In First language attrition: Interdisciplinary perspectives on methodological issues. Edited by M. S. Schmid, B. Köpke, M. Keijzer, and L. Weilemar, 1–45. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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    An attempt to bring together the diverse studies and findings in the field, and to formulate a research agenda for the new century. The chapter gives an outline of how attrition research has developed and of the theoretical frameworks that have been applied. It summarizes findings for different linguistic levels and features and for the impact of extralinguistic and personal background variables. Köpke and Schmid also point out the relatively recent influence of psycholinguistic approaches which, at the time, were gaining traction in the field.

  • Schmid, M. S. 2011. Language attrition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The only textbook on language attrition to date, this volume contains sections on linguistic factors in language attrition and the extralinguistic variables which determine its progression. The second half consists of a detailed treatment of research methods and tools for analysis, introducing the Language Attrition Test Battery, a collection of experiments and resources that is also made available on the Language Attrition website.

  • Schmid, M. S. 2013. First language attrition. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 3.1: 97–116.

    DOI: 10.1075/lab.3.1.05schE-mail Citation »

    This article is part of a volume on the state of the art in research on various contexts of bilingualism. The contribution on language attrition offers a historical outline of the main developments in the field, culminating in the proposal that language attrition may provide additional insight into controversial questions relating to language development which cannot be resolved based on investigations of L2 development alone. As an example, the potential contribution of attrition research to the Critical Period debate is explored.

  • Schmid, M. S., and B. Köpke. 2017. The relevance of first language attrition to theories of bilingual development. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 7.6: 637–667.

    DOI: 10.1075/lab.17058.schE-mail Citation »

    This keynote article explores the scope of language attrition effects, the influence of background factors, and how these can both be captured by current theoretical models and validate and refine them. It compares phenomena found in the L1 of long-term immersed bilinguals on the one hand and beginning instructed L2 learners on the other, and proposes that it is impractical to clearly distinguish online/temporary and representational/permanent effects of L2-to-L1 transfer, nor to propose that only the latter can properly be considered L1 attrition.

  • Seliger, H. W., and R. M. Vago. 1991. The study of first language attrition: An overview. In First language attrition. Edited by H. W. Seliger and R. M. Vago, 3–16. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This introductory chapter to the first collected volume dedicated specifically to L1 attrition considers psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic aspects of attrition and proposes a three-stage model of bilingual development in which attrition is located in the third and final stage, where high proficiency levels in the L2 lead to a reversal of the direction of crosslinguistic transfer. Not all instances of L2-to-L1 transfer are considered attrition: “it is erosion that reaches the level of competence that allows for interesting claims about and meaningful insight into the attrition process” (p. 7).

  • Sharwood Smith, M. A. 1989. Crosslinguistic influence in language loss. In Bilingualism across the lifespan. Edited by K. Hyltenstam and L. K. Obler, 185–201. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Sharwood Smith presents a psycholinguistic perspective to first language attrition, in particular in terms of the question of whether attrition may affect underlying “competence”—in which case individual speakers can be expected to misuse the relevant form consistently—or whether it is more a matter of the online control of otherwise intact knowledge (“performance”)—in which case there should be more variance.

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