S1 E9: Byelingual: Attrition – Prof. Monika Schmid

In this episode, we are joined by Prof. Monika S. Schmid from the University of Essex. Monika obtained her PhD in English Linguistics in 2000 from the Heinrich-Heine Universität Düsseldorf. The topic of her thesis was First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance: the case of German Jews in Anglophone Countries – and currently Monika’s work focuses on various aspects of first language attrition, language change from learning new languages. Previously, she has held positions at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. In September 2013, she became a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Essex, where in 2018 she became the Head of Department of Language and Linguistics. At Essex, Monika is a member of the Centre for Research in Language Development throughout the Lifespan (LaDeLi) and the Bilingualism Matters branch @EastofEngland.

Monika has published two monographs and edited several collected volumes and special issues of journals on attrition, most recently the Oxford Handbook of Language Attrition (2019). Her website, Language Attrition, collects information on language attrition and provides tips on how to study it for non-specialists and researchers alike. She regularly also writes for The Conversation about related topics and, to date, has had over half a million reads!

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Eva-Maria] Hello, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of much language such talk. It’s me, Eva-Maria and I’m really excited about today’s episode. Today I’m joined by one of our volunteers, Mattia. Hi, Mattia, would you like to introduce yourself?

[Mattia] Hey, everybody. I’m Mattia. I’m a third year PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. And I’m doing research on second language acquisition and first language change in adult language learners.
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[Eva-Maria] Fantastic. Welcome. So, as I said before, and as you can tell, from the episode title, we will be talking about language attrition. And don’t worry if you don’t know what that is, we will be covering that in a minute. And to do so, Mattia and I are joined today by Professor Monika Schmid. And if you have ever looked up what attrition is, you will have come across her name. As a leading expert in the field, Monika received her PhD from the University of Düsseldorf where she focused on language attrition in German Jewish refugees, who fled Germany before World War Two. And after working in the Netherlands for 15 years, she then moved to England where she’s a professor of linguistics at the University of Essex. Her research focuses on bilingual development and in particular on change instability in the native language. She also writes for
The Conversation where she has over half a million reads already. I’ve had the pleasure of attending Monika’s classes in the Netherlands during my Master’s. And Mattia and I are both really excited for our conversation today. So welcome, Monika!

[Monika] Thanks, Eva

[Eva-Maria] Hi, thanks for joining us, and thanks for taking the time in your busy schedule. Let’s just dive right in how did you develop your interest in languages and linguistics in general?

[Monika] I came about it a little bit through a side door. I actually studied translation of literature. And it was in my second half, I took a class in functionalist syntax with Professor Dieter Stein. And until then, I had had really very little interest in linguistics, but that really grabbed my attention. And I really thought it was very, very cool, what the work that I was reading, what was done there, so then I stuck with it.

[Eva-Maria] So now you work on attrition. Would you mind defining what attrition is? Just give a simple, as simple as possible, definition [laughs].

[Monika] Never ask a scientist about a simple definition or a simple explanation. I’ve tried to come to such a definition or such an understanding for a long time, and as some people have recently pointed out, the way in which I have defined attrition has changed over time. I personally don’t think that is a sign of weakness really, or of a bad scientist, I think if you work on something for 25 years. and you never change your mind about what it is, then you’re probably not doing a very good job. So my current approach to it is that, when you have two languages that live in your brain, they mess with each other. That is completely unavoidable. It is also completely normal. If you learn a second language, nobody will, particularly if you’re an adult, nobody will expect you to be 100% perfect, I’m never going to not have a foreign accent in English. I’m just learning Spanish. And I’m probably never going to be really, really good in Spanish. And I don’t expect that. So, we accept as a matter of course, that the native language will mess with any language that we acquire later in life. What we don’t expect and what many people don’t accept, and what actually many people get very angry about is that the reverse is also true. If you have a native language and you have a second language which you develop, particularly if you use it relatively regularly and at a relatively high level of proficiency, the second language is going to interfere and mess with the first language in many, many different ways. It’ll be evident in your pronunciation. It’ll be visible in your word choice. it’ll be visible in the fact that you sometimes can’t remember words. It’ll be visible in your grammar. It’ll be visible in your strategies of politeness, and all, at all sorts of other levels. And all of those things are what I would call attrition.

[Eva-Maria] So, you just mentioned that people have come, you know, forward quite forcefully. Mattia and I both do attrition research as well. And the term itself has been debated. Can you tell us why?

[Monika] I think for two reasons. The first one is… this is something that I think I first really encountered that view in discussions with Vivian Cook as far back as maybe 2003, 2004. Who said, “I don’t like attrition, because it’s, it’s such a negative term. And the connotations are, I don’t know, war of attrition and things like that.” So that is, the negative implications are one reason that people don’t like the term. More recently, as we learn more about attrition, we find that originally, when people first started looking at the phenomenon, which isn’t really that long ago, it was really in the 1980s, that this was put on the scientific agenda. And that was also a time when the competence performance distinction was still very, very strong, and a big sort of conceptual reality in linguistics, which this has changed to some extent, we don’t call it competence-performance anymore. All these kinds of things. But way back then, a lot of people, several people formulated very clearly and very explicitly that attrition. When it, it only becomes interesting when it reaches the level of competence. So, when it reaches the level of representation. Now, more and more as cumulative research evidence has begun to emerge, it’s become clear that that simply doesn’t happen in mature speakers. Once you’ve learned a language monolingually and natively until about puberty, so until you’re about 12 or 13 years old, it’s stable. And in really none of the work that I am aware of, certainly none of the work that I have done, has there ever been any indication of somebody really forgetting, for example, no longer being able to apply, a grammatical rule, or really losing a phonological distinction or anything like that, anything of what we would consider the underlying structure. The underlying grammar of language seems to be really quite resilient to any erosion. And the second reason why people object to the term attrition is because they hold that as a term, attrition implies structural erosion. So, on that view, you can’t use it to refer to sort of superficial online phenomena that make up the bulk if not the entirety of language attrition as we know it.

[Mattia] Yes, thanks very much, Monika. That’s enlightening. And it certainly gave a bit of a background on what we’re talking about. And thinking about the myths surrounding bilingualism, which, unfortunately, are still many, if we think for a second about the effect of the L2 on the L1, you know, we know that for example, this is often seen as a sign of confusion by many, or even described as a negative aspect. So uh, what would you have to say about that?

[Monika] I don’t think it’s a sign of confusion. Definitely. I think it’s a negative aspect in the responses that you’re likely to receive. Eva was mentioning earlier on that I sometimes write for the Conversation, I wrote something quite recently about something, I had never heard of this person. Hilaria Baldwin, she’s an actor but she’s probably best known for being the wife of Alec Baldwin. And… It’s a bit… There’s some history there. People say she lied about her background. So, she always, sort of, identified as a person from, from a Spanish background. Then people dug out her birth certificate, and she was born in Boston, and her parents are English. And you know, but if you listen to her speaking Spanish, it is actually quite clear that she must have spent a really substantial part of her childhood in a Spanish speaking environment. So, I have no, I have no knowledge and not really that much interest to be honest, in where that person grew up, and what happened. What I find interesting is, there are some videos of her, one where she is in a cookery show. And she’s saying “Oh, we’re going to make Gazpacho, and here’s, and then you take the… What do you call it in English? A cucumber” – And she really sort of just, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I can’t remember the English word for this.” And the fury you get on the internet about things like that, you know, “fake Spaniard”, and “she’s pretending to forget.” And there are other videos, sometimes she has a stronger Spanish accent, sometimes her English is more sort of monolingual American English- like, people go “aah, she’s pretending, she’s putting it all on and then it’s all fake!” And you see this all the time? Of course, even if you’re not a famous person, you know, Eva, you’ll know if you go back to Germany, people say “ah come on,” you know, “you’re, you’re now pretending, you’ve lived in Scotland for five minutes. And you’re no longer able to speak German properly.”

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, they call it pretentious. Or just like, Oh, just like, think harder. Try harder.

[Monika] Exactly.

[Eva-Maria] And people just to kind of tend to forget how dynamic bilingualism is.

[Monika] Yeah. And there seems to be this, this really accepted view that this is something that does not happen. And that I think is the true negative of what being multilingual does to your native language. I think the effects in themselves, I said earlier, there is, as far as I am aware, if you were over age 11, 12 or so, when you migrated, when you became bilingual, then your native language is safe, structurally, you know, you’ll always have it to fall back on. But, those little things, you know, okay, you develop a little bit of an accent. Well, if you move around, if I… I was I was raised in Stuttgart, in Southern Germany with people have a very strong regional accent, we moved away from there. I mean, I was just about 12. I lost the accent within three months. And my mother, also who of course, was an adult at the time also changed her accent. So, if it happens within the same country, nobody would, nobody would be surprised. But if it’s another language that enters into the mix, then all of a sudden, you’re just this big fake show-off. And that I think that is a negative effect, which is the result of people being insufficiently aware of what’s going on. And that’s why I tend to try to push the message out beyond the scientific community. And of course, then you’ll always see that people say, you see the responses to the articles and people just won’t be convinced. My favorite story about this is… this was again, a piece that, well, let me backtrack. You know how when you, when you read things about bilingualism in the papers, you basically see the headline of the article, you think, “Oh, I know what the article says, I’ll go straight to the comments.” There was an article in The Guardian about, it was called the joys of the joys and benefits of being bilingual or something like that. And there was one comment at the bottom, which said, “Oh, yes, I know what it’s like to be bilingual, because I’m an English native speaker, but I’ve lived in France for a long time. And I find it very difficult. My wife doesn’t speak any English at all. And when I try to speak English these days, then I drop in French words, and I have, and I find it very difficult.” And that poor guy had the scorn of the internet poured all over him. People say, “Oh, you know, I don’t, Firstly, you should have taught your wife English. And secondly, I don’t believe that you’re losing your English.” And then other people came to his rescue and said, to his support and said, “Yeah, no, this happens all the time.” And then a couple of months later, a piece that I had written on The Conversation was published in The Guardian. And again, of course, I looked at the comments first, and one of the first comments that were posted there was somebody who said, “this piece is entire piece is utter nonsense.” So, you think all right, you know, nice to have that gotten straight, you know? And then other people again, weighed in and said, “Oh, no, it’s entirely believable. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to my wife, it’s happened to whoever.” And then the guy came back and said, “Okay, so I live in the reverse. I speak French all the time. And I never have any problems when I speak English” and blah, blah, blah. And also, “I have a friend who speaks five languages, and it never happens to her.” And firstly, what was interesting about this little response was that it was full of structures that were ungrammatical in English. So clearly, the person while saying my English is perfect, literally, that was what he said, “My English is perfect.”, he was using French- type constructions and so on all over the place.[Eva-Maria] So he provided examples without knowing it…

[Monika] He was unable to write 150 words without showing evidence of his attrition.

[Eva-Maria] Wow

[Monika] The second reason why it was interesting was that it was the same guy who two months earlier, in response to that piece about the benefits of bilingualism had said, “I find it very difficult to speak English because it is so rare. I drop in French words all the time.” So, you know, how can you How can you convince people? If even though they’ve said two months earlier, this is what happens to me. They read a piece like that and said, “it’s entirely nonsense. It never happens.”

[Eva-Maria] That’s just tiring… [laughter] I don’t know what else to say to that.

[Mattia] Maybe for those instead that are interested in do want to learn about attrition, what would you say, plays a role primarily in attrition? I know, you’ve talked before about like, on a very basic level, why attrition happens. What happens, you know, when we’ve got two languages, constantly active in our minds. But for example, would you say that some people, for example, tend to be more prone to attrition than others? Could you elaborate a bit more on that?

[Monika]  I wish I could. The problem is that to date, there is relatively little evidence. So if you take… what I can predict quite confidently, is that if you go out and you take a substantial proportion of attriters of whatever language combination you choose, and you give them a test, whichever, looking at anything, whether it’s their pronunciation, whether it’s their grammar, whether it’s their lexicon, anything at all, and then you take a control group of people, of monolinguals. You will find that at the group level, unless you’re the task that you chose is too simple, at the group level, you will find a difference. So the controls will outperform the attriters. What you will also find is that the performance of the attriters is spread across a broader range. So, there will be people who do quite a bit worse than the controls. So, the controls will be all more similar to each other and the attriters will be more different from each other, which is a really good starting point. And then you’re going to take everything you know about your attriters, you’re going to try and measure how frequently they speak the language, you’re going to look at how long they’ve been away from the country, you’re going to look at their attitudes, you’re going to look at their educational level, going to look at how frequently they read or watch films or write emails or chat or do whatever else. And then you’re going to put all of this into a statistical model. And then you’re going to find absolutely nothing whatsoever.

[Mattia] [laughter] Isn’t that reassuring?

[Eva-Maria] About to finish my PhD. So thank you.

[general laughter]

[Monika] And on the other hand, I can also predict if you take, say take three people that illustrate the full range of attriters. So. what do you what you’re also going to find in this study is that you will find a substantial proportion of people, probably about half of them, who will perform within the range of the monolinguals. And the other, half to a third will fall outside that range, right? So, you take somebody who’s at the top range of the monolinguals, you take somebody who’s at the bottom range of the monolinguals. And you take somebody who’s clearly outside the range of the monolinguals. And you show these examples to 50 people on the street and say, “these are all people who haven’t lived in their native environment for so and so long. And here’s how they differ from each other. Why do you think that is?” And all 50 of them are going to say, “Oh, the person at the top uses their language the most, and the person at the bottom uses their language the least, they just don’t have the opportunity.” And that, we clearly know to be wrong. We clearly know that simplistic measures of language use don’t work. It’s not… and I get it all the time when I when I talk to people, and I say “Oh, you know, you’ve, you’ve lived in England for so long. Do you, do you find that your Italian,” or your… What’s your native language actually Mattia?

[Mattia] It’s Italian. Yeah.

[Monika] So, do you find that your Italian or German or Spanish or whatever, has it changed? And then they will either say, “No, I don’t think so. But I speak it all the time.” Or, “Oh, yes, it’s changed, because I just don’t have the opportunity to speak it.” And then I say, well, the causality that you’re applying here is wrong. It doesn’t work like that. For example, if you, if you have, if you Mattia, if you have an Italian partner and you use Italian with each other all the time, the likelihood is that those tiny changes that happen in everyone’s language, because we use a second language, all the time, those tiny changes, you’ll bounce them off each other, they all kind of accelerate each other. So, you will live in a situation of accelerated language change and sort of microcosm in which your language evolves quite rapidly. And that’s another reason why people object to the term attrition, because it’s not necessarily a process of deterioration. It’s a process of evolution, your language is changing as any language changes, at any point in time. What we find is that if the objective is to maintain a version of the language that is as close to the version that you spoke when you left the country, the one thing that does help is if you use it professionally, if you use it in a professional setting. But if you just speak it with other bilinguals, Mattia if there are lots of other Italian PhD students that you talk to all the time and sometimes you talk Italian and because you talk about your topic, you code-switch all the time because we find it so difficult to talk about our research in our L1. You’re probably also caught in a kind of circuit of accelerated, speeded-up language change. So quite opposite to supporting and maintaining your L1, you’re actually changing it much faster. I have seen people who have very credibly assured me that they haven’t spoken their native language for four to five decades, who are still perfect. I have seen people who speak it every day, who do not sound like native speakers at all. And the reverse.

[Eva-Maria] Speaking of process of attrition, what is affected first? Like, are there structures of language that are more prone to attrition than for example, you mentioned something about the phonology and the accent? So, what would be… what would go first?

[Monika] I cannot tell you what goes first, because there are no real longitudinal models that have followed people through the first months and years of the process to kind of charter, you know, when do you have the first word finding difficulties, when it’s the first time that you pronounce something strangely. People also often ask, “what is affected most dramatically?” And again, it’s a question that has no meaningful answer. How can you compare occasional word finding difficulties on the one hand, and a slight or more pronounced foreign accent on the other, there are no meaningful units of comparison. What people tend to assume maybe partly because that’s where you find the most consistent differences between attriters and monolinguals is on the one hand, the lexicon, word finding difficulties, the diversity of the lexicon, speed in tasks, such as picture naming tasks, in verbal fluency tasks, and all these kinds of things. So how you pull the words out of your mental lexicon. Another factor that seems to be affected quite consistently is fluency. So attriters, all bilinguals in all of their languages tend to have more sort of enhanced hesitation patterns, maybe. And pronunciation. I mean, there are some really, really interesting studies showing that… I mean, Charles Chang did his PhD on English pronunciation of people who were monolingual until they took, they were adults, and they took an intensive six-week course in Korean. And at the end of those six weeks, their pronunciation, the production I think, had changed measurably.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, it’s super, super interesting. So, we kind of, we kind of mentioned it earlier, that some people, especially on a personal level, find attrition, quite frustrating. And I can, you know, say that from experience as well, that once I moved to the Netherlands and started learning Dutch, that I, almost by the second, felt that my English was taking toll basically, because I took an intensive course a four week course in Dutch that brought me to B2 level. So for me, that was very frustrating because I had just lived in the US, my English was, like, great, and then Dutch happened, and all of a sudden, everybody told me like, “what’s wrong with your English? All of a sudden you sound so German” and all of that. So, I can, you know, sympathize with all the people that find attrition frustrating. So. if you think of that, how does attrition affect their perception they have of themselves as being a proficient or native speaker? Is that something to be worried about?

[Monika[  Um, I think that is, for me the reason the main reason why I think all of these ideas that people have of people, you know, sort of presenting themselves of showing off, you know, saying, “I’m so multilingual and so multicultural, look, I can’t even speak my L1 perfectly and fluently anymore.” Why, that is just nonsense. Because if you look at any attriter struggling with anything, you know, I mean, the last thing in the world that we feel at that moment when we can’t remember a word, or when we sort of find ourselves in the middle of a sentence and realize that there is no way in the world that that sentence is ever going to have a happy end… [laughter]

[Eva-Maria] Yeah it’s everything but glorious.

[Monika] Exactly. I mean, the last thing we feel is cool and confident, and confident and multicultural. We feel like total dorks. And that is, that is difficult to deal with. I said, I think it was in, that was in the, in the piece that was republished in The Guardian, I said, if you’re, if you’re an attriter, you feel maybe not so much like a fish out of water, but a sea lion out of water, you know, where you normally would be kind of elegant and in your element and moving about fluidly, and with grace and whatever, you’re just sort of stuck on the land, and you flap about, and you’re just this big mess of blubber that isn’t really going anywhere, whatsoever, it looks sort of slightly ridiculous.

[Eva-Maria] That’s a good metaphor. [general laughter]

[Monika] It’s exactly how I feel. When I try to when I try to speak German these days. Um, yeah…

[Eva-Maria] Yeah I can’t imagine having this interview in German.

[Monika] Oh, it would be a disaster. I was talking to a friend on the phone yesterday. And she asked me, she said, she’s German and she uses English all the time for her work. And she said, they’re going to France in the summer, and her French used to be very good. And she said she was going to learn French, reactivate her French. And she said, do I have to worry about my English? And I tried to explain to her what I think is going on in her brain. And it was a disaster. I was fumbling about, I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but I just didn’t know how to say it.

[Eva-Maria] Not in German.

[Monika] Not in German, exactly. So, is it a problem? Well… what’s a problem? A problem is what you perceive to be a problem. I mean, if you say, Okay, this is just, it’s just how it is. And I have to accept, this is very important, that specialized skills, that link to how you communicate something, do not transfer automatically from one language to the next. I have a little task that I sometimes give my students, I say, imagine you are, imagine you are of Pakistani heritage. You’re, you grew up in the UK, but your parents always spoke Urdu, so you’re fluent in Urdu, your main dominant native language is English. You’re trained as a nurse, you’re trained in English, you always communicate in English, and then you go to, and then at some point, it’s COVID. And an elderly patient is admitted to the ward and he has virtually no English. And so you start communicating with this person in Urdu. How would you feel? And they all say, “Oh, I would, it would make me feel good, because I would be helping this patient and because I would, you know, I would…” And I say, yeah, but what do you would also do is you would abandon the professional detachment because building up professional detachment between yourself and the people you work with, is part of what you learned as part of your training as a nurse. And you never learned to do that when you use your native language. So, what might also happen is that you neglect other patients, unprofessionally, because you want to give this person, because you have a bond with this person, because you never learned how not to have this bond. But you cannot afford that. Now imagine the patient is not a lovely 90-year-old gentleman, but is somebody in their 40s. And then that person starts overstepping the bounds because you started to overstep the bounds first, you know, and that person starts to sort of harass you, or becomes sexually inappropriate. We cannot assume, that because we can do something in one language, we’ve just talked about it with respect to our research, but it extends to everything else in exactly the same way. We cannot assume that because we speak two languages at a high level of proficiency, we can do the thing that we can do in one language automatically in the other, that it just transfers. It doesn’t happen.

[Mattia] Yeah, I agree. I mean, that’s a really good point. And I certainly relate to the feelings of frustration that we were talking about before and the metaphor that you, Monika, put forward.

[Eva-Maria] I acutally, when I talk to people about this, I usually say like, “as frustrating as it sometimes can be, it’s good that it happens, because otherwise we wouldn’t have anything to research.” [general laughter] I just see it from that angle. So, that makes it all better.

[Mattia] So, yeah, like, linking to what we’ve just said. Do you think is there anything that you think that a speaker can do to some somewhat lessen the impact of attrition? And connected to that once attrition takes place, is it a process that’s actually irreversible or does it change?

[Monika] It’s a question that’s often asked. The question about irreversibility, I’m afraid is another one that I think is, if you think about it, is probably meaningless. Because we assume, don’t we, that these days, mainly, that anyone can learn any language at any point in their lives. If I can learn Spanish now, and I’m not doing as well with it as I would like, and I know exactly why it’s not, it’s nothing to do with a critical period, it’s nothing to do with anything else, it’s probably not even that much to do with my age, it’s just to do with the fact that I don’t have enough time. But if I had enough time, I could learn Spanish, probably to a fairly high standard. I was able to learn Dutch to a fairly high standard in my early 30s. So, if I can learn a new language from scratch, and get very good at it at any point in in my in my life, then of course, it makes no sense whatsoever to think that I can’t also learn something that I already knew at some point and then forgot. So that’s the first bit about the irreversibility that just simply doesn’t make sense to me. If there was such a thing as real forgetting of the language, then we’d have to sort of say, not, is it irreversible in the sense that I can’t get it back, but is it irreversible, in the sense that the advantage that I have in getting it back over somebody who is trying to get it and never had it, and then it gets so complex that it just really can’t properly be measured. But if you think about what I said earlier, in any case, structural erosion is probably something of the native language, it’s probably something that doesn’t exist in the first place very much. So, what does exist is languages messing with each other in my brain. My pronunciation of things changing, my… sometimes possibly my interpretation of words changing. There’s a lovely example from somebody in German, this was one of the German Jews that Eva mentioned at the beginning, was talking about how during the pogrom November 11th 1938, the Nazis coming into their home and destroying everything, and the word that she used in German was ‘zerstreut’, they destroyed things, ‘sie haben es zerstreut.’ Now ‘zerstreut’ in German, it means ‘to scatter’, the word that she was meaning to use was ‘zerstören’. And of course, what you have here is you have the sound structure of ‘to destroy’, destroyedzerstreut, and the sounds go together. So, these kinds of things, that’s really where, where the languages are messing with each other and where you get this kind of blended form, and there’s probably no way to avoid that happening in your brain. If languages reside there, they are in contact with each other. It is possible probably to reduce the impact of it in your speech production and in your language use. If you have, say you want to return to the country where you came from, and you’re writing job applications, and you’re going on job interviews and things like that. If it’s if it’s something where it’s really important because, of course, in a job interview, you will be judged not only on what you know, and what you say, but you will be judged on how you say it and how you present yourself. So, under those circumstances, I would recommend very, very strongly to try and expose yourself back into the language as much as you can for a few days. What we know from the few studies of attrition and re-immersion in the native language context, is that people tend to bounce back to monolingual native levels, on most of the features that have been studied and have been looked at, within days or weeks. So, in response to your question, Is it reversible? I think it definitely is. And very quickly too. Can you avoid, if you’re, you know, living in an L2 environment? Well, as I said before, if you work with the language, if you use the language in a professional context, if you’re a teacher or a translator, or interpreter, any kind of thing like that, that will minimize the impact of you know, in your in your speech production of cross linguistic interference.

[Mattia] No, that is reassuring. [laughter]

[Eva-Maria] There’s hope. I mentioned that I found attrition frustrating, but in the context of my third language and second language, and that’s what I’m focusing on right now for my PhD. But is attrition more common in the native language? Or is it also something that happens in foreign languages a lot?

[Monika] Well the interesting thing is, I do this often when I give a talk, I say how many people in this room think that they have at least one language, in which at the present point in time, they are not as proficient as they used to be at some point in the past? Absolutely everybody shouts ‘here’, and most of them think it is a second language. And they were all wrong [laughter]. From the research that we can see, attrition of second languages is actually just as limited as attrition in the first language and also, probably as reversible. Not if you were at a very basic level, I think at a very basic level, probably A1, A2 can, but this is just my gut feeling that it’s around that level. But if you are fairly proficient, you can recover whatever you once had in your second language, probably just as quickly, maybe not quite as quickly, but also, very quickly as in the native language. What we find of course, what you said earlier, I found it interesting when you said you started learning Dutch and the language that was affected was your strongest L2. I think I have this sense that the brain sort of labels languages, not even at the top level, not at English, French, Dutch, Spanish, German or whatever. But there is sort of native language, and then there’s all the other languages. And when you try and speak, so first of all, you make the decision, am I going to speak native language or foreign? And then you sort of trickle down through foreign into the language that you want. And that’s why they mess with each other. My Spanish, I went to a PhD defense. I ‘went to haha’, I was at the same desk, but the PhD defense in Toulouse a couple of months ago. It was a disaster. I can’t say a single grammatical French sentence anymore because particularly the words, Spanish words, not even just the cognates, everything just gets in the way. But that’ll sort itself out. Once my Spanish has stabilized a little bit and everything, you know. It was the same at first when I started learning Dutch, my French took an absolute nosedive.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, the thing is that maybe, I don’t want to say that my English was more affected than my German when I learned Dutch. But English was the most frustrating, because for my German, there were actually quite a few funny moments when I went home. And because Dutch and German are so typologically close, I just started translating idioms word by word into German that did not make sense at all. And my mom just kept looking at me like ‘What you’re saying are German words, but they do not make sense!’. So, I can’t say that my German was not affected, because it definitely was. But English was really what frustrated me the most.

[Mattia] So, I think getting back to what we were saying, I mean, most of our discussion, I think has revolved around the attrition that happens when someone lives for, perhaps decades, abroad, right? And, of course, they have less chances to speak in their native language. Fernando is asking: do you have anything to say about attrition perhaps happening in a non-immersed environment? Like is that possible?

[Monika] Yes. So, there is some research, very interesting stuff, this is really about, for example, the mechanisms that we use to help our brain get at words. For example, things such as we are quicker to access words, if we’re primed with another word that shares the same onset. So, all these kinds of mechanisms, that help a structure, for example, our lexicon, our vocabulary and things like that. We find that there are very similar effects on people who study a second language at fairly basic levels, actually. So, there are there have been studies at American universities with previously monolingual American students who are starting out on Spanish courses that these sorts of things take place very, very quickly and has also found that this is not something that happens only in immersed contexts. So, I think what’s going on is really, as I said before, two languages residing in your brain, irrespective of the environment that you find yourself in. It’s probably more pronounced in a second language environment, but I think there is the difference is probably a quantitative one, not a qualitative one.

[Mattia] Fair enough. Thank you. And do you think among the different factors, like we said, can influence attrition. What is the role of age?

[Monika] Oh, it’s, it’s crucial. Everything I’ve said today, only applies to people who were probably over the age of 11, or 12, when they became bilingual, before that, the native language is vulnerable. So, the resilience is really, the resilience of the language knowledge is really, really tied to that age. Not only the native language, any language that you learn before then I mean, we always hear about these children of diplomats who travel around and become absolutely fantastically native-like. I talked to a colleague, he also works on L2 attrition and he said he and his family lived in Japan for a while. His two girls went to kindergarten there and became absolutely age appropriate very, very quickly. And I think they were four and six when they left, and they were totally fluent in Japanese. He and his wife learned Japanese. But, of course, nowhere near as easy for them to pick it up as it was for their kids. And then they went away and within a couple of years, he and his wife had retained pretty much everything that they knew, and the kids had lost it completely. So, when Japanese friends came to visit, there was no way that the kids could communicate or understand anything anymore.

[Eva-Maria] Wow.

[Monika] And we see this, I mean, all of these very shocking studies of adoptees, people who were adopted a fairly late ages that are always being cited, Christophe Pallier and all that stuff. And it’s really quite clear. We know this from heritage language, children who had developed absolutely age appropriately until they started school that refuse to speak the language anymore, lost it entirely.

[Mattia] Quite a drastic change, yeah, of course.

[Eva-Maria] So, speaking of the example that you just gave with English and Japanese, because those are languages that are not related, does the typology of the languages play a role in attrition? So, for example, does attrition for a French speaking person in Spain happen faster than if they were to move to Japan?

[Monika] Yeah. I think there’s no question that that is the case, of course. I mean, you and I, we’ve both lived with the impact of Dutch on German and realize that it’s much harder to keep your languages separate when they’re so similar to each other. So, if you have, obviously, if you have two sounds that are equivalent it’s not going to be a problem. It’s hard to say how much of that really exists ever in language beyond the sound system. There’s probably never going to be total equivalents in the lexicon, for example, or in grammar. If you think of Dutch and German, that’s a really good example, Dutch and German word order, are very, very similar. And so, these are probably the kind of minimal, little differences where it’s easiest for something to creep in. So Flege says ‘if it’s equivalent, it’s no problem either to learn or to maintain’. If it’s completely different, it’s possible to acquire, and possible to maintain. But if it’s sort of sufficiently similar, that’s where the problem is. Because if you are a second language learner, and your native language is German, and you learn English and English has the sound ‘th’ that German doesn’t have, then you are likely to take the closest equivalent in your language and say ‘Oh, this is like a sub phenomenon of German ‘s’’. And that’s why sometimes a German might pronounce ‘sink’ and ‘think’, as the same word. And the more of these kind of sufficiently similar things you have, that’s where the languages can mess with each other. The more you have, the easier it is for the languages to mess with each other.

[Mattia] We’ve talked about language typology. What about orthography? For example, do you think that orthography may play a role in language attrition? And also, do you think that perhaps spoken language may attrite faster than written language?

[Eva-Maria] Or the other way around?

[Mattia] Or the other way around.

[Monika] So with orthography, that’s another thing about similar languages. I don’t know, Eva, you will probably have found that as well. Dutch and German have loads of words that are pronounced more or less the same, but spelled differently. And it is…

[Eva-Maria] Yeah. It’s a nightmare.

[Monika]  It’s a nightmare. Exactly. I have a good friend whose second language is French and she consistently misspells the word relative, so ‘relatif’. In German it’s spelled with ‘-tiv’, in French, it’s spelled ‘-tif’, and in Dutch it’s spelled ‘-tief’, with a sort of lengthening [ie] in there. Again, my spelling both in Dutch and German is disastrous these days. Also, because I missed the German spelling reform (which happened in 1996, ed.). I left before then, very wisely. So that’s something that, I don’t think there has been any research on any of the questions that you just asked Mattia. Just from my gut feeling, if you grew up in Russia, went to school in Russia and learned to read and write in Cyrillic, or in any other language that uses a different writing system yet again, I would find it hard to imagine, once you’ve really learned it, and once you’ve become a sort of native, if that is a concept in writing. I haven’t done any research on writing and writing systems, so I don’t know very much about it. But I would find it hard to imagine that that would really erode that the use of these. I mean, like I said, you may find that you struggle with the spelling of some words, under the influence of the spelling, and I think, again, that would be more pronounced in languages such as Dutch and German, which share the same writing system and share cognate words, but write them differently.

[Mattia]  That makes sense. That makes sense. Thank you.

[Eva-Maria]  So to come back to your PhD topic, which was about German-Jewish refugees that fled during the Nazi regime, which is a very, very, intense topic, of course. But, can you tell us more about whether those traumatic events like fleeing your home and leaving everything behind, under these circumstances, like, do these traumatic events accelerate attrition? Or what is the effect of that?

[Monika]  This really is the only study that has ever found a correspondence, probably, because it looked at a very, very specific circumstance. They didn’t flee the war, obviously, because the war had not yet happened, they fled from persecution. The problem, when you look at anything like that, is, if you go to people decades later, and say, you know, what is your attitude? How do you feel about Germany? You’re assessing how they feel about Germany decades later, and it’s very hard to go back to try and reconstruct attitudes and identity at that time. Also, it’s always very hard to really tap into underlying attitudes, particularly if you are a German person. You go there, you know, they think, oh, there’s this nice young PhD student whose come here, and I have nothing against her, so I’m not going to vent all the pent up anger and hatred that are very justifiably held against Germans, you know, she has nothing to do with that. So it’s really, really hard to get at these kinds of things. So, what I did was I started from historical perspective. Persecution of Jews did not sort of fall from the sky on the 31st of January 1933, when Hitler seized power, and then dissolved again into thin air on May the 8th 1945, and everything was fine again. It proceeded in several very clearly delineated stages. And there were kind of key events, that really, qualitatively, changed the experience of life in Germany, for German Jews. The first phase was between the seizure of power in ‘33, and the Nuremberg laws in ‘35. During that first phase, there were boycotts, there was exclusion from schools and universities. So, persecution was mainly targeted against public life. And then, with the Nuremberg laws, it became personal, because there  were legal definitions of who was a Jew, or who was deemed to be a Jew. This was a sort of, you know, all those crazy laws about purity of the race and all that total nonsense. And so for the first time, being a Jew was not something that you could kind of escape from through adopting a Christian faith or anything like that, because it was defined through your ancestry. And then based on that there was this absolute flurry of petty and not so petty laws, on the local level, on the regional level, on the national level. You know, in this town, they’re not allowed to use the ice rink, and they’re not allowed to sit on these benches. But also, you know, you’re not allowed anywhere in Germany to marry somebody who is a Jew and “Aryan” are not allowed, and all those sorts of things. So that was when it became personal, when it really became a much more fundamental part of your identity that you were excluded. And then you have the pogrom in November 1938, where it became clear that your physical integrity and the integrity of your home, there was no longer any protection for any of that. And so I looked at these German Jews, depending on which of these periods they had experienced, when they had left Germany. And there was a very, very clear change from phase to phase. The people who had left the earliest, were by far the best in how they spoke German. And the people who had left the latest, were by far the worst, across everything that I looked at.

[Eva-Maria] That’s super interesting.

[Monika] Yeah, I did one sort of little study where I looked at the syntactic construction used to describe crimes that had been committed by the Nazis against Jews either, sort of, in general or personally towards them. The people who left in the earliest phases overwhelmingly used the passive: “This was done”, “ It was destroyed”,  “It…”, whatever. The people in the last phase overwhelmingly used the active: “They destroyed”, “They did”, “They beat”, “They arrested”. And the people in the middle used this impersonal construction that’s very typical of German, it doesn’t really work very well in English, you know: “One did this,” ‘man hat das gemacht’, which is very common in German, and not at all syntactically marked in any way. So, it also became quite clear, I also looked at the pronoun ‘we’, who did they include in the pronoun we. And the people who left later when they say ‘we’, about their time in Germany, they only use the pronoun we to talk about themselves, and either their immediate family or other Jewish friends. They never use the we to talk about themselves and friends who weren’t Jewish, or other people who weren’t Jewish. So, it really, really shifted.

[Eva-Maria] Wow, yeah. Just the way you described it. That’s, you know, the ones that left at an older age that they used the active form that just gave me chills. Because that is…

[Monika] … Not that’s an older age and later period.

[Eva-Maria] Oh, in a later period.

[Monika] So they stayed past November 1938.

[Eva-Maria] But what was their age?

[Monika] Um, very varied. I think the youngest that I looked at was 11. And the oldest was 40. But there wasn’t any significant difference, between that in any of the three periods.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that’s very, very interesting. Sorry, Mattia, because I’m going to use German as an example one more time. Because of the circumstances and we also cover this in an earlier episode, with Lingo Flamingo, where languages are taught to people in care homes, for example. And the attitude towards German is always a bit difficult. Where, for example, one, I think it was an elderly gentleman who towards his German tutor was just like: “Oh, but you’re nice for a German”. And she asked him: “How many Germans have you met?” And he was like: “Oh, you’re the you’re the first one”. So, the attitude is, especially,  in  the older generation that still might even remember the war and the times. That, you know, the attitudes, of course, play a big role. But do you think that now that we talked about, like, traumatic events and everything, But also, if you are in an environment that is quite judgmental towards your native language, do you think that external force accelerates attrition as well?

[Monika] I think it really depends. And it depends on things like the size of the community. One of the things that we looked at in my research group in Groningen, was attrition among Turkish and Moroccan Arabic speakers in the Netherlands. Now as, you know, Eva, those are languages that are viewed very negatively. One of the last things that I remember hearing on the radio, before I left the Netherlands was absolutely disgusting display, where Geert Wilders, the guy from this right wing Populist Party after some election thing, he did that thing, straight out of the populist playbook, I think Goebbels came up with the idea. You ask people, three different questions, make them basically say the same thing. So first, they say: “Do you want more rules or fewer rules? So you want more this or less that?”. And then they say, and “Do you want in this city, and in the Netherlands, more Moroccans or fewer Moroccan?”, and the entire room shouted ‘minder, minder’, fewer, fewer! But absolutely…

[Eva-Maria] …disgusting.

[Monika] I can’t eat as much as I want to throw up. [laughter] So it can really go either way. What happened with Germans who had left Germany as soon as World War 2 started, you could not speak German in public anymore. And because of this general horror, that, obviously and very justifiably they shared, for many people, that was the time, and some of them have said so explicitly to me, they vowed they would never use German ever again in their life. If you are a member of a group where you feel you’re being unfairly stigmatized, particularly the Moroccans in the Netherlands, and it’s a fairly large and substantial group. And if you retain this positive self-image, and you retain a sense of rootedness and a sense of shared identity, then it can of course, go entirely the other way. And, of course, I think societies know this, and I think right wing populist people know this, you know, the louder you demand that these people have to integrate, and they have to become part of society, and they have to give up what distinguishes them, the more you reinforce their determination not to do that.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah. Yeah, it’s counterproductive, completely. Yeah.

[Monika] So the judgmental environment can swing both ways is what I’m saying.

[Mattia]  Yeah, that was interesting. Yeah, surely. We know, you’re, you’ve created a website, Monika, entirely dedicated to language attrition. We were wondering how you came up with the idea. And, you know, I think related to that too, could you just talk about, perhaps the importance of public engagement and, you know, why is it so important, especially when it comes to, you know, language attrition. And, and your other involvement, for example, with associations like Bilingualism Matters, and the Center for Language Development throughout the Lifespan, which you’re involved with.

[Monika] Originally, the website was supposed to be really a resource for researchers. I first created it and at that time, it was still housed on the server of the University of Groningen, and then I migrated it, after I left Groningen, I migrated it to its own domain. So at first it accompanied… I wrote a textbook in 2011, that was supposed to be a resource for PhD students and MA students, or other undergraduate students, even. Yes, there it is, Eva is holding it up [laughter]. It is still in press and only I think £19.99 or something like that. So, and so I put all the instruments there, the materials that I suggested should be used. And then, I slowly started to do a little bit of outreach. I think the first time that I really got involved with something like that was in 2014, when this American soldier Bowe Bergdahl was recovered from Taliban imprisonment, and his father said in a press conference, he has trouble speaking English, we never knew exactly what that trouble consisted of. But again, social media went wild and the consensus was, of course, that forgetting a native language, and particularly if that native language is American English, is a clear sign of being a traitor and a horrible human being and not a, not a patriot, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all of that. And so at that time, that was the first contribution I wrote for the Conversation that I went on the radio and BBC wrote about it. And I thought, okay, you know, it’s really, a duty to stand up for all the people who experience and who, like now Hilaria Baldwin , or whatever, you know, all the people who are in this kind of situation and are being discriminated against for something that they can’t help. So, that was how that started. And then I began to see more traffic on the webpage. I began to get more emails from people saying: “Oh, you know, I never knew…”, the sort of general theme is somebody writes to me and says: “I am so glad I found your website and never knew that there was a word for what I’m experiencing, I never knew this was something that happens to other people as well”.

[Eva-Maria] And that makes it worthwhile.

[Monika] Absolutely.

[Mattia] Yeah. Thank you.

[Eva-Maria] And that was it. We’ve covered most of the questions we had gathered. Thank you very much, Mattia for being here. And thank you so much Monika for taking the time out of your schedule to join us. So yeah, we hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as much as we enjoyed recording it. Now you know that attrition is a normal process that happens to all bilinguals to some degree. It’s nothing to worry about or to be ashamed of at all – you heard the expert!
If you as listeners want to learn more about language attrition, head over to Monika’s website that we mentioned earlier, languageattrition.org.  If there were any terms we mentioned in this episode or in earlier episodes, that you’re not familiar with, check the glossary on our website mlstpodcast.com. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, and check Bilingualism Matters social media pages as well. Well, until next time, stay safe, stay healthy and

[Monika] Adios! (Spanish for good-bye)

[Mattia] Ciao tutti! (Italian for good-bye everyone)

[Eva-Maria] Tschüssi! (German for bye-bye) [/expand]


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