Plenary Speakers

Robert Adam, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

This keynote lecture will discuss attrition in sign languages and discuss examples of attrition in: (1) sign language communities, with a historical review of what has happened in some communities and their sign languages, and (2) individuals from a minority sign language community, with descriptions of the evidence for attrition found in analysis of sign language conversations. I will discuss some of the outcomes of language planning and language shift in deaf communities around the world, as a result of sign language colonialism, and sign language unification (Adam, 2015). Some sign languages have been supplanted by other sign languages, and some spoken languages have increased in prominence (particularly in education) over sign languages (Robinson & Henner, 2017), resulting in community language attrition.I will then turn to examples of individual sign language attrition from Australian Irish Sign Language (Adam, 2016) and Maritime Sign Language (Buchanan, 2021) focussing on endangered sign language communities. Examples of ongoing attrition are seen in conversation data, where participants struggled to retrieve lexical items from their first language, the minority sign language, and resorted to using strategies to overcome difficulties in retrieval of signs. These include fingerspelling in their own minority sign language, fingerspelling in the majority sign language, doubling the item with a sign from both languages or doubling the item with a sign from one of the two languages and a fingerspelled item. These fingerspelling switches seem to be unique to sign languages in that conversation partners not only resort to using lexical signs from one or the other language but also to the fingerspelling system.

Laura Domínguez, University of Southampton

 The ‘Vulnerable Native Grammars’ project:
a new framework to investigate grammatical attrition

It is widely recognised that learning more than one language delivers a range of cultural, socioeconomic and wellbeing benefits, both for individuals and for the wider society. By contrast, hardly any emphasis is typically placed on the other side of the coin, namely whether becoming proficient in a second language might negatively affect a speaker’s knowledge, use or confidence in their native language. Furthermore, grammatical attrition has not always been straightforward to account for by formal models of language acquisition which generally assume that speakers’ grammars remain impervious to change beyond the childhood period of language acquisition. In this talk I will present and discuss the AHRC-funded ‘Vulnerable Native Grammars (VNG)’ project which tests the ‘Attrition via Acquisition (AvA)’ formal model of the human language faculty (Hicks and Domínguez, 2019) that accommodates the possibility of ‘attrition’ (i.e. modification or loss) of morphosyntactic properties in a first language. The AvA model integrates a formally explicit generative grammar (see Chomsky 2000, 2001) into a generalised model of language acquisition (following Lidz and Gagliardi, 2015). Under this model, attrition is accounted for as another possible outcome of bilingualism. I will discuss and illustrate the main predictions of the model and how are testing these in the VNG project.

Brian MacWhinney, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

There are four puzzles confronting the psycholinguistic study of language attrition. The first involves the extent to which an L1 which is no longer being used actively can still be preserved in remarkably full form by adult emigrants. Studies of longterm memory refer to this as “permastore”. This effect is directly opposed by a second effect, which involves the near total loss of L1 by adopted or immigrant children who lose contact with L1 in the new L2 environment. How it can be that adult emigrants maintain a permastore that is not fully unavailable to children represents a second puzzle. This contrast underscores a third puzzle confronting connectionist models of L2 learning which tend to suffer from “catastrophic interference” in which L2 learning essentially overwrites L1. This effect could be viewed as in accord with language loss in childhood, but it is very much out of accord with the permastore effect for adults. A final puzzle relates to the methodological challenge of deciding whether a given intrusion of an L2 form arises from processing limitations, dialect features, language similarity, code-switching appropriateness, or between-language competition. Moreover, these issues vary across linguistic levels. I will argue that features of the Unified Competition Model can be used to address each of these four puzzles.

Monika S. Schmid, University of York

The final frontier? – Why we have been ignoring L2 attrition, and it’s time we stopped

In the early 1980s, Richard D. Lambert and Barbara F. Freed of the University of Pennsylvania did an extremely brave thing: They observed that “vast amounts of time, energy, and funding have been invested to further the development of curriculum materials and methodology to increase second language learning”, but that “the maintenance of these skills once attained” had largely been disregarded (Lambert & Freed, 1982:v). They pointed out that laypeople and experts alike tend to believe that the functional command of such skills will see rapid decline once instruction ceases, and that there is therefore the very real possibility that all of the resources poured into instructed language learning are ultimately wasted (see Köpke & Schmid, 2004).

It takes a rare researcher – one of Lambert’s calibre – to have the courage to question the fundamental usefulness of their own area and this may in part explain why, forty years on, Lambert & Freed’s observation is no less correct: language learners drop off the horizon of research, policy and pedagogy the moment they have attained their degree or diploma. It is no exaggeration to say that, at the present point in time, we have no understanding whatsoever of how – or even if – foreign language skills can attrite; which grammatical or lexical features are more or less vulnerable, and why; what other factors (length of time, amount of contact, attitudes) will facilitate or impede attrition; nor how former learners can be supported in maintaining or regaining proficiency (and whether pedagogical approaches geared towards learning a language the first time round are fit for purpose in re-learning). There is even less understanding of how pedagogical approaches and characteristics of learner experience feature into the attritional process. To give but one example, the “earlier is better” view of Foreign Language instruction has been thoroughly debunked in recent years following a number of impressive, large-scale and longitudinal studies (see e.g. Mitchell & Myles, 2019; Muñoz, 2008), but these insights are all based on learning trajectories and the recognition that younger children do , in fact, develop more slowly than older children or adolescents/adults. However, the question of whether age-related differences in learning trajectories may lead to knowledge which is more or less resilient post-instruction has never been asked.

This lack of knowledge is staggering, in particular considering that most instructed language learning takes place before age 25, and that most people will therefore spend at least twice as much of their lives being attriters than they did being learners – and that there are therefore likely to be considerably more attriters in need of support in the world than there are learners.

            There are few but notable exceptions to the widespread blinkeredness of the field of second language acquisition, learning, and teaching to the problem of Foreign Language Attrition (FLA), in particular a small number of widely known early studies (e.g. Bahrick, 1984; Weltens, 1989). Over the past two decades, however, investigations of L2 attrition have been very few and far between (see Mehotcheva & Köpke, 2019, for a recent overview). The field thus continues to suffer from the same shortcomings pointed out for L1 attrition research two decades ago (Köpke & Schmid, 2004) – a lack of empirical evidence, theoretical frameworks, and methodological coherence – compounded by problems which are specific to this field and do not apply in the same way in L1 attrition, in particular the difficulty of establishing a baseline and the diversity of contexts (e.g. study abroad, returnees, indigenous or minority languages, etc.).

            The present talk will give an overview of what is and what isn’t known about L2 attrition at the present time. It will then present a new research project which aims to establish a large, open-access database of information about L2 attrition and show the results from a pilot project. Based on these findings, I will sketch a research agenda for L2 attrition, and show how this may influence language policy and language pedagogy in years to come.