Conflict and attrition between languages and neural consequences
Jubin Abutalebi, Università Vita Salute San Raffaele
Bilingualism leads inevitably to conflicts and attrition between two language systems. These conflicts and attritions are resolved by the intervention of specific neural systems orchestrating attentional and executive control. As I will argue, resolving such attritions will shape individual neurocognitive systems underlying general cognitive functioning. As a long-term effect, bilingualism will hence affect brain structure as well, i.e., inducing experience-related structural changes in terms of increased grey or white matter density or even increasing the connectivity between areas mediating language processing and executive control. The primary goal of my presentation is to provide an overview of the functional and structural changes induced by bilingualisms (i.e., the neural consequences of bilingualism), and, to illustrate specifically how eventually these brain changes may protect the human brain from cognitive decline during aging. As I will conclude, increased attrition and conflict between languages will lead to increased neural changes.
Aging attriters: how methodological challenges can help construct bilingual theories
Merel Keijzer, University of Groningen
(First) language attrition has long established itself as a subfield of the broader realm of bilingualism studies. As such, it can feed off well-researched bilingualism constructs such as transfer, and (bi)directional language interference. But attrition can itself also feed back into bilingual theorizing; so many confounds come together in the single field of language attrition – often stemming from methodological choices that are made – that when properly acknowledged can inform bilingual constructs that are currently fiercely debated such as the nature of language and cognitive control. More specifically, L1 attrition studies have typically adopted a number of inclusion criteria for subject recruitment, including a minimum age of 15 at the time of immigration from the L1 environment and a minimal length of 10 years of residing in the L2 environment, to allow attrition to also pertain to structural language domains. As a consequence, L1 attrition subjects are often older adults, a mean age of 60+ at the time of testing being very common. That attrition is then hard to tease apart from healthy aging effects is not typically acknowledged. Mira Goral addressed this very important issue: first language attrition is often compared with first language acquisition, but very rarely with normal healthy-aging processes of language decline (but see de Bot & Weltens, 1991). We know that certain cognitive functions decline in advanced age: processing speed, working memory and inhibitory control are all reported to suffer. Older immigrants are often anecdotally reported to return to their first language and show L2 attrition. It has been suggested that this language reversion pattern may have been misinterpreted and instead reflects a lack of cognitive control in advanced age, surfacing as bidirectional language interference. In this paper, I will –using other people’s work and my own attrition datasets – tie in a number of previously singularly addressed constructs in attrition research: aging immigrants, language attrition, and language reversion, to arrive at a dynamic view of language attrition, and ultimately show how what are seen as methodological challenges in attrition research help shed light on the nature of bilingualism constructs such as language and cognitive control.
The consequences of native language regulation for bilingualism and second language learning
Judith Kroll, University of California, Riverside/Pennsylvania State University
A compelling body of research now demonstrates that proficient bilinguals are not monolingual-like in their native language. Bilinguals learn to regulate the native language to enable proficient second language (L2) performance and to coordinate the effective use of the two languages. In this talk, I review the scope of first language (L1) regulation and then consider how the ability to adapt the use of the L1 may play a role in producing the cognitive and neural changes that have been reported for proficient bilinguals. I then propose a new hypothesis about late L2 learning: successful adult L2 learners are individuals who are able to effectively change the native language to accommodate the L2 and to negotiate the cross-language competition that characterizes proficient bilingualism. The hypothesized changes may involve processing costs that initially slow the native language and make performance more error prone, make learners less sensitive to some features of the native language, and that open the native language to the influences of the L2. I review evidence from studies of language processing and brain imaging and consider the role of language immersion and its relation to language attrition. On the view I will present, language attrition may reflect an extreme consequence of the high level of plasticity associated with learning and using two languages.
Language attrition and intergenerational transmission
Silvina Montrul, University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign
Bilingual native speakers can show different degrees of ability in one of their native languages because language proficiency can be profoundly shaped by the environment. This is particularly true for heritage speakers of immigrant languages whose mastery of the heritage language in early adulthood is often significantly different from that of both native speakers in the home country and their immigrant parents. Adult immigrants with more than ten years of immersion in a second language environment can lose their status as native speakers when they undergo first language attrition, forgetting words and grammatical features of their native language. Yet, the extent and range of this loss is much smaller compared to that of their children, the second generation. Infrequent language exposure and use of the heritage language during childhood and adolescence lead to interruption in the traditional route of language development in the heritage speakers. However, the possibility also exists that, if the first generation of immigrants shows signs of attrition, these patterns may also affect the quality of the input and the language transmitted to the second generation. In this talk, I present data from Spanish and Hindi as heritage languages in the United States showing that the Spanish and Hindi heritage speakers exhibit simplification and omission of differential object marking (DOM) in production and judgment data, but only the Spanish-speaking immigrants show signs of attrition of the same phenomenon. While it is natural to conclude that unlike the Hindi-speaking immigrants, the Spanish-speaking adult immigrants may have transmitted a different (attrited) DOM grammar to the Spanish heritage speakers I consider the opposite possibility instead: that the heritage speakers of Spanish may have contributed to the attrition of DOM in the parental generation. I discuss how the changing nature of input throughout the lifespan of heritage speakers may contribute to the acquisition, maintenance, and potential change of the language at the individual level and across generations.
Brain signatures of L1 attrition: Evidence from event-related potentials
Karsten Steinhauer, McGill University, Montreal
Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) provide an excellent method to study the temporal dynamics of language processing in real-time. This includes the fascinating neurocognitive changes that occur while a new language is being acquired. In the past 20 years, ERP research investigating sentence processing in second language (L2) learners has led to a number of models that try to address these neural changes and the role of modulating factors such as age of acquisition (AoA), language proficiency, first language (L1) background, the type of language exposure (e.g., implicit versus explicit training environments), as well as inter-individual differences in learning trajectories and processing preferences. An important limitation of this research has been that AoA and L2 proficiency levels are typically (negatively) correlated in L2 learners, such that AoA effects attributed to a “critical period” may instead simply reflect the level of proficiency. Attriters, whose late-acquired L2 has become the dominant language, may shed important new light on the respective role of these factors.
Whether and to what extent L1 attrition is characterized by similar neurocognitive changes, and whether such changes may mirror those in language acquisition – but “in reverse” – remains an open empirical question that only few recent investigations have begun to address. My talk will primarily focus on a series of large-scale ERP studies from our lab that probe brain signatures for lexical-semantic and morpho-syntactic processes in Italian immigrants who have lived for many years in Montreal (Canada), who describe English as their predominant language, and who report problems in their L1 (Italian). ERP online data have been collected for both their L1 (Italian) and their L2 (English) and are compared to the ERP profiles of English and Italian monolinguals, as well as to English-Italian bilinguals who acquired the two languages in the reverse order. Among other advantages, this complex design allows us to investigate how factors such as (i) ‘being bilingual’ (versus monolingual), (ii) age of language acquisition (AoA), and (iii) proficiency levels in each language, interact and modulate neurocognitive mechanisms underlying online language processing.