The Importance of Language Loss

  • October 9, 2006
  • Henriette Langdon

When I finished writing my September 2006 column where I discussed the value of language maintenance, my intention was to provide the readership with some information regarding new research and publications on bilingualism and related fields in this October issue of ¿Qué Tal? But, after some thought, I decided to change my proposed topic and continue my discussion regarding language maintenance.

For those of us who speak more than one language, it is often difficult to maintain the two or more languages at the same levels for the same purposes. We may preserve the less used language for conversation or for reading, but not as much for writing. Sometimes the loss is more dramatic than in other situations. In sum, all of us who are communicating in two languages experience various degrees of language loss. Unless we live in an environment where we have the opportunity to hear and use two languages in both the oral and written modalities and for the very same purposes, we are subject to experience language loss.

Anderson (2004) differentiates “language loss” from “language attrition”, which are both symptomatic of “language shift”. Language “loss ” is a more rapid phenomenon whereas language “attrition” is generally considered to be a more slow process of arrest or decline of the first language over time. Language loss has been observed as a shift in proficiency in both additive and subtractive environments. However, language loss in a subtractive environment may erroneously be considered symptomatic of a language disability. Often, in both additive and subtractive situations, the individual (child or adult) may be proficient in social situations in the first language, but have more difficulty performing on decontextualized language tasks, such as comprehending written text. This phenomenon is even more pronounced if the individual has not been exposed to more academically based tasks in the primary language. It may also occur with adults who have rare opportunities to interact and read in their first language. Anderson (2004) and Baker (2006) list reasons and factors that accelerate for language attrition/loss in bilingual speakers.

  • Low status of the L1 with more vocational and educational opportunities in L2.
  • No preschool programs available in L1.
  • Lack of opportunity to interact with peers in L1.
  • Limited contact with other speakers of L1 outside the home environment.
  • No or limited opportunities to visit the country where L1 is spoken.
  • Although parents are bilingual, they tend to interact in L2 more frequently.
  • Parents are essentially monolingual but children increasingly communicate in L2 with them.
  • More contact with L2 may motivate the family to assimilate to the majority culture.
  • No opportunity to develop written language skills in L1.

In addition to the phenomena listed in the list above, aging is an important factor in considering language loss. Aging does have an impact on the language skills of a bilingual individual. To ensure an accurate assessment, a language history about the older patient, who may have sustained a stroke, brain injury or is suspected of having dementia, should be collected. For more information on aging and communication in multilingual contexts, the reader is referred to De Bot & Makoni (2005), which was referenced in the August column.

Therefore, when evaluating the primary language of a student/client, clinicians should always consider the possibility of language loss. Finding out the extent to which each language is used and the environment in which it is used is very important.

  • Anderson, R. (2004). First language loss in Spanish-speaking children: Patterns of loss and implication for clinical practice. In B. Goldstein, (Ed), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers. (pp.187-212). Baltimore: Brookes.
  • Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of bilingual

Coming up in November 2006
Indigenous Languages in the United States

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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