Plenary address: Aging attriters: How methodological challenges can help construct bilingual theories

Keijzer, M., Jul-2016.

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic

(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 (cf. Kroll & Bialystok, 2013; Hartsuiker, 2015). 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 (Köpke & Schmid, 2004). 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 – in 2004 – addressed this very important issue: first language attrition is often compared with first language acquisition (Berko-Gleason, 1982; Keijzer, 2007; 2010), 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 (Burke & Shafto, 2008). 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 (Clyne, 2011). 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. References Berko-Gleason, J. (1982). Insights from child language acquisition for second language loss. In R. Lambert & B. Freed (Eds.), The Loss of Language Skills. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers. Clyne, M. (2011). Bilingualism, code-switching and aging: a myth of attrition and a tale of collaboration. In M.S. Schmid & W. Lowie (Eds.), Modeling Bilingualism: From structure to chaos (pp. 201-220). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. De Bot, K. & Clyne, M. (1989). Language reversion revisited. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 11, 167-177. De Bot, K. & Weltens,B. (1991). Recapitulation, regression, and language loss. In Seliger, H.W. & Vago, R. (Eds.), First Language Attrition (pp. 31-53). Cambridge: CUP. Goral, M. (2004). First language decline in healthy aging: implications for attrition in bilingualism. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 17(1), 31-52. Hartsuiker, R. (2015). Why it is pointless to ask under which specific circumstances the bilingual advantage occurs. Cortex, 73, doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.07.018.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jul-2016
EventInternational Conference on Language Attrition 3 - University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 7-Jul-201610-Jul-2016


ConferenceInternational Conference on Language Attrition 3
Abbreviated titleICLA3
CountryUnited Kingdom


International Conference on Language Attrition 3


Colchester, United Kingdom

Event: Conference


  • Attrition, Aging, methodology, theoretical foundation, bilingualism

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