Losing a language in childhood

JCL blog post May 2015Blog post written by Cristina Flores based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language

What happens if a bilingual child with immigration background moves (back) to the country of origin of his/her family and loses contact with the language that until this moment was his/her dominant language? Does the non-used language disappear from the child’s mind?

This new paper analyses such a situation of remigration of a bilingual child and its consequence for language development. The analysis is based upon a longitudinal study of language attrition in a bilingual child, Ana, who grew up in Germany and moved to the country of origin of her parents, Portugal, at the age of nine. Since she has few opportunities to contact with German after remigration, Ana experiences a DOMINANCE SHIFT from German, the (until now) dominant language, to Portuguese, her heritage language.

Data collection, based on oral interviews and story retelling, started three weeks after the child’s immersion in the Portuguese setting and ended eighteen months later. Results show first effects of language attrition after five months of reduced exposure to German, namely lexical difficulties and deviant syntactic omissions. At the end of the study the informant showed severe word retrieval difficulties and was unable to produce complete sentences in German. The findings thus confirm the conclusions of other studies on child language attrition, which attest to strong effects of attrition when the loss of contact with the target language occurs in childhood, i.e. before the age of eleven/twelve. It remains an open question if the language «comes back» easily after re-immersion in a German environment.

Read the full article ‘Losing a language in childhood: a longitudinal case study on language attrition’ here.

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