Research shows first language attrition in bilingual people is more common than expected

Researchers at the University of Essex in England are finding that language attrition in bilingual people is more common than previously thought.

Language attrition is when second language learners, who do not use their first language regularly, often start to feel ‘rusty.’ It is very common, according to the university’s website.

According to research, immigrants can be affected by this phenomenon as attrition happens to those who move away from their first language environment.

Monika Schmid, a professor at the department of language and linguistics at the University of Essex, wrote on her website that attrition can happen due to the language not being used after migration.    

Linguistic knowledge can be affected by ageing, illness or trauma, or changes in multilingual language use across a community.

Her research shows that age plays a factor in the deterioration of the first language.

As a result, immigrant children who acquire their first language without the maturational constraints and begin acquiring a second language will experience competition between languages.

Lana Nikro, a second-year business student at Carleton University, said she’s originally from Lebanon, and she was  fluent in Arabic until the age of four.

However, Nikro said when she entered a British school in Lebanon, she started losing her first language.

In addition, she said she was raised in a closed-off neighbourhood and was “surrounded by foreigners who [couldn’t] communicate in Arabic.”

“I didn’t get to practice my mother tongue except when I was at home. At school, even the native Arab speakers [would] not speak Arabic. Coming to Canada, English is an asset more than Arabic,  so I went to an English school,” Nikro said.

According to Schmid’s research, there can be changes in how one language is used in multilingual communities. There can be changes in where one language is used, how much it is used, the forms it includes, and how languages are used versus when they are both used together.

Randall Gess, a linguistics and French professor at Carleton, said highly proficient bilinguals often start when they are children because the brain has more elasticity.

“The children seem to pick up additional languages very easily,” he said.

Nikro said she constantly practises Arabic by reading the news, communicating with her friends and family, and by reading the Qur’an.

However, she said most people still think she is a foreigner when she goes back to Lebanon.

“Some people might say a joke, and I may not fully comprehend it, but I can mimic the accent,” Nikro said. “I would really like to go to Lebanon, stay there for a year, and really develop the language and embrace my culture.”

Gess said being able to speak two languages can have long-life benefits.

“There is a recent research that states how bilingualism affects us as we age,” he said. “There are some benefits to our mental capacity as we age if we’re bilingual.”

A recent study from York University has also suggested bilingual children may have a higher ability to focus on one thing and change their response easily, indicating  their “cognitive flexibility.”

Several studies have also shown that bilingual people’s brains function better and longer after developing Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, the English-French bilingualism rate increased in most of the provinces and territories, but several of the increases were small.

The data showed there were 94,585 more bilingual people in Ontario in 2016 than in 2011.

However, Gess said he doesn’t think bilingualism automatically causes attrition for people.

“It depends on the context. If I move away from French for 20 years, there will be some attrition, even though I am bilingual,” he said.

Gess added that in the last decade, there has been lot more discussion around learning multiple languages at a young age.

“Children are like little linguistic sponges,” he said. “Parents should introduce them to different languages at a young age.”