Transfer, Selectivity, And Competence: First Language Attrition And Minimalism

Transfer, Selectivity, And Competence: First Language Attrition And Minimalism

Robbins, Parker T.


Language attrition, at its most basic level, can be defined as “the non-pathological decrease in a language that had previously been acquired by an individual” (Kopke & Schmid 2004:5). Essentially, the phenomenon refers to a loss in proficiency of a language, either native (L1) or secondary (L2), that is not the result of clear illness or injury, but instead refers to a “change in linguistic behavior” (Schmid 2008:10). Given the differences between first language acquisition and second language learning, a discussion of which is outside of the scope of this paper, it is perhaps unsurprising that an L2 could deteriorate in the absence of input or other forms of language maintenance. The case of first language attrition, however, is not well understood, given that an L1 is acquired at an early age and comprises the first (and perhaps only) linguistic system that a person has until learning an L2. Attempts to explain L1 attrition have mainly focused on descriptions of lexical decay and the intersection between language and identity, especially as it relates to immigrants losing their first languages in a new linguistic community. Schmid (2004), for example, examines the role of identity in the attrition of three groups of German Jews who fled the Holocaust at different periods. Isurin (2000) provides a longitudinal study on lexical decay in a Russian girl adopted by an American family at the age of 9. Both studies provide important description of the phenomenon of language attrition and speculate on its causes, but fail to outline a clear, cognitively realistic model for how language attrition works in the mental grammar of a speaker.

Generative grammar, however, can provide a useful theoretical framework on which to formulate such a model. The most recent iteration of generative grammar, the Minimalist
Program, specifically aims to build a descriptively economical and cognitively realistic model of the language system, especially in terms of the interfaces between semantics and syntax and 3 phonology and syntax. First, this paper will address the theoretical framework at hand and summarize three previous studies in first language attrition from this perspective. Second, this paper will present a case study of L1 attrition in an English/Spanish simultaneous bilingual speaker, raising questions and offering brief proposals about how to study the process of attrition in the case of this speaker to clarify and contribute to existing literature in the future. Finally, the paper will attempt to propose a brief research agenda based on previous studies and theoretical
predictions aimed at clarifying and expanding minimalist perspectives on first language attrition.

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