Lost and Found: Language Attrition in Children and Adolescents


Language Attrition: A New Field of Research

Language attrition is formally recognized as a field of academic research in 1980 at the Conference on the Attrition of Language Skills in Pennsylvania (Tomiyama, 2000). 

Research Questions

  • Is the age that a learner acquires a second language a predictor of attrition? 
  • Is the learning environment a factor in attrition?
  • Does the age that a learner loses contact with the second language impact attrition? 
  • Is there an order or pattern to language loss (i.e., do learners lose vocabulary before grammar)? 
  • Is language attrition sudden or gradual? 
  • Can second language attrition be repaired? 
  • What are the strategies for re-learning a second language? 
  • Is it possible for language to truly be lost? 

Findings in L2 Attrition Research

Language Attrition Typology

van Els (1986) Framework 

Language Attrition Patterns

  • Attained Proficiency 
  • Vocabulary vs Grammar 
  • Critical Threshold
  • Interface Hypothesis
  • Regression Hypothesis 
  • Productive vs Receptive Skills
  • Attrition Curve
  • Activation Threshold
  • Principle and Parameters Theory



Coughlan, P.J. (1995). Conversations with Vovo: A case study of child second language acquisition and loss. Issues in Applied Linguistics, 6(2), 123-151.

De bot, K. & Stoessel, S. (2000). In search of yesterday’s words: Reactivating a long-forgotten language. Applied Linguistics, 21(3), 333-353. 

Flores, C. (2015). Losing a language in childhood: A longitudinal case study on language attrition. Journal of Child Language, 42(3), 562-590.

Flores, C. (2012). Differential effects of language attrition in the domains of verb placement object expression. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 15(3), 550-567. 

Flores, C. (2010). The effect of age on language attrition: Evidence from bilingual returnees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13(4), 533-546. 

Polinsky, M. (2011). Reanalysis in adult heritage language: New evidence in support of attrition.    Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 33, 305-328. 

Sider, S.R. (2004). Growing up overseas: Perceptions of second language attrition and retrieval amongst expatriate children in India. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 7(2), 117-137.

Tomiyama, M. (2008). Age and proficiency in L2 attrition: Data from two siblings. Applied            Linguistics, 30(2), 253-275.

Tomiyama, M. (2000). Child second language attrition: A longitudinal case study. Applied Linguistics, 21(3), 304-322.