ERIC Identifier: ED296573
Publication Date: 1988-05-00
Author: Reilly, Tarey
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Maintaining Foreign Language Skills.
This "Digest" is based on the ERIC/CLL "Language in Education" series
monograph entitled "You CAN Take It With You: Helping Students Maintain Foreign
Language Skills Beyond the Classroom," edited by Jean Berko Gleason. The
monograph is made up of six chapters, each discussing specific strategies or
activities for maintaining foreign language skills. It is available from
Prentice-Hall/Regents, Book Distribution Center, Route 59 at Brook Hill Dr.,
West Nyack, NY 10994, or call 1-800-223-1360.
LANGUAGE SKILL ATTRITION AND MAINTENANCE
Just as human
beings possess a great capacity to acquire language, they also have a capacity
for losing it. Although some individuals have experienced language loss or
attrition as a result of a head wound, stroke, or other source of brain damage,
many more have lost language skills through lack of a linguistically appropriate
social environment in which to use them. Instances include: a speaker of a
language who lives in an environment in which another language is considered
more socially useful; a speaker of a language who moves to a country where a
different language is spoken and, as a result, gradually loses his or her first
language; and a student who has learned a second language in school and loses it
through lack of opportunity to practice the skills acquired. Differences in
proficiency among second language speakers may be obvious; some are able to
maintain their skills, while others forget most or all of what they once knew.
Millions of individuals who have studied a second language in high school or
college for several years have lost the ability to hold the most basic
conversation. Millions who as children or young people were monolingual speakers
of other languages are now monolingual speakers of English, no longer able to
speak their mother tongue.
Language acquisition and maintenance depend on instructional factors,
relating to the way in which the language is initially acquired; cultural
factors, relating to the status and usefulness of the language in a particular
society; and personality factors, relating to individual characteristics of the
Curriculum and instructional methods
in language teaching may be very different if the goal is to foster language
skills and language-learning skills that can be maintained after formal
instruction ends, rather than merely to produce a given level of competence by
semester's end. Research in second language acquisition and attrition suggests
the following factors in maintaining language skills.
"Instructional Objectives." Studies of attrition of foreign language skills
acquired in the classroom suggest that receptive skills may be less vulnerable
to attrition than productive skills. For example, studies have reported little
diminishment, during a summer vacation period, in students' understanding of
grammatical concepts and vocabulary (Scherer, 1957; Smythe, Jutras, Bramwell,
& Gardner, 1973). In contrast, language production by kindergarten immersion
students over a similar period of interrupted exposure showed a decrease in
utterance length and an increase in overall error rate (Cohen, 1974).
The differential attrition rate between receptive and productive skills is
supported by the various rates of acquisition observed in many individuals.
Young children acquiring their first language display rather sophisticated
comprehension skills, including understanding of grammatical rules, while their
productive skills may be rudimentary at best. Nearly all adult speakers have
some measure of receptive control over more than one dialect of their native
language; for example, comprehending a British dialect presents little
difficulty for most American English speakers, yet few are able to speak or
reproduce the dialect convincingly.
Students whose instruction has focused primarily on oral skills may show more
rapid and extensive attrition than those whose course of study stressed
comprehension and writing skills. Unlike spoken language, the written medium
allows the reader to decode at his or her own speed and to reexamine parts that
may be unclear on a single reading. Indeed, most learners will not experience
attrition equally across all skill areas.
"Intensity of Instruction." While length of time spent studying a language is
related to ultimate achievement, the distribution of study over time is also
important. Results of the Ottawa-Carleton French Project, for example, indicated
that students enrolled for one year in a program, where half of each day's
classes were conducted in French, made more progress than students exposed to
the same number of hours' instruction spread over two years (Stern, 1976).
Intensive programs of instruction have been reported to yield better results
than less intensive programs of the same number of hours of instruction
(Edwards, 1976; Williamson,1968; Larson & Smalley, (1972). These studies
suggest that individuals intensively exposed to a language may use language
acquisition processes different from those used by individuals involved in
learning a language in chunks over long periods of time. Subsequent attrition
rates may also differ for students of intensive and nonintensive programs of
"Developmental Considerations." Language learners of different ages and
developmental levels bring different strengths and natural abilities to the
language learning task. Children, for example, have a remarkable facility for
rote memorization, and often retain intact memories in adulthood of material
that has been untapped for years or decades. Adults, on the other hand, have
metalinguistic and metacognitive skills superior to those of children. Their
more advanced cognitive level allows them to rely on language consciously, to
organize material in ways that will facilitate acquisition, and to recognize and
plan for the possibility that skills may slowly deteriorate. The degree to which
instructional methods capitalize on these developmental differences not only
influences the learner's ease and success in acquisition, but may also affect
the extent to which attrition is avoided.
"Curriculum Design." Foreign language instructors may incorporate maintenance
techniques into the acquisition process by modifying the conventional linear
syllabus to allow for the recycling of vocabulary and grammatical structures.
Such design would permit review within the acquisition process, rather than
requiring learners to refurbish their skills by plodding through the original
material in exactly the same form as before. Research on specific design
features that may prevent or slow down attrition is in its preliminary stages.
How do public attitudes toward
bilingualism and the relative prestige of different languages influence the
maintenance of second language skills? Insight may be gained from situations in
which two or more languages come into contact. Such contact may occur for many
different reasons, including, for example, changes in political boundaries,
industrialization, emigration, and intermarriage. The result of language contact
is usually a gradual shift in use from one language to the other. Factors
related to language attrition or even the death of a language or dialect include
the number and geographic concentration of speakers, age distribution of
speakers, immigration patterns, and speaker literacy in the language involved.
In instances in which one language is considered more prestigious than the
other, it is unlikely that the less prestigious language would thrive across
several generations. Chances of survival are even further reduced when negative
attitudes toward bilingualism and strong societal pressures to assimilate are
prevalent. Language shift from minority languages to English is particularly
rapid in the United States, where the pressure for immigrant groups to
assimilate linguistically has become so overt that several states have passed
measures making English their "official state language." This kind of
environment discourages bilingualism and hinders the study and maintenance of
skills in languages other than English. In much the same way that a language
restricted in domains of use becomes an impoverished and threatened language, an
individual learner's language skills are prone to attrition in domains in which
they are rarely used. For this reason, the presence of a strong ethnic community
is important for the maintenance of foreign language skills. Foreign language
learners can avail themselves of linguistic resources such as films, lectures,
and newspapers in the foreign language. Large ethnic communities may also
produce minority-language television broadcasts and sponsor live cultural
events. These types of activities and resources provide valuable opportunities
for foreign language learners to maintain their language skills.
A number of personality factors have been
correlated positively with success in learning foreign languages. These include
the willingness to take certain kinds of risks, good pattern recognition skills,
tolerance for ambiguity in a number of situations, and an outgoing and social
nature. A study found that non-English-speaking children who acquired English
easily in an American school were those who sought out and became friendly with
native speakers of English, taking advantage of every opportunity to socialize
with these children and to practice their English skills (Wong Fillmore, 1985).
Moreover, learners of a foreign language are more successful if they understand
the need to learn the language, and if they are motivated to do so (Wong
Fillmore, 1985). Indeed, the more positively the learner feels toward the
language, the speakers, and the culture associated with the language being
learned, the greater the progress that is made. There is a large body of
research on the relationship among attitude, motivation, and language learning
(see Gardner & Lambert, 1972).
The age of the learner acquiring the foreign language does make a difference
because the chances of acquiring native-like speech appear to decrease over
time. However, older students appear to learn morphology and syntax more quickly
than young children. Students of all ages have an excellent chance of becoming
proficient second language speakers if they are well-motivated, find the
language interesting, and believe that the language is spoken by the kind of
people they themselves would like to emulate.
IMPLICATIONS FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGE MAINTENANCE
a powerful force, potentially causing even the most diligent and motivated
learner or speaker to lose language skills that took years to acquire. Language
study that helps the student to use the personal and cognitive strategies used
by "expert learners" will enhance the likelihood of language skill maintenance;
courses of study in which positive cultural attitudes are fostered and in which
maintenance techniques are incorporated can help prevent attrition. Beyond these
techniques, individuals can prevent attrition of their skills through travel
abroad, the use of computer-aided instruction, self-instruction, and specific
uses of cultural resources in their local ethnic communities. These techniques
are described at length in You CAN Take It With You: Helping Students Maintain
Foreign Language Skills Beyond the Classroom.
Cohen, A.D. (1974). Culver City Spanish
immersion progress: How does summer recess affect Spanish speaking ability? "Language Learning," 24, 55-68.
Edwards, H.P. (1976). Evaluation of the French immersion program offered by the Ottawa Roman Catholic Separate School Board. "Canadian Modern Language Review," 33, 137-142.
Fillmore, L.W. (1985). Second language learning in children: A proposed model. In R. Esch & J. Provinzano, (Eds.), "Issues in English language development." Rosslyn, VA: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 273 149).
Gardner, R.C., & Lambert, W.E. (1972). "Attitudes and motivation in second-language learning." Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Larson, C.N., & Smalley, W.A. (1972). "Becoming bilingual: A guide to language learning." South Pasadena, CA: Willian Carey Library.
Scherer, G.A.C. (1957). The forgetting rate in learning German. "German Quarterly," 30 275-77.
Smythe, P.C., Jutras, G.C., Bramwell, J.R., & Gardner, R.C. (19730.
Second language retention over varying time intervals. "Modern Language Journal," 57, 400-405.
Stern, H.H. (1976). The Ottawa-Carleton French project: Issues, conclusions, and policy implications. "Canadian Modern Language Review," 33, 216-233.
Williamson, V.G. (1968). A pilot program in teaching Spanish: An intensive approach. "Modern Language Journal," 52, 73-78.