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Study shines a light on local language attrition

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In South Africa, language has been a key consideration for many years. From the 1976 riots objecting to the use of Afrikaans as a teaching language, to today’s mother tongue education for early grade learners, to the incorporation of 11 official languages to provide more inclusiveness, language has been central to the country’s conversations about identity.

While the focus has usually been on other languages, most people take their mother tongue for granted. They don't consider the fact that those who use their dominant language more often than their mother tongue are at risk of losing some of their language skills and fluency if they aren't looked after.

Do you speak EnglishThis is called first language attrition, and is a well-known phenomenon that has been widely studied by linguists across the world. Now, a researcher from Stellenbosch University in South Africa is undertaking a study that looks at the first language attrition of Afrikaans under the influence of English.

She is calling for volunteers for the study, which will examine the attrition of native Afrikaans speakers’ competence in the language after having used English as a dominant language for many years. For example, a person who grew up in an Afrikaans or Afrikaans-English speaking home where Afrikaans was acquired first, or where the two languages were acquired simultaneously. Later, that same person moved to an English school, has mainly English friends and was exposed to mainly English at their tertiary institution or professional environment. In many instances, such an individual may shift to being English dominant to such an extent that they no longer regard themselves as being fully bilingual. Such an individual has now become what is referred to as an “attriter”.

In linguistic, terms this means that these individuals “uhm” and “ah” a lot more. They tend to pause more often, or their sentences can go wrong in the middle and they have to backtrack. Generally, their vocabulary becomes less sophisticated and their grammar less complex.

Many of these phenomena are quite similar to the changes in language use often found in the very early stages of dementia, according to researchers. Of course, the underlying cognitive processes are completely different, and language attrition is not a neurological condition, but comes about because two languages are fighting it out in one brain.

Like people living with dementia, those experiencing language attrition are faced with the fact that we assess and judge people based on how well and how confidently they use language. When linguistic performance becomes compromised, intelligence, capability, and overall cognitive functioning are underestimated. Unlike people living with dementia, however, people with language attrition can take comfort in the fact that these symptoms are unlikely to persist or get much worse, and that re-immersion in the native language will probably make them disappear within a few weeks.

While most people in South Africa are very understanding of the fact that spoken English might be hesitant as a result of it not being a person’s mother tongue, native speakers are often less understanding of those who have lost some fluency. This study will provide an interesting insight into modern Afrikaans, and might pave the way for future, more comprehensive studies into South Africa’s language landscape.

Image credit: Copyright: bimdeedee / 123RF Stock Photo

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