Ageing as a Confound in Language Attrition Research: Lexical Retrieval, Language Use, and Cognitive and Neural Changes

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Adult-onset native-language attrition most often occurs following a move to an environment where a non-native language is spoken. To date, the focus of attrition research has been in identifying what aspects of language are lost and which factors are crucial for the retention or attrition of the native language. Attrition is a gradual and fairly subtle process with no clear beginning or end. To best assess the effects of attrition, researchers tend to choose study participants who have lived in a non-native environment for a decade or longer (e.g., de Bot & Clyne, 1994; Schmid, 2002). The assumption is that the longer they have been removed from the native-language environment, the greater the degree of language attrition that should be observable. However, this principle regarding length of time and its relationship to language use overlaps with another, largely ignored, phenomenon: language changes associated with ageing. Are language changes due to long-term disuse conflated with age-related language changes in older adults who experience language attrition?

This chapter explores changes to the adult lexicon as a result of attrition and ageing since the lexicon is considered a vulnerable part of the language system in both attrition and ageing. We consider neurophysiological changes that may play a role in language attrition and in non-pathological ageing to speculate whether the neurobiological sources of these two processes are similar or different. If attrition and ageing exert independent effects on lexical retrieval decline, we must consider the effects of each of these factors for word retrieval for older adult bilinguals immersed in a non-native-language environment.


Book chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Language Attrition. Version posted is the OUP uncorrected proof 2/25/19.

ISBN 9780198793595 (hardcover); 9780191835438 (ebook)






The Oxford handbook of language attrition

Place of Publication



Oxford University Press