Title

Aspects of First Language Attrition: A Case Study of German Immigrants in East Tennessee

Date of Award

5-2008

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Modern Foreign Languages

Major Professor

Chauncey J. Mellor

Committee Members

Ilona Leki, Dolly Juanita Young, Nike Arnold

Abstract

This dissertation examines aspects of first language attrition (L1= German) in a second language (L2= English) environment. It sheds light on language contact and attrition research and focuses on first generation German immigrants to East Tennessee who were administered a series of tests to ascertain their language attrition to establish extralinguistic factors promoting or inhibiting it.

The Study Group consisted of 22 German immigrants to the U.S., both men and women, aged between 27 and 68, who emigrated as late teens or adults and have been here for more than three years. The Control Group consisted of 12 German native speakers in Germany similar to the American informants in education level, age and gender. The informants from both groups were interviewed, given a questionnaire and asked to describe pictures into an audio recorder. They were also given a cloze/fill-in text targeting lexical items and the correct usage of specific L1 grammatical structures such as gender articles, formation of plurals and cases.

The quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data from the Study Group revealed that L1 attrition is not severe, although extralinguistic variables such as age, time since immigration, level of education and amount of L1 contact, affect lexical retrieval and gender assignment, and case and plural marking. Statistical analysis of the cloze test data, picture description and interview indicated significant differences at the p<.05 level both in the lexical and morphological domains between subgroups (organized by variable) in the Study Group versus parallel ones in the Control Group. The qualitative data analysis showed that mostly social domains, such as shopping, daily routine, working settings or leisure activities, were affected by L2 transfer, borrowings or loan shifts. The lexical density test performed on the data revealed group differences between the Study and the Control groups. All the informants spontaneously used English words, phrases and loan translations in their German speech and all are aware of their code-switching, but only 17% view it negatively, while 40% have a neutral attitude towards this practice. The Study Group still highly values German language and culture.

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