The summer slide, when students lose important skills they learned in school, is the worst enemy of foreign language teachers. Language attrition refers specifically to the foreign language skills that are lost during the summer slide. Research suggests that during the summer students lose on average at least a month’s worth of skills learned during the school year. The amount of target language (TL) attrition depends on instructional factors, cultural factors and personal factors.
Studies show that language attrition has less of an impact on a student’s’ ability to retain basic grammatical concepts and vocabulary skills. However, the ability to effectively communicate in the target language is the skill that’s most affected by the summer slide. So, students in foreign language classes that focus heavily on language production may suffer heavily from extensive language attrition. In contrast, classes that focused more on TL comprehension and writing saw less TL skill loss. Bear in mind, students can suffer language attrition in different amounts across various TL skills.
The type of instruction and the amount of instruction heavily influences the level of language attrition. Students in more intensive immersion programs tend to retain more TL skills than those students in a more spaced out TL learning program. For example, students studying Spanish in an intensive immersion program where half of instruction may be in the TL resist language loss better than students learning the same amount of Spanish over the course of two or more years. Another variable to consider is the age of the students. Young children are like sponges and are adept at TL memorization. Adults are better at conscious learning because they can organize what they learn and understand strategies to retain TL acquisition. Therefore tailoring your instruction style to the natural abilities of different aged learners can affect successful acquisition and the amount of TL attrition that is avoided.
The cultural environment can also affect TL retention. In the U.S., and other countries, bilingualism isn’t heavily encouraged. In some cases countries may even push for complete linguistic assimilation by immigrants.These kind of environments impede a language learner’s ability to practice and maintain TL skills. If you teach in this kind of climate you can counteract these negative attitudes by creating a classroom space that’s fun, engaging, and provides resources for TL maintenance during the summer. Check out this blog post for ideas about how to prevent TL attrition.
Personal factors are the hardest to combat in regards to language attrition. If a student isn’t motivated and has a negative attitude towards the TL they aren’t likely to maintain proficiency. Moreover, there’s a higher likelihood the learner will suffer from extensive language loss. I will address how to combat these issues in another post.
More information on the summer slide and language attrition can be found here and here.