Vol. 4. No. 3 R-21 May 2000
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Face(t)s of First Language Loss
Sandra G. Kouritzin (1999)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xii + 230
ISBN 0-8058-3186-X (paper)
Price: US $22.50 (also available in cloth, $49.95)


Although most studies of language acquisition and loss are largely academic and deal with impersonal statistical subjects, this book (based on the author's doctoral thesis) provides a refreshing contrast. It describes qualitative research data from a personal point of view, and outlines the disorientation 21 subjects faced when, as learners moving to start a new life in Canada and beginning to learn English in school there, they experienced the loss of their mother tongue.

As the author states in her preface, the purpose of this book is to understand first language loss from a point of view that has been generally overlooked in previous research into this area. Causal relationships for the loss are not expounded, but an insider perspective is detailed throughout by means of taped interviews. This is a highly readable book, containing detailed life-history case studies, and one that describes what it means to lose a language in terms of participation in the social, educational, and economic systems of both current and previous speech communities relevant to individuals at the time of interview.


There are four main sections to the book; the lengthy, scholarly introduction outlines a definition of terms including just what is (and is not) meant by language loss. This particular study deals with loss of a first language in a second language environment, i.e., loss of native languages by immigrants or those colonised by another nation. The author states that "too often language loss is associated with other closely related features such as language attrition/regression, semi-lingualism, language death and language change via learning/acquisition" (p. 12). She continues: "[Actual] language loss occurs when a minority group member cannot do the things with the minority language that they used to be able to do . . . some of the proficiency is no longer accessible . . . it may also refer to incomplete or imperfect learning of a language spoken in childhood" (p. 12). [-1 -]

The Interviewees

Kouritzin found the subjects for her interviews after a description of her research project appeared in a newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, in 1995. She describes the many face-to-face interviews that she conducted over several months, and outlines her apprehension and unease at being perhaps over-inquisitive when delving into what are often delicate family matters. As subjects noticed her concern, they opened up their hearts and minds, perhaps for the first time, and many strong relationships developed.

Of the two main parts of the book, the first, titled "Face-Touching: A Story Book," recounts the interviews that were conducted with five subjects. "Face-Touching" is a direct translation of the Japanese word for interview. Each of the interviewees has a remarkable tale to relate. Ariana is a third generation Canadian female, born in Vancouver, whose grandfather immigrated from China to work on the Pacific railway. Richard is a full-blooded, first nation Cree Indian, raised in Van River, Northern Manitoba. Lara's family left Finland during a tumultuous post-World War II period of fear about invasion from Russia, in spite of the government restriction at the time on emigration. Brian, born in Canada but whose family came from Korea, originally claimed that losing his first language had not really affected him at all. Finally, there's Helena from Hungary, whose family immigrated after the 1956 revolution there when she was sixteen years old, and who tried so hard to hold on to her mother tongue.

The Interviews

Each of the five interviews, which form the bulk of the book, is approximately twenty pages long. Kouritzin introduces each subject and then provides the context of where and how the interview took place, the life history of each subject and then the narrative context, i.e., her comments on her subjects' answers to her long list of carefully prepared research questions. Each of the sub-sections is detailed--perhaps at times too much so. Following this there is a first-person account of the thoughts and feelings the interviewees and their families related to Kouritzin during the interviews, which at times clash with the author's thoughts. [-2-]

Language Loss and ESL Teaching

There are comments throughout this book from those interviewed, such as "My teachers told my parents not to speak Korean at home, to speak English as much as possible, and I guess that's when I first started to lose my language" (Brian, page 112). These comments add to the argument that ESL should be about developing bilinguals and helping preserve heritage languages, and not only about developing English monolinguals. With the benefit of hindsight, Kouritzin writes, "teachers interviewed about such comments later in their careers were more ambivalent about the quality of such advice" (page 192). Although it led the interviewees to learn English much faster than they would perhaps have done, "it also contributed to their continuing struggles with English grammar because they had learned from poor language models at home" (page 192), and left them with feelings of self-consciousness later in life about aspects of language such as syntax and intonation.

Since classroom teachers expend vast amounts of time and effort imparting second language instruction, it will be intriguing for many to read and discover the sometimes sad and dreadful consequences for learners from minority groups, settled in Canada, who have lost either the use of or access to their own first languages whist learning English as a second language. It is an engrossing, if also perhaps depressing, tale of loss of not only language but all that language provides access to, in particular relationships with relatives that were either not able to or unwilling to learn English. There is a degree of pathos in some parts of the book, but never any attempt at self-pity. One subject (Lara, originally from Finland) describes her feelings about her loss as "a death of self when you lose your mother tongue that you don't ever get back . . . don't ever find . . . don't ever resurrect" (p. 96). In contrast to this is Helen's family, who entered her in language competitions and pushed her so hard to learn English that she sometimes forged their signatures on school reports with marks showing their daughter's less than absolute success at English.

Themes Relating to First Language Loss

The second part of this book, "Dwelling in the Borderlands," draws together themes taken from the five main interviews, plus shorter interviews with sixteen other subjects who were also faced with language loss. In contrast to the first part of the book, Kouritzin here briefly outlines the case histories of those such as Kuong, who immigrated from Korea; Kurt, a political refugee from Poland; and Michael from Portugal. The main difference between the sixteen subjects described in this section and the five in the first appears to be that the former reluctantly settled in Canada and harboured a desire to return to their troubled homes, whereas the latter came to settle and stay. The chapters included in this section examine important features relating to first language loss: family relationships, self-image and cultural identity, school relationships, school performance, and the meaning of loss. [-3-]

The author states that "perhaps the most familial [sic] consequence of first language loss is the subsequent loss of extended family" (p. 169). One of the most dramatic examples of this is Christine, who was fluent in Cantonese in her very early years and who recalls, much later, watching videos of herself talking to relatives in her mother tongue but understanding nothing (p. 171).

A largely negative self-image pervades many who have experienced language loss. Kouritzin warns of the unintended consequences when ESL teachers, keen to make their classes English-speaking environments, provide learners with adopted names. Many of those interviewed found it unpleasant to be given adopted names because their friends or teachers couldn't correctly pronounce their real names. Imagine the feelings of Elisabeth, told by her teacher to write her name as Elizabeth in future, and Helena, originally from Hungary, who wished, as a child, for a nice "white" name so as not to appear so conspicuous.

School Relationships, Performance, and the Meaning of Loss

At the heart of language loss is the desire as a young child to "fit in" with school friends. To this end, Kouritzin's research shows, children will stop speaking their first language both at home and at school in order to learn as quickly as possible the language their chosen friends speak. Even after managing to assimilate, however, subjects such as Brian and Helena spoke about their anger at being placed next to students newly-arrived at the school from overseas, which was of no possible help to either and only emphasised their feelings of still being different.

On several occasions interviewees reported their humiliation at being put back a year or two in school because they couldn't speak English well. Kouritzin rightly points out that no research has ever shown this to speed up language acquisition, and isolation from friends in their own peer group can, in the long term, only be disturbing (p. 193).

This book will serve as important reading for researchers into language loss, bilingual education, multi-cultural education, and sociology, since it is full of insight into an area of ESL that should not be neglected. The unique form of research and gathering qualitative data that Kouritzin has undertaken will interest anyone engaged in similar work.

Wayne Trotman
Özel Çakabey Lisesi, Izmir, Turkey

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