First Language Attrition in German Jewish Refugees of the Nazi Dictatorship: The Impact of Age and Attitude on Language Loss

By Christian David Zeitz
2016, Vol. 8 No. 12 | pg. 2/2 |

Identity as a Determing Attitudinal Factor

In order to pinpoint the impact of identity and attitude on L1 attrition in the previously described group of migrants, I firstly consider personal insights from German-Jewish migrants, secondly language use self-reports completed by the two migrant groups, and thirdly data from the MGD.

Schmid (2012, p. 183) outlines that a negative attitude towards Germany might have prompted German-Jewish to rapidly acquire the language of their new environment, whilst rapidly cutting off all strings to L1 use. For some German Jews, especially for the ones who escaped from Germany after critical historical landmarks like the Pogrom Night (9th of November 1938) or the onset of the German military campaign in Poland (1st of September 1939), leaving behind German (L1) appeared to be a survival strategy: both the new environment, as well as the migrants themselves began to harbor a certain hostility towards Germany and its policy of imperial expansion and racial fanaticism. The case of Ruth K. provides psychological insight into this specific aversion, namely the motivation to break with the L1: in an interview the woman noted that she was “physically unable” to communicate in her L1 (ibid., p. 184). Certainly, this physical inability to speak German was induced by the traumatic effects of persecution and fleeing the homeland. Nevertheless, most of the family migrants kept on speaking German with older relatives, such as their grandparents, who were rather ill at ease with the new L2 (ibid., 184).

Once more, it is necessary to differentiate between family migrants and Kindertransport migrants. This has to be done owing to the fact that the situation for Kindertransport migrants was considerably different in terms of L1 exposure. As they left Germany without the company of their parents and were given accommodation in L2-speaking (mostly English) foster families or boarding schools, the possibility of L1 contact was oftentimes in short supply. Edith Milton, who left Germany as a Kindertransport migrant together with her older sister, remarks that “there may have been an almost willed though unconscious element” impacting on her forgetting of German (cited as in Schmid, 2012, p. 185). In most cases, this element triggering language forgetting was also indebted to social circumstances. Hand in hand with the beginning of World War II, a common fear arose among those who had adopted German-Jewish children: first, that there might be punishments for those who offered support for Jews in case of a successful Nazi invasion, second, the suspicion that German Jews worked as German spies was widespread (ibid., p. 185). Thus, the idea of loosening all attachments to German culture and language was not only a personal attitudinal decision, but a necessity imposed upon Kindertransport migrants by their own caregivers, as well as the global political situation. In an Anglo-American environment, replacing English (L2) with German (L1) meant an option to keep a low profile for plenty of German-Jewish migrants. (After all, the Anglo-American world was at war with Germany during World War II.)

Language attitudes are significantly shaped by personal assumptions and opinions. Considering the aforesaid, in 1998, Schmid supplied all 54 interviewees with “a questionnaire enquiring about their language use post migration” (ibid., p. 190). Of the 27 interviewees belonging to the subcorpus, 22 returned the questionnaire, 14 of them family migrants, 8 Kindertransport migrants. One of the main purposes of the questionnaire was to establish how frequently the migrants had used German with their close relatives. Regarding the group of family migrants, it was found out that 58% frequently kept on using their L1 with their parents, 24% with their siblings, 32% with their later partner, and 14% even used German with their own children. On the contrary, all Kindertransport migrants specified that they “rarely or never used German in any of these contexts” (ibid., 190). Individual interviews with Kindertransport migrants indicate that their attitudes towards German were virtually more overshadowed by traumatic events than those of family migrants. Whilst most of the family migrants left Germany accompanied by their family, a vast majority of the Kindertransport migrants’ family members, who were not given the chance to escape, must have ended as Holocaust victims (ibid., p. 191). Thus, the Kindertransport migrants rapidly adopted a negative attitude towards the language of the country that sustained all its resources to solve the Jewish question. In this context, solving the Jewish question included a possible elimination of the Kindertransport migrants’ families. Evidence for such a negative attitude is mirrored in their self-reporting of a total avoidance of communicating in German.

Subsequently, it has to be established which role traumatization played in German-Jewish L1 attrition. To begin with, it is made clear that German-Jewish refugees deviate from the majority of other persecuted minorities in world history. Typically, the persecuted minority is also a linguistic majority. However, in this unique case, the native language of the persecuting agency, the Nazi regime, was also the native language of the persecuted minority, the German-Jews. As a result, a refusal of using the language of the Nazis would have meant a refusal of using one’s own L1 (Schmid, 2004, p. 42).

To some extent, the degree of volitional L1 forgetting might be closely linked to the degree of self-perceived persecution and trauma: the more phases of oppression and anti-Semitism a German-Jewish migrant might have undergone, the more distinct their anti-German attitude might have been. As the governmentally-planned oppression of Jews “was clearly characterized by several phases,” it presents itself as an interesting area of L1 attrition research (ibid., p. 49). The reason: it can be studied whether varying levels of negative attitude, ranging from experiences of simple social discrimination to experiences of deportation, manifested themselves in varying levels of L1 attrition (ibid., pp. 49-51). Relying on certain historians, Schmid (2004, p. 51) describes the persecution of German Jews as a gradual step-by-step process and divides it into three phases: 1933-35 (EM1): social exclusion, 1935-38 (EM2): social and professional exclusion and stigmatization, 1938-45 (EM3): final solution of the Jew question, i.e. genocide.

In order to validate the assumption that a higher degree of traumatic experience causes a higher degree of L1 loss, “35 narrative autobiographical interviews” (from the MGD) with German-Jewish migrants were assessed (ibid., p. 51). These interviews were compared to a corpus of interviews published by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS). The comparison’s focus was directed at lexical, morphological, and syntactic complexity and accuracy. It is noteworthy that the IDS’s corpus consisted of 10 interviewees domiciled in a monolingual German environment. The findings suggest that the EM3-group significantly deviates from the other two groups in terms of errors made on the morphosyntactic level: “they use more non-standard structures than native speakers do, and many of them speak German with an English accent” (ibid., p. 54). Conversely, the EM2 group mastered strategies of hiding their attrition. Yet, their overall L1 proficiency had, to a minor extent, decreased. The EM1 group had maintained their L1 to a native-like degree, only having small vocabulary problems at certain points (ibid., p. 54). Accordingly, it was proven that the EM3 group which experienced the highest amount of trauma, i.e. enduring the Pogrom Night of 1938, performed like non-native speakers, whilst the EM1 and EM2 groups, which both emigrated before 1938, delivered a native-like L1 performance. This attrition disparity between the two groups, not marked by more than five years between the ages of onset of bilingual development, could be linked to a disparity in Nazi mistreatment: the more a person or his relatives were harmed by the Nazis, the more willing they might have been to leave behind a part of their identity, namely their L1, which also happened to be the official language of the Nazi dictatorship (ibid., p. 55).

Finally, it can be concluded that L1 attrition in German Jews was on large part based on a break with their former, German identity. Besides, this chapter has provided evidence for a specific type of negative attitude which fostered a willed forgetting of German among German-Jewish migrants: the degree of trauma.


Theoretically and practically, the present paper’s perspective on L1 attrition and its factors was rather restricted:

  1. It only looked at one particular, historical group that was expected to have suffered from L1 attrition due to an imposed migration: German-Jewish migrants.
  2. The scope of factors was confined to age and attitude, as these were found out to be the most profound ones in the case of German Jews.

Nevertheless, the case of German Jews can be used to provide a theoretical framework for attrition studies. I have shown that test results concerning age are in accordance with constructs of the DST and CPH (Bylund, 2009), as they indicate age-related differences in L1 attrition. Certainly, the results do not offer the universal, apparently long awaited answer as to where exactly the CP can be narrowed down. However, the findings suggest a break in L1 susceptibility around the age of 11 and seem to verify theories differentiating between L1 attrition in younger and older bilinguals. The studies by Schmid (2012) have proven that biological and cognitive maturation is a crucial factor in L1 attrition. In the case of German Jews, the age of onset of bilingual development was a much stronger variable than ongoing L1 exposure: the fact that family migrants and Kindertransport migrants almost shared the same level of L1 proficiency illustrates this expressly.

With regard to attitude, Schmid’s (2004, 2012) studies were, first of all, multi-faceted, i.e. they were based on interviews (qualitative), as well as self-reports (quantitative). What is more, the results of these studies also set up a useful theoretical framework for attrition studies. After all, two attitude-related hypotheses of the DST (Cherciov, 2013) were confirmed, namely that a language system changes with changing life circumstances and that a negative attitude towards L1 probably results in a more rapid loss of L1. The results evidenced that a higher degree of negative attitude, i.e. a higher degree of trauma experienced by the German-Jewish migrants, manifested itself in a higher degree of attrition or deviation from native-like proficiency.

In conclusion, it was observed that the case of German-Jewish migrants presents itself as an interesting field of research in attrition studies. It helps understand theories on age and attitude in L1 attrition: the data collected by Schmid (2002, 2004, 2012), enabled a theoretically-informed investigation of German-Jewish L1 attrition, as well as its two most influential factors.


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Schmid, M. S., Köpke, B., & de Bot, K. (2012). Language attrition as a complex, non- linear development. International Journal of Bilingualism, 17(6), 675-682. doi: 10.1177/1367006912454619

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