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The Strange Persistence of First Languages
Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying amidst the sheets like his own stone monument.
It was hard for me not to take my father’s abrupt exit as a rebuke. For years, he’d been begging me to visit him in the Czech Republic, where I’d been born and where he’d gone back to live in 1992. Each year, I delayed. I was in that part of my life when the marriage-grad-school-children-career-divorce current was sweeping me along with breath-sucking force, and a leisurely trip to the fatherland seemed as plausible as pausing the flow of time.
Now my dad was shrugging at me from beyond— “You see, you’ve run out of time.”
His death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue. Czech was the only language I knew until the age of 2, when my family began a migration westward, from what was then Czechoslovakia through Austria, then Italy, settling eventually in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, a clutter of languages introduced themselves into my life: German in preschool, Italian-speaking friends, the francophone streets of East Montreal. Linguistic experience congealed, though, once my siblings and I started school in English. As with many immigrants, this marked the time when English became, unofficially and over the grumbling of my parents (especially my father), our family language—the time when Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life.
Many would applaud the efficiency with which we settled into English—it’s what exemplary immigrants do. But between then and now, research has shown the depth of the relationship all of us have with our native tongues—and how traumatic it can be when that relationship is ruptured. Spurred by my father’s death, I returned to the Czech Republic hoping to reconnect to him. In doing so, I also reconnected with my native tongue, and with parts of my identity that I had long ignored.
While my father was still alive, I was, like most young people, more intent on hurtling myself into my future than on tending my ancestral roots—and that included speaking the language of my new country rather than my old one. The incentives for adopting the culturally dominant language are undeniable. Proficiency offers clear financial rewards, resulting in wage increases of 15 percent for immigrants who achieve it relative to those who don’t, according to economist Barry Chiswick. A child, who rarely calculates the return on investment for her linguistic efforts, feels the currency of the dominant language in other ways: the approval of teachers and the acceptance of peers. I was mortally offended when my first-grade teacher asked me on the first day of school if I knew “a little English”—“I don’t know a little English,” was my indignant and heavily accented retort. “I know a lot of English.” In the schoolyard, I quickly learned that my Czech was seen as having little value by my friends, aside from the possibility of swearing in another language—a value I was unable to deliver, given that my parents were cursing teetotalers.
But embracing the dominant language comes at a price. Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there. Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention. The subconscious effort of suppressing this competition can slow the retrieval of words—and if the background language elbows its way to the forefront, the speaker may resort to code-switching, plunking down a word from one language into the sentence frame of another.
Meanwhile, the weaker language is more likely to become swamped; when resources are scarce, as they are during mental exhaustion, the disadvantaged language may become nearly impossible to summon. Over time, neglecting an earlier language makes it harder and harder for it to compete for access.
According to a 2004 survey conducted in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, fewer than half of people belonging to Generation 1.5—immigrants who arrive before their teenage years—claimed to speak the language they were born into “very well.” A 2006 study of immigrant languages in Southern California forecast that even among Mexican Americans, the slowest group to assimilate within Southern California, new arrivals would live to hear only 5 out of every 100 of their great-grandchildren speak fluent Spanish.
When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it.
Psychotherapist Jennifer Schwanberg has seen this firsthand. In a 2010 paper, she describes treating a client who’d lived through a brutal childhood in Mexico before immigrating to the United States. The woman showed little emotion when talking about events from her early life, and Schwanberg at first assumed that her client had made her peace with them. But one day, the woman began the session in Spanish. The therapist followed her lead and discovered that “moving to her first language had opened a floodgate. Memories from childhood, both traumatic and nontraumatic, were recounted with depth and vividness ... It became clear that a door to the past was available to her in her first language.”
A first language remains uniquely intertwined with early memories, even for people who fully master another language. In her book The Bilingual Mind, linguist Aneta Pavlenko describes how the author Vladimir Nabokov fled the Russian revolution in 1919, arriving in the United Kingdom when he was 20. By the time he wrote his memoir Conclusive Evidence in 1951, he’d been writing in English for years, yet he struggled writing this particular text in his adopted language, complaining that his memory was tuned to the “musical key” of Russian. Soon after its publication, he translated the memoir into his native tongue. Working in his first language seems to have prodded his senses awake, leading him to insert new details into the Russian version: A simple anecdote about a stingy old housekeeper becomes perfumed with the scents of coffee and decay, the description of a laundry hamper acquires a creaking sound, the visual details of a celluloid swan and toy boat sprout as he writes about the tub in which he bathed as a child. Some of these details eventually made it into his revised English memoir, which he aptly titled Speak, Memory. Evidently, when memory speaks, it sometimes does so in a particular tongue.
Losing your native tongue unmoors you not only from your own early life but from the entire culture that shaped you. You lose access to the books, films, stories, and songs that articulate the values and norms that you’ve absorbed. You lose the embrace of an entire community or nation for whom your family’s odd quirks are not quirks all. You lose your context. This disconnection can be devastating. A 2007 study led by Darcy Hallett found that in British Columbian native communities in which fewer than half of the members could converse in their indigenous language, young people killed themselves six times more often than in communities where the majority spoke the native language. In the Midwestern U.S., psychologist Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues found that American-Indian adolescents who were heavily involved in activities focused on their traditional language and traditions did better at school and had fewer behavior problems than kids who were less connected to their traditional cultures—in fact, cultural connectedness buffered them against adolescent problems more than having a warm and nurturing mother. Such benefits appear to span continents: In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that aboriginal youth who spoke their traditional language were less likely to binge drink or use illegal drugs.
Why is a heritage language so conducive to well-being? Michael Chandler, one of the authors of the suicide study, emphasizes that a sense of cultural continuity makes people resilient by providing them with a cohesive self-concept. Without that continuity, he warns, aboriginal youth, who have typically experienced plenty of turbulence, are in grave existential danger. They risk losing “the thread that tethers together their past, present, and future.”
As my siblings and I distanced ourselves from the Czech language in our youth, a space widened between us and our parents—especially my father, who never wore English with any comfort. Memories of our early family life, along with its small rituals and lessons imparted, receded into a past that drifted ever further out of reach. It was as if my parents’ life in their home country, and the values that defined that life, didn’t translate credibly into another language; it was much easier to rebel against them in English. Even the English names for our parents encouraged dissent: The Czech words we’d used—Maminka, Tatinek—so laden with esteem and affection, impossible to pronounce with contempt, had no corresponding forms. In English, the sweet but childish Mommy and Daddy are soon abandoned for Mom and Dad—words that, we discovered, lend themselves perfectly well to adolescent snark.
I watched as my father grew more and more frustrated at his powerlessness to pass on to his children the legacy he most longed to leave: a burning religious piety, the nurturing of family ties, pleasure in the music and traditions of his region, and an abiding respect for ancestors. All of these became diluted by the steady flow of new memories narrated in English, laced with Anglophone aspiration and individualism. As we entered adulthood and dispersed all over North America into our self-reliant lives, my father gave up. He moved back home.
For the next two decades, I lived my adult life, fully absorbed into the English-speaking universe, even adding American citizenship to my Canadian one. My dad was the only person with whom I regularly spoke Czech—if phone calls every few months can be described as “regularly,” and if my clumsy sentences patched together with abundant English can be called “speaking Czech.” My Czech heritage began to feel more and more like a vestigial organ.
Then my father died. Loss inevitably reveals that which is gone. It was as if the string section of the orchestra had fallen silent—not carrying the melody, it had gone unnoticed, but its absence announced how much depth and texture it had supplied, how its rhythms had lent coherence to the music. In grieving my father, I became aware of how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life. There was a part of me, I realized, that only Czech could speak to, a way of being that was hard to settle into, even with my own siblings and mother when we spoke in English.
After my father’s death, my siblings and I inherited a sweet little apartment in a large compound that has been occupied by the Sedivy family since the 1600s, and where my uncle still lives with his sprawling family. This past spring, I finally cleared two months of my schedule and went for a long visit, sleeping on the very same bed where my father and his brothers had been born.
I discovered that, while I may have run out of time to visit my father in his homeland, there was still time for me to reunite with my native tongue. On my first day there, the long drive with my uncle between the airport and our place in the countryside was accompanied by a conversation that lurched along awkwardly, filled with dead ends and misunderstandings. Over the next few days, I had trouble excavating everyday words like stamp and fork, and I made grammar mistakes that would (and did) cause a 4-year-old to snicker. But within weeks, fluency began to unspool. Words that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades leapt out of my mouth, astounding me. (Often they were correct. Sometimes not: I startled a man who asked about my occupation by claiming to be a savior—spasitelka. Sadly, I am a mere writer—spisovatelka.) The complicated inflections of Czech, described as “character-building” by an acquaintance who’d learned the language in college, began to assemble into somewhat orderly rows in my mind, and I quickly ventured onto more and more adventurous grammatical terrain. Just a few weeks into my visit, I briefly passed as a real Czech speaker in a conversation with a stranger. Relearning Czech so quickly felt like having linguistic superpowers.
Surprised by the speed of my progress, I began to look for studies of heritage speakers relearning childhood languages that had fallen into disuse. A number of scientific papers reported evidence of cognitive remnants of “forgotten” languages, remnants that were visible mostly in the process of relearning. In some cases, even when initial testing hinted at language decay, people who’d been exposed to the language earlier in life showed accelerated relearning of grammar, vocabulary, and most of all, of control over the sounds of the language.
One of the most remarkable examples involved a group of Indian adoptees who’d been raised from a young age (starting between 6 and 60 months) in English-speaking families, having no significant contact with their language of origin. The psychologist Leher Singh tested the children when they were between the ages of 8 and 16. Initially, neither group could hear the difference between dental and retroflex consonants, a distinction that’s exploited by many Indian languages. After listening to the contrasting sounds over a period of mere minutes, the adoptees, but not the American-born children, were able to discriminate between the two classes of consonants.
This is revealing because a language’s phonology, or sound structure, is one of the greatest challenges for people who start learning a language in adulthood. Long after they’ve mastered its syntax and vocabulary, a lifelong accent may mark them as latecomers to the language. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star of many American movies and the governor of the country’s biggest state, but his Austrian accent is a constant reminder that he could never run for president. The crucial timing of exposure for native-like speech is evident in my own family: I can pronounce the notoriously difficult “ř” sound in Czech—as in the name of the composer Dvořák—but my brother, born three years after me, in Vienna, cannot.
Phonology’s resistance to both attrition and later learning may be due to the fact that the sound structure of a language is fixed in a child’s mind very early. Before 6 months of age, infants can distinguish most subtle differences in speech sounds, whether their language makes use of those distinctions or not. But over the second half of their first year, they gradually tune their perception to just the sounds of the language they hear around them. Children who hear only English lose the ability to distinguish between dental and retroflex sounds. Children learning Japanese begin to hear “r” and “l” as variants of the same sound. Linguist Pat Kuhl, who has studied this phenomenon for decades, describes the process as one of perceptual narrowing and increasing neural commitment, eventually excluding native-like perception of other languages.
One of the most striking examples of the brain’s attunement to native sounds is apparent in languages such as Mandarin, where varying the tone of an utterance can produce entirely different words. (For instance, the syllable ma can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold,” depending on the pitch contour you lay over it.) When Mandarin speakers hear nonsense syllables that are identical except for their tones, they show heightened activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, where people normally process sounds that signal differences in meaning—like the difference between the syllables “pa” and “ba.” But speakers of non-tonal languages like English have more activity in the right hemisphere, showing that the brain doesn’t treat tone as relevant for distinguishing words. A recent study found that Chinese-born babies adopted into French homes showed brain activity that matched Chinese speakers and was clearly distinct from monolingual French speakers—even after being separated from their birth language for more than 12 years.
The brain’s devotion to a childhood language reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson:
The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—
Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—
At her low Gate—
Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat—
I’ve known her—from an ample nation—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Those of us who received more than one language before the valves of our attention closed may find, to our surprise, that our earliest language lingers on in our soul’s select society, long after we thought it had faded.
I’ve become aware of the deep sense in which I belong to the Czech language, as well as the extent to which my formative memories are tinged by its “musical key.” For me, the English phrase “pork with cabbage and dumplings” refers to a concept, the national dish of the Czechs. But hearing the Czech phrase vepřo-knedlo-zelo evokes the fragrance of roasting meat, pillowy dumpling loaves being pulled steaming out of a tall pot and sliced with sewing thread, and the clink of the nice china as the table is dressed for Sunday dinner, the fulcrum of every week.
Since coming back from the Czech Republic, I’ve insisted on speaking Czech with my mother. Even though it’s more effortful for both of us than speaking in English, our conversation feels softer, more tender this way. English was the language in which I forged my independence, the language of my individuation—but it was in Czech that I was nurtured, comforted, and sung to.
It has also gotten easier to hear the timbre of my father’s voice in my mind’s ear, especially when working in my garden. It’s no accident that many of my conversations with him, and more recently with my uncle, have been on the subject of horticulture. My father’s family has lived for centuries in the fertile wine and orchard region of Moravia, and on my recent visit, I saw my relatives gaze out at their land with an expression usually reserved for a beloved spouse or child. Throughout my own life, I’ve given in to the compulsion to fasten myself to whatever patch of land I happened to be living on by growing things on it, an impulse that has often conflicted with the upwardly and physically mobile trajectory of my life. It’s an impulse I submit to once again, living now in the lee of the Rocky Mountains; neither grapes nor apricots will thrive in the brittle mountain air, but I raise sour cherries and saskatoons, small fruits native to western Canada. As I mulch and weed and prune, I sometimes find myself murmuring to my plants in Czech as my father did, and the Moravian homestead doesn’t seem very far away.
My newly vocal native tongue, and along with it, the heightened memory of my father’s voice, does more than connect me to my past: It is proving to be an unexpected guide in my present work. I’ve recently left my job as an academic linguist to devote more time to writing, and I often find myself these days conjuring my father’s voice by reading a passage in Czech. Like many Czechs I’ve met, my father treated his language like a lovely object to be turned over, admired, stroked with a fingertip, deserving of deliberate and leisurely attention. He spoke less often than most people, but was more often eloquent. I may never regain enough of my first language to write anything in it worth reading, but when I struggle to write prose that not only informs but transcends, I find myself steering my inner monologue toward Czech. It reminds me of what it feels like to sink into language, to be startled by the aptness of a word or the twist of a phrase, to be delighted by arrangements of its sounds, and lulled by its rhythms. I’ve discovered that my native language has been sitting quietly in my soul’s vault all this time.
Julie Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary. She is the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and more recently, the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics.
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