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Batool Alaskar

Shared June 24, 2017

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.”

Supreeth S

Shared December 26, 2015

Evidently, when memory speaks, it sometimes does so in a particular tongue.

Wale Lawal

Shared August 20, 2017

Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, wrote in 1986 (and I'll paraphrase), "language has always been at the heart of contending social forces in Africa". The statement belongs to a collection of essays he published titled, "Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature". In it, he would lay the ideological foundations of his eventual decision to abandon writing in English for his mother tongue, Gikuyu.

Earlier this month, I discovered a 2015 essay on first languages by Julie Sedivy, a writer and former associate professor at Brown University. Sedivy, who grew up speaking Czech but lost [most of] it to English due to migration, embarks on a remarkable journey of self and lingual re-discovery after the death of her father. But she is also interested in how the first languages multilingual people speak tend to follow them through life, and how negotiating the languages we speak can influence our brain activity, making us tongue-tied, clumsy with speech or even withdrawn.

For something that plays a crucial role in our lives, language receives very little attention. But there is a political economy of language. The notion that the dominance of certain languages is not strictly the result of cultural or demographic factors. We speak a language not necessarily because of its cultural rewards; rather, the languages we speak are the result of unique interactions of history, politics and, quite often, commerce.

Hanan AL-Raddadi

Shared April 14, 2017

rebuke

Andrés Pérez Mohorte

Shared December 25, 2015

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.

Ben Mall

Shared December 22, 2015

"Re-learning" your first language is an amazing experience. Some words or expressions can even trigger vivid memories and nostalgia. It makes it impossible to forget 📎

Alex Henke

Shared December 26, 2017

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

Alex Henke

Shared December 26, 2017

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

Alex Henke

Shared December 26, 2017

Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention

Sara Clayton

Shared December 9, 2015

Couldn't have been written better... Going through this rediscovery too...

Kris Tozkousne

Shared April 28, 2017

Vliv mateřského jazyka na identitu, mozek, ... od lingvistky s českými kořeny

Aylin Yardimci

Shared February 5, 2017

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.

Pranidhi Das

Shared May 12, 2017

I was always the kid in class who wanted to be better at Hindi and know its nuances more closely than the rest, the girl who'd be devouring English classics without losing sight of Manto, Chughtai and Faiz in their original form. It emerged perhaps from a sense of insecurity regarding how distant I was from my native toungue odiya and a need to compensate for it by having a sub textual understanding of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi (as that was easier to absorb growing up in North India). Being an East Indian, I was often mistaken to be a bengali and the misunderstanding became so common through my adolescent years that I started seeing myself as one. The fact that I could quote Tagore, Ray, Seth and Lahiri almost instinctively only helped spike that identity cocktail further and I started to learn bengali on the side too, picking from movies and literature.

All of that led me to a linguistic state of complete dissonance and I couldn't even string two sentences of odiya together. The only time it was spoken in my house was when my mom would be scolding my dog (somehow anger towards a pet could only be projected in odiya according to Ma) and that's pretty much what I know of it. Maybe I too will one day decide to pick a language completely alien to me like Jhumpa Lahiri did and churn out a bestseller like In Other Words (there's no lemon so sour that it can't be made into something resembling a lemonade :/)

Joseph Bayot

Shared January 28, 2016

I read a LOT of articles on language learning. This is one of the best I've ever read. Beautiful thinking and writing

The Strange Persistence of First Languages

Laszlo Vad

Shared February 28, 2017

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.

Augustin Chiam

Shared November 15, 2015

Our native tongue helps us unlock childhood memories...wherever we may be.

Christian Eggert

Shared February 5, 2017

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.

Erdogan Cesmeli

Shared December 21, 2016

Your inner identity wrapped within your parent's native tongue,

Jack Schwarz

Shared February 7, 2017

On the other side, if you want to jump out of the context, the simplest way is: don't use that language.

Losing your native tongue unmoors you not only from your own early life but from the entire culture that shaped you.

Sunny

Shared February 23, 2017

This was an enlightening and emotional read.

"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."

Vishak Ayappan

Shared March 3, 2017

Great read. As a trilingual this really hits home.

"English was the language in which I forged my independence, the language of my individuation"

Johannes Neukamm

Shared September 12, 2017

Psycholinguistics seems like a dope field of study.

kharenee koh

Shared December 30, 2016

This is beautiful

Yuk Yu, Alison LEE

Shared March 2, 2016

Another very insightful article

Yuk Yu, Alison LEE

Shared August 24, 2016

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.

Asad Zaidi

Shared December 22, 2016

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.

Li Ann Lim

Shared December 28, 2016

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.

darlene huynh

Shared June 8, 2017

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.

J Moneypenny

Shared September 15, 2017

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.

Raisa Roo

Shared December 27, 2016

How our native tongues that we unlearn affect us.

Kien Nguyen

Shared March 25, 2017

"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."

Reshma Ramachandran

Shared April 21, 2017

The fruits that proficiency in more globally acknowledged languages bear, cause us to drift away from our roots. Our native tongue can unearth connections with the past, rekindle emotions and even lead us to our aspirations. This article is a nudge in the right direction.

Christina Palutsis

Shared December 8, 2015

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.

Bryan Tan

Shared January 1, 2017

Nothing much to add, except, - wow, what a beautiful article.
Not insomuch that its subject matter is beautiful (it is harrowingly so, & makes me feel embarrassed about my linguistic abilities which ironically isn't what is supposed to happen) but that even the article carries with it a strange, beatific musicality almost like a meta commentary on itself. So so well written.

Tamar Marvin

Shared October 20, 2017

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.

KN KH

Shared January 22, 2017

It became clear that a door to the past was available to her in her first language.”

Ricardo Fahrig

Shared February 12, 2017

"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—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—"

chia Zhi Jien

Shared February 13, 2017

"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."

Good read !

Adam Golomb

Shared March 5, 2017

BY

Adam Golomb

Shared March 5, 2017

Z. . I

BY

Patrick Shortall

Shared December 31, 2016

How languages are vessels of culture.

Helen V. Holmes

Shared January 23, 2017

Fascinating. Must read.

Bermet Talant

Shared February 20, 2017

Paraphrasing the author: 'There is a part of me that only Kyrgyz can speak to.' Exploring the relationship between native tongue & identity

Magomed Abdurakhmanov

Shared July 1, 2017

This is a very thoughtful writing.

Kratika Mujmer

Shared March 9, 2017

"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."

Andy Iakobson

Shared March 18, 2017

hits (very) close to home.

Haewon Han

Shared December 22, 2016

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.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 2, 2017

my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 3, 2017

seemed as plausible as pausing the flow of time.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 3, 2017

part of my life when the marriage-grad-school-children-career-divorce current was sweeping me along with breath-sucking force

anosh Tariq

Shared January 3, 2017

more intent on hurtling myself into my future than on tending my ancestral roots

anosh Tariq

Shared January 3, 2017

Generation 1.5—immigrants who arrive before their teenage years—

anosh Tariq

Shared January 3, 2017

door to the past was available to her in her first language.”

A first language remains uniquely intertwined with early memories

anosh Tariq

Shared January 3, 2017

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

anosh Tariq

Shared January 4, 2017

You lose the embrace of an entire community or nation for whom your family’s odd quirks are not quirks all.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 4, 2017

lose your context.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 4, 2017

sense of cultural continuity makes people resilient by providing them with a cohesive self-concept.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 5, 2017

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.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 5, 2017

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

anosh Tariq

Shared January 5, 2017

our earliest language lingers on in our soul’s select society, long after we thought it had faded.

anosh Tariq

Shared January 5, 2017

I’ve become aware of the deep sense in which I belong to the Czech language

anosh Tariq

Shared January 5, 2017

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.

shubhankar chawla

Shared March 5, 2017

"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."

Jody Mumford

Shared June 5, 2017

🖋

Keisha Bruce

Shared June 28, 2017

An interesting quote about first languages. It's fascinating how the brain works

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.

Robert Lin

Shared July 6, 2017

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.

Sarah King

Shared August 2, 2017

Wonderful article.

Kostas K

Shared August 8, 2017

Reminder to keep in touch with my first Laguage. The bit about English being the language in which the self as individual was forged is something that resonates strongly.

Triparnee Kushari

Shared October 2, 2017

One of the best reads

Adnan Alam

Shared December 4, 2017

The comfort you feel in your mother tongue(s), viz. the language(s) you heard around in the first year of your life, is real not imagined.

Elżbieta Głogowska

Shared January 31, 2017

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.

Elżbieta Głogowska

Shared January 31, 2017

"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."

Grace Jaucian

Shared August 29, 2017

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.

Grace Jaucian

Shared August 30, 2017

Love this! Language majors, do yourself a favor and read

Claudius Tadesse

Shared January 15, 2017

to

Harsh Prabha Singh

Shared January 20, 2017

I am so glad this insightful yet beautiful article came my way.

Muhammad Ahmer Wali

Shared January 26, 2017

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

Eric Kim

Shared April 16, 2017

Language is memory’s receptacle.

Dominika Matějková

Shared June 6, 2017

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.

Tang Way

Shared July 18, 2017

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.

Jessica

Shared August 2, 2017

Totally! My first language is Bahasa Indonesia and sometimes I choose to speak English rather than my first language. Speaking your first language really helps you reconnect with your country. 😊

Eva Ptašková

Shared August 10, 2017

Wonderful.
If you grew up in a bilingual home, you will relate to this.

Prarthana Seth

Shared August 20, 2017

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.

Pavol Kažimir

Shared September 21, 2017

Po Slovensky?

Jayne Williamson-Lee

Shared December 3, 2017

"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."

Leandro Batisteli

Shared January 21, 2018

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.

Indra Filgueiras

Shared February 7, 2018

“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.”

Mohit Verma

Shared April 5, 2018

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.

wanyi .

Shared December 19, 2016

Such a beautiful article.

Brb studying Japanese and start learning another language like French now.

This article reminds me of a conversation a few weeks ago, when a friend commented on my Singlish and that my Singaporean accent is hard to understand to him, a Native American, as well as the numerous posts on the same sentiment by Singaporean Expats in reddit.

I don't find a need to speak Singlish when I talk to other non-Singaporean friends or is in a foreign country, such as including the lahs and lohs for emphasis in my native tongues English and Mandarin. And I do cringe when I hear Singlish being spoken in professional workplace settings and tv shows, as well as seen it typed out in forums.

But there is this pleasantness, the homesickness, in hearing Singlish being spoken in a foreign country, by your fellow countrymen. I thought about the trip to Taiwan a few years back, when my heart melts as I walked pass Singaporeans whom I identified by hearing their heavy Singaporean-accents. "The couple over there are Singaporean, I am certain of that." I told my mum. Truth to be told, it is hard to identify the nationality of the said couple because they share similar features as the Taiwanese/ Chinese/ Koreans/ Japanese/ Singaporeans/ etc due to their fair features and black hair. But I was able to identify their Singaporean roots by their accent.

And it makes me feel so warm, that someone is from the same hometown as me. Especially warm in a foreign country.

Language is able to bond people together. But at the same time, it can isolate people into their respective communities because they do not share the same language. This is how amazing Language is.

Jennifer Komo

Shared January 22, 2017

Great article, even though I only have my own language.

Misstake Y

Shared January 23, 2017

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—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

News Views

Shared April 16, 2017

Lol

T Takuya

Shared January 4, 2017

I am going to make new memories in English. And I want to communicate with people all over the world.

Mehdi Gholipour

Shared February 25, 2017

It's a very good article...read it...

Mustafa Ozdemir

Shared March 10, 2017

"When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. "

Mustafa Ozdemir

Shared March 10, 2017

"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. "

17Y5C33 TAN XIAOCHEN

Shared March 21, 2017

"sense of cultural continuity makes people resilient by providing them with a cohesive self-concept."

Boaz Galil

Shared March 28, 2017

Beautiful article

Mesut Yasli

Shared April 6, 2017

while, 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.

His death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue.

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.

Clarice Anne Talaboc

Shared June 19, 2017

ut 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.

Marija Zakarija

Shared July 3, 2017

How our first language is important even when it is not important!

Yuri Silkin

Shared July 7, 2017

I've had similar experiences.l, with Russian being my first language until 4, then English thereafter. Rekindling my proficiency with Russian has led to many surprises about the way my mind accesses information, the associations it makes, and the thought it constructs using the phonemes programmed into it.

oliver zou

Shared August 22, 2017

rewards

JAIRO 2017

Shared October 15, 2017

hola soy Jairo y tú cómo te llamas

vickie wen

Shared December 4, 2017

fulcrum

Eura Jones

Shared December 7, 2017

This is realtalk

Hamad El Gibreen

Shared February 10, 2018

“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.”

Tracy Chau

Shared February 17, 2018

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.

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.

Yas S

Shared February 18, 2018

An essay worth reading for anyone who was raised with a language other than the one they use daily.

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

Desman Arctic

Shared March 5, 2018


The Strange Persistence of First Languages
by Julie Sedivy, nautil.us
November 5, 2015

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.


MEMORIES: The author in the arms of her father, Ladislav Sedivy, together with her mother Vera and her older siblings, Marie and Silvester. This photo was taken several months before the family’s departure from their Czech home.
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.


Adrian Giddings/Flickr
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—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

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.

Additional Reading

Hallett, D., Chandler, M.J., & Lalonde, C.E. Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development 22, 392-399 (2007).

Hernandez, A.E. The Bilingual Brain Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2013).

Pavlenko, A. The Bilingual Mind Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2014).

Singh, L., Liederman, J., Mierzejewski, R., & Barnes, J. Rapid reacquisition of native phoneme contrasts after disuse: You do not always lose what you do not use. Developmental Science 14, 949-959 (2011).

Slavkov, N. Language attrition and reactivation in the context of bilingual first language acquisition. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 18, 715-734 (2015).

Wang, Q., Shao, Y., & Li, Y.J. “My way or mom’s way?” The bilingual and bicultural self in Hong Kong Chinese children and adolescents. Child Development 81, 555-567 (2010).

Desmann Muskratt

Shared March 5, 2018






The Strange Persistence of First Languages
by Julie Sedivy, nautil.usNovember 5, 2015







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.

MEMORIES: The author in the arms of her father, Ladislav Sedivy, together with her mother Vera and her older siblings, Marie and Silvester. This photo was taken several months before the family’s departure from their Czech home.
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.
Adrian Giddings/FlickrPsychotherapist 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—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—
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.

Additional Reading
Hallett, D., Chandler, M.J., & Lalonde, C.E. Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development 22, 392-399 (2007).
Hernandez, A.E. The Bilingual Brain Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2013).
Pavlenko, A. The Bilingual Mind Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2014).
Singh, L., Liederman, J., Mierzejewski, R., & Barnes, J. Rapid reacquisition of native phoneme contrasts after disuse: You do not always lose what you do not use. Developmental Science 14, 949-959 (2011).
Slavkov, N. Language attrition and reactivation in the context of bilingual first language acquisition. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 18, 715-734 (2015).
Wang, Q., Shao, Y., & Li, Y.J. “My way or mom’s way?” The bilingual and bicultural self in Hong Kong Chinese children and adolescents. Child Development 81, 555-567 (2010).









Geovanna Lopes

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Adam Pendleton

Shared March 16, 2017

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.