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memory speaks

26 november 2021

Julie Sedivy's Memory Speaks is the author's story of growing up with the Czech language, partly abandoning, and then regaining it; but the book is far more. It's a global view of language issues at the present moment, fascinating for being grounded in both direct experience and a review of scholarship.

Sedivy narrates her family's journey from Czechoslovakia to Canada, and her sibling's move from their heritage Czech to the English that seems inexorably to be absorbing all the world's population. But she also invokes historical linguistics, immigrant dynamics, and psycholinguistic research (her own academic specialty). The result is a panorama of how the human language instinct meshes with the global politics and economics of the past century.

One line of my ancestors started their version of Sedivy's journey around the year 1900. My great-grandparents emigrated from the far east of what is now Slovakia to the city of Chicago. My native-bilingual grandmother, born a few years after the move, spoke Slovak at home till she was in her 50s, because my great-grandmother always lived with her. But my father, born in 1930, spoke almost no Slovak; Grandma was keen that he should master the same neutrally-accented Midwestern English that she cultivated.

So I grew up ignorant of this receding heritage. My father taught me only a couple of words for things that didn't seem to have true names in English: krunka, or what sounded like that, for what Americans call the "heel" of a loaf of bread, the French quignon; something that sounded like grunty or sometimes pashkropki for what was basically a Slovak hush puppy, a fried patty made of leftover breading.

Neither my grandmother nor my father ever visited Slovakia; for much of their lives it was inadvisable due to war or communism. I finally got there a few years ago, though only as far as Bratislava and equipped with only one word of my grandmother tongue: dakujem, thank you. Such are the vagaries of lives and language.

Sedivy was luckier. Though her family was cut off in Canada for decades from returning to their home in Moravia, she could eventually return to visit her relatives there after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and re-immerse herself in a language she feared she had lost. The concept of "native speaker" is paramount in linguistics. When you acquire your first language in childhood, you acquire along with it the status of unimpeachable informant on its grammar and idioms. But, says Sedivy, that status can be lost. If you go decades without hearing and speaking a language, you cannot help but lose ground – even if re-immersion can bring back much of your lost competence. One can lose not just the rarer terms and grammatical elaborations, but categories of things to talk about. Even lifelong monolinguals find areas of their languages unfamiliar; much more so when your contact with a given language is limited to a few household concerns, and you do not tap, via reading or education, into the larger currents of your mother tongue.

Losing a first language, if you are a North American professional who has emigrated from Europe, is literally a first world problem, but can still cause immense grief and psychic dislocation. Far more intense is the trauma that accompanies the loss of an entire language and all its speakers, as with so many Native American languages. Imagine a native speaker like Julie Sedivy or my grandmother, cultivating the remnants of a home language with their aging parents, but without the backstop of knowledge that Czechoslovakia still existed, its languages going strong.

Sedivy draws attention to the critical situation of disappearing languages in the Americas, and to some of the systems being devised now to try to preserve them. Language "nests" – originated in New Zealand and further developed in Canada – foster close contact between senior citizens who speak an indigenous language and children who would otherwise miss acquiring it, their parents having been relentlessly drawn to English. Similar programs for Saami languages in Finland have concentrated on filling in that generation gap, providing a community space for adult heritage speakers to re-immerse themselves.

Sedivy warns, however, that the preservation of a language requires motive as well as means. Immigrants and minorities strive to speak dominant languages because that's where the jobs are. Unless you can conduct your entire life in a given language, you will lose portions of it and perhaps lose it entirely; and if enough "yous" lose it, the language is gone. And the transaction is not wholly mercenary. "The majority language encroaches on the terrain of the heart, demanding love and not mere competence" (58). English is a domineering bully on the world stage, but it is also a funny, twisty tongue, itself a hybrid made up of many encounters, with one of the world's greatest literatures. English is "cool," as they say in German.

Much of Sedivy's book concerns experimental psycholinguistics, devoted to teasing out the effects of various kinds of language knowledge in the brain. Split-second reactions to colors that languages have different terms for, measurements of the dilation of pupils as speakers hear various sounds … some of this does not pass the "so-what" test, and even Sedivy has to say "these insights are rarely of the type that we think of as defining the essence of a language or the soul of a people" (133). A single anecdote that Sedivy tells about Czech dumplings (142-43) is more convincing to me that pages and pages of what studies have shown about brainwaves.

I teach English grammar to people who are highly fluent in English, so I found most useful Sedivy's contrast between the "what" and the "how" of a language (235ff.) My students have no problem constructing and parsing highly complex and idiomatic English, but few of them come into class with any idea of what they're really doing, in any analytical sense. Millions of English speakers effortlessly trade modal verbs and progressive aspects – we might be doing so right now – but do not have the slightest idea "what" they are doing even as they nimbly execute "how."

Children learn the "how" of acquired languages without learning "what"; adult language learners usually start with "what," because they can use conscious analysis as a shortcut. And because, frankly, adults don't have the years and years that infants are granted to learn a language. Surrounding adults don't have the patience to put up with full-grown baby-talkers even if the learners themselves could bear the re-juvenilization of such a process. Sedivy addresses the famous difference between child language acquisition (effortless) and adult language learning (painful) as mainly an intrapersonal contrast; and it is quite true that some acquisition modules shut off in a growing brain. If you hear contrasting sounds too late in life, you can never truly distinguish them or produce them; the same with some grammatical features. But the social context for getting a new language into one's head is also important, and it's not always a helpful one. Sedivy reports the impatience of Czechs with her own heritage Czech as she reasserted it. That experience times a thousand faces any adult emigrant who must learn a new dominant tongue from scratch.

I have to say that Sedivy is a little too sanguine (268ff. and elsewhere) about the connections between language and nationalism. "A collective of people as vast as a nation presupposes some grand, shared identity that binds them together" (194), language being a key constituent. Such a link may seem entirely positive in the case of the Czech Republic, which has become largely monolingual within living memory, in the process of casting out imperialists and invaders who spoke first German and then Russian. And doubly positive in the cases of First Nations peoples rediscovering their cultural heritage as they connect with its linguistic elements. But the connection between language and nation can be xenophobic and in turn can tyrannize minorities within its own territories.

Sedivy comments on David Goodhart's terms "Somewheres" and "Anywheres" – roughly, autochthones and cosmopolitans, or those inclined toward those ends of that distinction. She does so skeptically (310-11), doubting that "Anywheres" truly exist. Everybody, she feels, has a home and some connection to a place, its people, and its language. I don't think that's empirically true, though. The Somewhere/Anywhere distinction, as Sedivy frames it, is one of personal inclination, and as far as that goes she may be correct; everyone may long to be a Somewhere. But many, many people have no choice; they have no roots to go back to. They are of mixed parentage and their parents are at odds. They have chosen exile because home was intolerable, and they can't go back; they have been expelled, orphaned, abandoned, either by force or because their conscience severs them from their cradle language and its tribe. Sometimes there is not enough awareness, in Memory Speaks, of those who truly can't go home again.

But at other times Sedivy celebrates multilingualism and polyglossia. One dynamic that she might have made more of is that of stable border communities. Sedivy's paradigm cases for language transition are immigration and colonialism, and they certainly offer plenty of material for any one book. But there are other situations that involve long-term contact without language loss as a necessary consequence.

Biographical accident has led me to spend some time in recent years on the Flensburg Fjord, a little arm of the Baltic that forms part of the border between Denmark and Germany. This is not, mind you, a historically innocent contact zone. Various noble houses fought over the territories of Jutland and Schleswig-Holstein for centuries; monuments to Danish-Prussian wars of the 19th century are still prominent in the area; and of course the Third Reich occupied Denmark, again within living memory.

But in the postwar period, a workable bilingualism seems (to outsider me) to have flourished in the area. There are German-speaking communities on the Danish side and Danish speakers on the German and bilinguals on both (the area having avoided the precise cleansing that was practiced on the German-Czech border in the same period, though one senses slow drift toward linguistic sorting over the decades). Danes extend social services into Germany and vice-versa, and in the Schengen era, of course (till COVID-19), the border itself became more like an American state line, visible mostly for which side the cheaper liquor stores lie on (Germany, for reference). There is no question that German is the more powerful language, in global terms, nor that English increasingly serves as an even more powerful lingua franca in the whole region. But the stability of both states means that Danes aren't drawn into the German orbit in the way that immigrant enclaves might be.

Similar situations exist across many a long-established border (the Copenhagen-Malmö metropolitan area, on the other side of Denmark, is another example; the entire nation of Luxembourg might be another). A peaceful border might be the world ideal for language contact.

Sedivy, Julie. Memory Speaks: On losing and reclaiming language and self. Cambridge, MA: Belknap [Harvard], 2021. P 40.5 .L28S435