The Strange Persistence of First Languages

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The Strange Persistence of First Languages

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The Strange Persistence of First Languages


A fantastic article this month by Julie Sedivy on – talking about how retaining the native language of your ancestors develops you as a person, both culturally and mentally.

A case we deal with very commonly: loss of language by the succeeding generations of immigrants into another country is detailed in the author’s journey through life:

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.

In a county as multicultural as United States, many parents can relate: children eagerly embrace English language, not only as a means of communication, but, eventually, as an act of rebellion against the parents as well. New language gives you independence and tangible gains:  proficiency in English language results in wage increases of 15 percent for immigrants who achieve it relative to those who don’t, according to economist Barry Chiswick. Beyond that, there’s acceptance of peers and ability to “fit in”.

Meanwhile, while the new language asserts dominance in one’s head, it comes with a price: the weaker language, as it gets practiced less, gets displaced, and ultimately forgotten. The ultimate cost to this is significant:

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.

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.

The good news is, that your brain never truly forgets the first language: 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.