It’s a truism that language is integral to identity. So when our relationship with it changes, complications quickly accrue: Do we become someone different in another tongue? Is that all down to culture and context, or is there something inherent in a language that affects who we feel ourselves to be? And what happens when we start our lives speaking one language but then switch to another?
These are among the questions explored, with heart and rigour, in Julie Sedivy’s new book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (available October 2021 from Harvard University Press, who sent me a copy). Sedivy was born in the former Czechoslovakia and spoke only Czech until the age of two. At that point her family left the country, then the continent, and her linguistic environment was transformed.
As a child in Canada, Sedivy was suddenly surrounded by English, heard it animate her new friends and role models, and felt compelled to adopt it. English ‘elbowed its predecessors aside’ and became the family language: ‘What could my parents do? They were outnumbered. Czech began its slow retreat from our daily life’. The consequences were not yet apparent to her; ‘the price of assimilation was invisible’.
Years later, after losing her father, Sedivy came to realize ‘how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life’. Her Czech heritage had come to feel like a ‘vestigial organ’. She had lost access to the ‘stories and songs that articulate the values and norms you’ve absorbed without knowing they live in your cells’. She wrote Memory Speaks as part of an effort to ameliorate and understand that loss, exploring
why a language can wither in a person’s mind once it has taken root, what this decline looks like, and how the waning of language can take on a magnitude that spreads beyond personal pain to collective crisis.
The book tackles the personal and cultural effects of language loss, death, learning, and revival, and of bi- and multilingualism. If Sedivy’s family story puts her in a good position to analyse these intricate topics, her professional status elevates it: she is a psycholinguist who has spent her career looking systematically at the interface of language, mind, and self. Alongside scientific tools and insights, this also gives her a keen awareness of the importance of good metaphor.
Sedivy is particularly interested in what occurs when a person’s linguistic environment changes, leading to what she calls the ‘Split Selves Club’ (she finds Eva Hoffman’s trajectory ‘eerily similar’ to her own). What happens to one’s old language, in the brain and in speech, when rust sets in? What about when old and new languages are both retained? They tussle, Sedivy writes, ‘as do siblings, over mental resources and attention’:
A bilingual mind is like a household that contains more than one person. Intimate living arrangements between two people have a way of changing their interpersonal dynamics and perhaps even their personalities, and in the same way, cohabiting languages are bound to change each other. As with any couple who lives together, divisions of labor emerge and personal domains are defined.
Memory Speaks straddles the biographical and the academic, appraising the research on areas such as language acquisition and pedagogy, language attrition and assimilation, and linguistic relativity. The idea of language-based personality differences is a perennial attention-grabber, but Sedivy argues that the more fundamental fact is the intrinsic multiplicity of self. Language, she writes,
is not so much a source of schism as a tagging of it. It is harder to maintain the fiction of an undivided self when one’s cohabiting sub-selves sculpt their thoughts into mutually incomprehensible sentences. Perhaps, by providing distinct linguistic uniforms for these personalities, language makes visible—thereby reinforcing—their separateness.
When Sedivy eventually visits her native land again, her Czech is ‘in tatters’. Forced to rely on it, while surrounded by family and profound familiarity, she struggles to recall even common Czech words or to avoid basic grammatical errors. But at night, her verbal mind churns away, conjuring dreams of Czech phrases, and then her waking self begins to catch up:
Words that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades leapt out of my mouth, astounding me. . . . My expressive powers seemed to ripple like new muscles. . . . Much of what I had thought I had lost was not lost, but simply long-buried under the dust and debris of other languages.
As she settled more in her adult life in Canada, Sedivy delved into its Indigenous cultures, learning a little of their languages. The relative prestige and utility conferred on languages by power structures is a motif in the book. She feels a desire now ‘to explore the blessings and terrors of fitting all of our heritages together into a greater whole with a shared sense of purpose’.
Memory Speaks is a heartfelt, lyrical, and acutely observant book that tells a linguistic story at once unique and universal. It’s also a fascinating odyssey into the nature of language and the protean shapes it can take in the mind over the course of a life.
I hope it will be translated into many other languages – starting with Czech. If, after reading Sedivy’s essay ‘The strange persistence of first languages’, you think, I’d read a whole book about this, you’re in luck. As a further appetizer, here are a few excerpts on Twitter.
Update: Sedivy speaks about the book and the research and stories behind it in this conversation with psychology professor Katherine Kinzler: