A few weeks ago I was invited to the book festival in Trieste, in northeast Italy, a city of divided loyalties and complicated history. At its center is an old Austro-Hungarian port; some of its street signs are bilingual, in Italian and Slovenian. The city was “Tergeste” to the Romans, founded on the site of a former settlement as a fortress against Illyria, and it has been variously dominated by Frankish, Venetian, Balkan, Italian, and Austrian influences in the centuries since. After World War II it was a free zone administered by the US and UK, and rejoined Italy only in 1954.
I learned Italian from my wife, who grew up in Lombardy, and my presentation at the festival began with an apology for my accent—a bizarre amalgam of the flattened vowels of Lombard dialect with the rolled r’s of my native Scots. There was a ripple of indulgent laughter from the audience, who also seemed relieved after two years of Covid to have foreigners return to speak in their town—even a town renowned for its international research institutes and its proximity to borders. I’d rehearsed what I would say, but as my presentation progressed I began to lose words, phrases, grammatical constructions. Conditional tenses slipped away from me, and circumlocutions crept in. I heard myself utter the phrase “that plastic that goes around electric wires” instead of the Italian word for “insulation,” then “that mythical island that sunk” instead of the word for Atlantis.
It had been more than two years since I’d last been in the country, and the Italian I use at home was too domestic to explore the concepts of the book I was there to discuss. At the same time, I had the strong sense that, were I permitted to stay on in Italy a few years, speaking only Italian, it would be English words that would begin to recede through lack of use—not that they’d be entirely forgotten, but they’d be overlain with Italian constructions and vocabulary used more often in day-to-day life.
For my trip to Trieste I had packed perhaps the most appropriate reading material possible for someone living and moving between two languages—Memory Speaks by the academic psycholinguist Julie Sedivy and Alfabet/Alphabet by the poet Sadiqa de Meijer. Both writers moved to Canada as children, and though their books are very different, both examine their complicated relationship with their adopted language: the gifts of bilingualism, but also the visceral sense of unmooring they experienced as each lost touch with what Ghita El Khayat called the “milk language”—the language of lullabies and nursery rhymes.
Sedivy, who now teaches in Calgary, arrived in Canada before the age of six from Czechoslovakia via Austria and Italy. She writes of the “clutter” of languages that had introduced themselves before she began to learn English at school: German in preschool, Italian with friends, French in the streets of Montreal. De Meijer moved from the Netherlands at the age of twelve. For these writers the forgetting, remembering, and relearning of language is one of the most binding and alienating elements of their immigration experience: binding because of the pressing requirement both writers felt to achieve fluency in English, and alienating because of all the ways their native languages continued to hold claims over them, marking them out from peers and neighbors.
A childhood between two places has led Sedivy to feel most comfortable among junctures and transitional spaces; her book describes how she found herself discontented with the study of pure linguistics and with the study of psychology, but at home in a field that borders the two disciplines, able to harvest the insights of both. “I’m drawn, like a moth flinging its body against a light bulb, to in-between spaces and intersections, to hyphenations, to situations in which there will always be two sides,” she writes. “This is, for me, where all the heat and light can be found.” (As if to underscore her rejection of black-and-white distinctions, the word šedivý, in Czech, means “gray.”) When it comes to our identities and our sense of belonging, language is the natural place to start.
As a child trying to fit in with her new surroundings, Sedivy quickly forgot much of her Czech. “The inescapable truth is that a language both binds and excludes,” she writes, and she wanted to bind herself to the new. Czech was and is her mother tongue, her milk language, but English quickly became her dominant language—the language in which she most easily functions. It took her many years to realize the significance of what she had lost with that fracture. Her father eventually moved from Canada back to his hometown in Moravia, and on her infrequent visits there in adulthood (beginning with her first visit since early childhood, to an academic linguistics conference in 1994) she was startled by the degree to which she had lost her command of Czech. Decades later the death of her father occasioned mourning not just for a parent but for one of her few remaining connections to the language:
It was as if the viola section in 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.
Relearning Czech as an adult offered redemption, and Sedivy’s book is in part an account of how through that act of learning she has found ways to bind disparate aspects of her identity. Becoming fluent again in her milk language
has deepened and calmed my sense of who I am, forging a peace treaty between the various, fragmented parts of myself. And it has cast a new light on the old question of how to make a home in a place that is foreign to your ancestors.
This is a question that for Sedivy, as a Canadian, is particularly delicate, given the extent to which the First Nations peoples of that country have been culturally dislocated, and how indigenous Canadian languages are now among the world’s most vulnerable.
“Here are the things that no one tells a six-year-old immigrant child speaking to her baby sister in English: Be careful,” Sedivy writes.
If you continue down this path, your ancestral tongue will one day become more effortful for you to speak than this new language is now…. You will become a linguistic orphan, a person without a mother tongue.
To an individual the loss of a language is a calamity, but it is dwarfed by the catastrophe of an entire group’s loss of language. She quotes Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker of the Alaskan language Eyak who, on being asked how she felt to be the last speaker of a language, replied, “How would you feel if your baby died? If someone asked you, ‘What was it like to see it lying in the cradle?’”*
For de Meijer, to speak English every day is to live in a state of chronic abstraction—though she is fluent in the language, Dutch has remained much more dominant in her thought and speech. She agrees with the Polish Canadian writer Jowita Bydlowska that her second language is an “exoskeleton”—a tough hide of words that shield her from feeling. The poet in her is shocked by the incongruity between the associations her two languages evoke. One of her poems, written originally in English, contains the word harbour, which “conjures a generic image; there are ships, docks, and gulls, but it is nowhere that I can name.” Translating the poem herself, she substitutes the Dutch haven, and effects a magical transformation:
I saw our former river harbour, a charmless place of silos and concrete piers…a bicycle ride on an overcast afternoon, during which my youngest brother sat in a seat on my father’s handlebars. I was being somewhat reckless, biking in a slalom between the moorings, near the sheer drop to the water.
De Meijer realizes with a jolt that English offers her little in the way of access to memories of her childhood self. Passing on news of her grandmother’s death in English, de Meijer’s voice is “monotonous, composed”; she feels herself to be coping well with the bereavement. It is only when she tells an acquaintance in Dutch that the full force of grief breaks through: “The pain was immediate and furious. A flood of tears, unstoppable. Early words, along primal neural pathways, imprinted when I still meant everything I said.”
A language learned in early childhood is privileged with an emotional intensity that a language learned later in life—even in adolescence, as English was for de Meijer—cannot match. “When we learn a language in childhood,” Sedivy writes,
it is by throwing our full selves—bodies, emotions, familial entanglements, social duties, and all—into the task…. A language learned much later is sheltered from the emotional weather of childhood.
This is perhaps why the loss of intensity of feeling in English affects de Meijer far more than it seems to affect Sedivy.
Sedivy uses the example of Nabokov’s memoir of childhood, called Conclusive Evidence when first drafted in English, then Drugie berega (Other Shores) when he revised it after having translated it into his native Russian. Nabokov described his memories as tuned to the “musical key” of Russian, and the memoir deepened in texture, detail, and emotional resonance as a result of the translation. “A simple anecdote about a stingy old housekeeper becomes perfumed with the scents of coffee and decay,” Sedivy writes, “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.”
Beyond the striking anecdotes from her own biography, Sedivy’s book is at its best when she brings insights from psycholinguistics to the page: patients whose progress in psychoanalysis was stalled until they spoke in their native language; role-playing games that Dutch subjects undertook cooperatively in Dutch, but with a cold and calculating streak in English; the story of a Korean child of six who, after two months in the United States, was found to have lost half of her vocabulary. Native English speakers enrolled in a Korean language class began to noticeably modify their accents within weeks of beginning the course, inflecting their mother tongue with hints of Korean. “A bilingual mind is like a household that contains more than one person,” Sedivy observes.
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.
De Meijer’s mother lived in the Netherlands long into adulthood before emigrating, but after decades in Canada she too began to notice her command of Dutch shifting, deteriorating. “English words, more readily at hand, are swapped in here and there in her speech and in mine,” de Meijer writes. “At other moments, we both falter and have to remind each other of the Dutch word we’re looking for; it is a sensation familiar to dreams, to be certain that something exists without being able to locate it.”
In the 1950s the psycholinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp showed that bilingual subjects put through the Thematic Apperception Test, a kind of verbal Rorschach blot, will conjure stories of a very different emotional register when they conduct the test in their two different languages. Tests of personality also prove untranslatable, issuing widely variable results with the same subject according to which language they are questioned in.
Sedivy explains that when personality tests are conducted on bilingual Mexican Americans living in Texas, they tend to score low on “agreeableness” when questioned in Spanish, because of the way Mexican culture valorizes modesty, but will score much more highly if asked the same question in English. She describes a woman who is polite, calm, and respectful in Portuguese, but vulgar, dynamic, and funny in French. Language may also influence our experience by determining which concepts are available to be named. “There is no word in Italian for accountability,” Sedivy goes on. “The closest is ‘responsibilità’—responsibility—which lacks the concept that actions can carry consequences.”
A selective forgetting of Czech might have encouraged Sedivy’s childhood assimilation and integration in Canada, but as de Meijer points out, citing the work of Manuela Julien, a teacher of Dutch to immigrant families in the Netherlands, a thorough grounding in a mother tongue can actually help immigrants attain proficiency in their new language: “Julien also objects to the stigma inherent in the term taalachterstand, or language-behindness, which is used in her field to refer to these children’s partially bilingual states.” Sedivy discusses Lily Wong Fillmore, an American linguist of Chinese heritage, whose work suggests that early immersion in English at the expense of a home language can be devastating: “The loss of a fully bilingual generation in immigrant families, a generation that could serve as a bridge between its older and younger members, could have dire consequences for family dynamics.”
Sedivy’s experience of relearning Czech in adulthood was revelatory: lying in the bed where her father was born, she found herself
waking often in the nights, aware of having dreams, not of images or movement or people or events, but of Czech words and phrases that frothed and bubbled into consciousness. Within weeks, a measure of fluency began to unspool during my waking hours. Words that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades leapt out of my mouth, astounding me.
Her knowledge of Czech was not forgotten, only “long-buried under the dust and debris of other languages.”
Czech has a particular ř sound that even a closely related language like Slovakian does not. “At some point in my childhood, I did master this sound,” writes Sedivy, “and can pronounce it to this day. But my brother, born three years after me in Vienna, cannot.” On their visits to Czechia, Sedivy encounters strangers who scold her for her slips in accent and stumbles in grammar—so different from the indulgence and encouragement with which I was received in Trieste. “I found myself bristling at such interactions,” Sedivy writes.
They were a visceral reminder of the many obstacles faced by someone who is trying to reclaim their native language—obstacles that arise out of a lack of understanding of the convoluted linguistic journey of a person who is born into a language but then kept at a distance from it.
She wonders whether this intolerance of the Czechs is a national characteristic or, given how few foreigners attempt to learn Czech, simply the result of being exposed only to a narrow range of pronunciations: “‘I’m sorry,’ said my brother, ‘My Czech is not very good.’ ‘Yes, I can hear that,’ said the clerk, without the slightest hint of a smile or note of encouragement.”
For very young children, mastering an accent provides one of the most reliable indicators of belonging. Babies of just ten months old accept toys more readily from someone who speaks the language of their caregivers—and even more readily if the person offering the toy shares the same accent. White American children of age five or six apparently find it easier to believe someone will grow up to be a different racial group than that they will grow up to speak a different language. One study found that five-year-olds believed that adopted children would necessarily speak the language of their birth parents, not their adopted parents.
Language is “a reliable badge of the gradations of belonging,” Sedivy writes, a timeless tool used by our hypersocial species to decide who is and isn’t to be trusted—something she underlines with a quote from the book of Judges:
“Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.’” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan.
There are recent reports that Ukrainian defense forces are making their prisoners pronounce the word palianytsia (a type of bread) as a reliable indicator of Russian or Ukrainian upbringing. Sedivy cites disconcerting evidence that the more diverse a society, the more distrustful it is. The “link between diversity and distrust does not readily evaporate even when [poverty and income inequality] are taken into account,” she notes. “Unlike the illusory connection between bilingualism and poor school outcomes, the worrisome relationship between fragmentation and social distrust has thus far withstood closer scrutiny.”
Sedivy balances evidence for and against language diversity as an obstacle to nation-building. “Language has partitioned humans into groups since very far back in our evolutionary history,” she writes. “Given how language broadcasts identity, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether promoting a polyphony of languages is at odds with nurturing a sense of national unity.” But as anxious as she is about the disharmony evident within polyglot communities, she disagrees with the British journalist David Goodhart, whose book The Road to Somewhere (2017) proposed a division of society into “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” (with the suggestion that “Anywheres” are less committed to local and national goals): “‘Anywhere’ conveys an indifference that I do not feel toward any of the places that have shaped me.”
De Meijer describes returning to the Netherlands from Canada and standing on the beach at Ijmuiden, swayed by the blast of wind from the North Sea. She recalls the poetry of M. Vasalis, a Dutch poet and child psychiatrist who titled her final collection, published posthumously, De oude kustlijn (The Old Coastline). Much farmland in the Netherlands is reclaimed from the sea, and Vasalis chose the name because many migrating birds still follow the line where sea once met land, just as the thoughts of an immigrant will run more easily along the lines of a language learned in childhood. The dikes and polders of the Netherlands shape the lives and habits of all those birds living today, no matter the migration routes embedded in their neural circuits. In the same way, the learning of new languages shapes our human experience even as the traces of our childhood language persist.
My wife and children hold Italian citizenship, and one of the consequences of the recent implementation of Brexit is that my freedom to live in Italy, speaking Italian with Italians, is now far more restricted than it once was. (On my recent trip to Trieste, for the first time in a quarter-century of traveling back and forth to the country, my passport was stamped in and stamped out.) So, for the last couple of years, as the world closed down with Covid, I’ve been attempting to widen my own horizons and apply for Italian citizenship. I’ve passed a language exam and sent the certificate for it, along with a certificate of my marriage, the passports of my wife and children, a police report, some signed photographs, and the evidence of every address I’ve stayed at for more than twenty years, all to an office somewhere in Rome. I’ve been told to expect a wait of twenty-four to thirty-six months before hearing whether my application will be successful. It feels as if I’m waiting to hear whether my family’s own fusion of English and Italian, with its public and domestic vocabulary, will be allowed to flourish.
Sedivy may feel divided between different homelands, but she describes beautifully her ease in a “homelanguage,” closing her book with a fantasy of a fusion tongue that would combine all the elements of her identity in one:
It would preserve the dastardly ř sound of Czech and the lisp-inducing th of English. I would want it to keep both the vertiginous case endings of Czech nouns and the mongrel vocabulary of English—and the swearing would all be in joyous Québécois French.
De Meijer thinks of Dutch now as a kind of “carbon shadow” that permeates her English. “Never erase,” her favorite art teacher said to her once, “it doesn’t really work,” and she writes of the ways Dutch surfaces in the hurried moments of her life. Dutch is the foundation of language for her, the first draft of a drawing that she has added to but never erased. Like Sedivy, de Meijer ends her book with a vision of the richness and possibility that twinned senses of belonging have offered her. But with her gift as a poet, she takes that experience of language and transubstantiates it into the image of a fruit tree she knew of in the Netherlands, in the garden of a family friend unusually skilled at the grafting of branches:
In his vegetable garden stood the odd, Edenic sight of an apple tree that also bore apricots and plums. Perhaps the minds of linguistic migrants are like that tree; the mother tongue is the apple trunk, with roots that penetrate the earth. And our later languages are branches, feeding through the same roots but setting their own fruit.