Linguist Julie Sedivy on losing first language Czech – and getting it back again

Julie Sedivy

In the recently published Memory Speaks, the linguist Julie Sedivy explores the deep connections between language, memory, identity and migration. As well as drawing on science, the book is also something of a memoir. Sedivy’s own family left Czechoslovakia when she was just two and when they settled in Canada she gradually lost most of her Czech. However, as a “heritage language learner” she has managed to reconnect with her mother tongue in recent years. She spoke to me remotely from her home in Calgary.

“My father was what I guess you would call a forest ranger, or a forest caretaker.

“We lived in a small house at the edge of a national forest, or a state forest.

“We left in 1969, so after the invasion, and that departure was motivated, as for a number of Czechs who went abroad at that time, by the political circumstances.

“My father had been deemed unfit for university, because of political and religious affiliations, so they were looking for the possibility of educating their children.

“That was a very strong motivation for them. My father and mother both had been denied the opportunity to be educated at higher levels.

“And they wanted that opportunity for their kids and they wanted to live with greater freedoms and so on.”

Naturally initially you spoke Czech together. How did Czech come to gradually become the kind of secondary language in your household after you settled in Montreal in Canada?

“Really the transition came at school. I think that’s such a big boundary for many immigrant children.

“As we started speaking English we realised that there was really not much reward for speaking Czech.”

“You grow up speaking the family language at home, but then all of a sudden when much of your life takes place outside of the home you very quickly realise that the world out there doesn’t speak Czech.

“We did not have access to a large Czech-speaking community.

“Every now and then we might encounter a Czech speaker outside of our family, but it was very rare.

“And children pick on these messages very quickly.

“They’re very good at learning, Ah, out here in the world these are the languages that are spoken.

“For me at that time, because we moved to Montreal, it was French and then English, when we started school.

“So as we started speaking school English we realised that there was really not much reward for speaking Czech – and in fact that other children might look at us a little bit strangely if we were heard speaking amongst ourselves in the schoolyard in Czech.

Julie Sedivy in her father’s arms outside of Sedivy family home a few months before their departure from the country | Photo: archive of Julie Sedivy

“We began to avoid speaking Czech in public and then brought that language home.

“So I recall that by the time my younger sister was born – five years younger than me; at that point I was in kindergarten, I guess – we were beginning to speak to our younger siblings in English at home.”

In Memory Speaks you say that the depth of loss of a first language is connected to age of immigration. You have a number of siblings. How did their experience of language in childhood compare to yours?

“This is absolutely true. The younger you are when you move from one language to another the more likely you are to lose whatever language you had, which was certainly the case for all of us, to some extent.

“And for the most part we’ve seen that progression.

“We were six children. My oldest brother has retained an impressive degree of Czech. It easily gets activated when we make a trip back and I think his grammar is quite solid.

“As we move down the ranks into the younger siblings they are much less proficient, with the exception of my very youngest brother, who divides his time between the Czech Republic and the United States.

“His Czech to my ear is absolutely perfect, so he has been able to I think relearn it at a very high level of proficiency.”

One thing that you write in the book that’s quite amusing is that you were at a loss in the schoolyard when you were asked for Czech swear words, because you weren’t hearing them at home.

“Yes, I think something that happens to immigrant children is that the contexts in which they hear their language spoken are very limited.

“So whatever you don’t hear in your family, you don’t necessarily learn as part of the language.

“In my case my parents simply did not swear in Czech.

“The younger you are when you move from one language to another the more likely you are to lose whatever language you had.”

“So when we were asked by our school friends to provide some examples of swear words we couldn’t do it.

“Which is very embarrassing as a child – when you claim to speak a particular language and you can’t produce a swear word in that language other children quickly lose interest in you.”

You said your sister improvised.

“My sister, who is very inventive, decided to tell the other kids that the filthiest word you could produce in Czech was the word ‘zmrzlina’, which satisfied them.”

Which is of course ice cream and that it is a very funny story. One striking point in the book is when you say that parents often move country or emigrate for the sake of their children, but in doing so they in a sense lose their children, or they lose a certain connection to their children. Could you elaborate on that?

“One of the, I guess, tragedies of language learning is that for biological reasons that we don’t fully understand it’s not generally possible to learn a second language to full native-like proficiency if you begin learning it in adulthood.

“And on the other hand, as we’ve mentioned, children who move into a new linguistic environment are particularly vulnerable to losing their first language.

“So you have this collision of biological predispositions within immigrant families who arrive with young children.

“And what this typically means is that the children don’t have the ability to remain fully proficient in their parents’ language throughout their lives.

Photo: Harvard University Press

“Often even as early as middle childhood and adolescence – during those critical years when communication between parents and children is difficult under any circumstances, and when there’s a language barrier that becomes all the more so.”

Was it a source of sadness to your parents?

“I think it certainly was.

“I remember feeling, particularly on my father’s side, that sense of distance and sadness.

“My mother was able to learn English to a somewhat higher degree of proficiency than he did throughout his life.

“I was aware of that sadness, and that feeling that he had continually that we were drifting away from him, drifting away from the culture that he felt very attached to.

“So yes, this was I think something that dominated our childhood and adolescence.”

I know some bilingual people who really aren’t perfect in any language. So I guess there really can be disadvantages to being bilingual?

“Yes, absolutely, depending on your pattern of when you acquired which language at which time and where you moved around in your life.

“I know a number of people like this as well.

“They’re faced with the challenge that they don’t have a single language that they feel as much at ease in as many people who command a language thoroughly.”

I knew somebody who was trilingual, who spoke Czech, German and an African language, and this person told me they didn’t like the version of themselves when they spoke Czech, because Czech has so many diminutives and a lot of times in Czech if you want to ask for something you have to do it in a roundabout way.

“In Czech I feel I have permission to be more blunt than I do in English.”

“This is such a common thing among multilingual and multicultural people – this feeling that they have different versions of themselves in different languages.

“Of course that I think reflects the fact that those languages have been learned in different cultural contexts.

“There are different social expectations in each of those languages and cultures, and you might feel like there’s a better fit with one or the other.

“I myself feel that way as well. I speak English, French and Czech and I do feel that different aspects of my personality come out in those different languages.

“In Czech I feel I have permission to be more blunt than I do in English, particularly when I’m speaking with people who are closer to me.

“English Canadians have a reputation for requiring a certain degree of politeness and I think that that stereotype is very true.

“And in French I feel just a little bit more free, more carefree.

“That’s my fun language, the language in which I just relax and enjoy myself.”

Tell us about your first visit to the Czech Republic as an adult, from the perspective of language.

“My very first visit was in 1994. I was there as a young graduate student.

“That was my first experience of being immersed in a Czech-speaking environment, where everything occurred in Czech.

“I recall pulling into the train station in Prague and hearing over the loudspeaker the announcements about where trains would be leaving, from which platforms and so on.

“That just struck me as such a strange thing to hear.

“I had never heard Czech spoken in a public place like that before.

“So to me it really felt like one of my brothers or uncles had run up to the microphone and grabbed it as a prank and begun speaking our little family language, as a joke.

“It was really a profound experience to just feel the reality of their being an entire nation who spoke this particular language that to me had been a very small, intimate language.”

Tell us about your own efforts to improve your Czech later in life.

“The real turning in point for me was a trip I took in 2015, I believe, when I was able to travel to the Czech Republic by myself, so without reinforcements of people who could easily translate for me.

“I spent some sustained period of time in my father’s village of Moravská nová ves, where very few people spoke English, including most of my family members.

“So I was really thrown into that environment.

“And I had the experience of the language simply bubbling up in my mind.

“I would begin to dream in Czech and words that I hadn’t used in decades would suddenly come to mind in unexpected ways.

“That did real wonders for my confidence and my ability to speak Czech.

“Since then I’ve tried to retain it as much as I can. I read as much as I can in Czech, I stream programmes and podcasts in Czech, as a way of at least retaining my comprehension.

“But I really feel the effects of not having Czech speakers around with whom I can produce the language.

“So it is very high time for me to make another trip back.”

You make an interesting point in the book also, which is that many Czechs see others, or foreigners, as either perfect speakers of Czech or non-speakers of Czech.

“I think many Czech speakers aren’t used to encountering adult learners of Czech.”

“Yes, I think it’s still the case that relatively few people learn Czech as adults.

“You really have to have a very specific reason for learning Czech.

“As a result I think many Czech speakers aren’t used to encountering adult learners of Czech the way that English speakers, for example, are.

“We are used to hearing all kinds of different accents and to glossing over some of the grammatical errors and oddities that people make.

“But I think that’s less the case in Czech.

“I felt that there was not always a full comprehension of what it’s like to be an adult learner, or to be a heritage language learner, of Czech.

“I would encounter for example comments. When I made a grammatical error someone might say, Well, I told you how to say this last week – how can you not remember?

“And for those of us of course who have tried to learn a foreign language, we know that it takes a massive number of repetitions before you finally master a certain grammatical structure.

“For me as a heritage language learner I think it has a lot of emotional impact, because on the one hand you feel like this is your language – this is the language you heard as a child, that your mother spoke to you.

“You feel a very strong emotional connection to it, a sense of ownership.

“But then you’re also very aware of your outsider status, that you don’t master it proficiently, that people look at you, and at times laugh at you, for your lack of command of the language.

“So it’s a very conflicted feeling for me.”

Julie, what are your favourite things about the Czech language?

“Ah, so many things.

“I really appreciate the orientation that many Czechs have to their language as a thing of beauty.

“I think many Czechs really value linguistic skills, value the ability to tell a good story, a descriptive story.

“I love its expressiveness. The way that you can add prefixes to verbs to bring out nuances of meaning that you can’t in English.

“For example in Czech you capture the difference between reading – you would use the word ‘cist’… but if you wanted to say that you were fully absorbed in reading you would say ‘se zacist’ – that would be like to immerse yourself in reading.

“So Czech grammar has the capacity to add these kinds of nuances to verbs that I think are really, really lovely and very powerful.

“There’s so much to love about Czech: the sounds of it, the way the consonants just jumble together in great configurations.

“Yes, I’m clearly very attached to this language.”