A mother tongue reclaimed
This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Patrick Cox: Kavi!
Kavita Pillay: Yes?
Patrick Cox: English…is that your mother tongue?
Kavita Pillay: Well, I guess the short answer is yes. But the long answer is that early in my life I was very exposed to Malayalam which is the language of the south Indian state of Kerala where my family is from. Actually when I was born — we were living in the US– one of my mom’s sisters came and lived with us for six months, and took care of me. She speaks only Malayalam so while my mom had to go back to work– both my parents had to work– she was immersing me in a Malayalam environment, basically a Malayalam-only environment for my waking hours, I suppose.
Patrick Cox: So did she teach you words in Malayalam?
Kavita Pillay: Apparently when she was feeding me, she would say, “Inna” (in Malayalam script: ഇന്നാ), which is the word for, “Here you go,” when you are feeding a child. After she left and went back to India and I had a nanny, the nanny thought “inna” meant “mama” or “mother” because I would keep saying “Inna! Inna!” It was just her and me for most of the days, and she’s a chatty one. She’s a storyteller so I know that she was talking to me a lot whether or not I was responding in any way. You know, my parents were here, and that time, as much as they spoke Malayalam with each other, teachers and doctors said, “Don’t go exposing your kids to too many languages, otherwise they won’t be fluent in any one.” So, I was exposed a lot to Malayalam growing up but I would say English is my mother tongue.
Patrick Cox: So English kind of muscled in very early in your life.
Kavita Pillay: Yeah, for sure.
Patrick Cox: I don’t know but I imagine that quite of lot of people who have something like your experience, Kavi, with family members who speak one language. But they’re in a place where another language is spoken, so there’s a little bit of an adjustment going on. At that age I imagine it’s a pretty easy adjustment. It must be much more challenging for older children– for people who for one circumstance or another, have to switch languages from their mother tongue to another language completely when they’re, I don’t know, five or six years old.
Kavita Pillay: Yeah and speaking as the mom of a six year old I can say that would be a whole other challenge.
Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Kavita Pillay.
Patrick Cox: And I’m Patrick Cox. In this episode, the story of a woman who lost the ability to speak her first language. Without getting too dramatic, that must cause a deep wound, to have the words you first used leave you. Unless that language isn’t quite lost.
Patrick Cox: Can you pronounce the name of that famous Czech composer, whose name begins with D-V?
Kavita Pillay: Dvořák. Is that who you are thinking of? I can’t think of anyone else.
Patrick Cox: That is the name. So, “Antonín Dvořák.” That’s the way we say it in the United States. But actually it’s not quite the way the Czechs say it.
Three native Czech speakers say “Antonín Dvořák”
Patrick Cox: As close as that sounds to [the American pronunciation of] Dvořák, it’s not quite the same. We have no idea about how a language like Czech sounds because it has virtually no imprint here in the United States. Can you think of a Czech word?
Kavita Pillay: There’s probably some fabulous dessert but I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.
Patrick Cox: Right. Also, Czech culture. What do we know about Czech culture? Which is why I think this video, which was posted on YouTube, I’m going to play it to you now, is really difficult to culturally interpret.
Sound of men singing accompanied by an accordion.
Kavita Pillay: That sounds like a lot of fun. What is that?
Patrick Cox: It’s from the Czech republic, from a village there — and it shows people taking part in a thing they do every Easter. So there’s a group of men and boys going door to door, looking like they’re paying their respects at Easter time. The person who shared this with me is called Julie Sedivy. She was born in what was then called Czechoslovakia, spent her very early years there, and she took part in this Easter ritual. So when the women of the houses answer their doorbells, that’s when things get what we would think of as extremely odd.
Julie Sedivy: The boys and men create these whips out of willow branches, which they braid together with ribbon in very decorative ways. And then they go around and whip the girls and women.
Sound of a woman yelping and laughing as the men sing
Patrick Cox: You can probably hear — I hope you can hear — that the woman being, quote, “whipped” is laughing. Way back when in this ritual, there may have been real whipping but now it’s closer to brushing. Brushing, though, of the rear end.
Julie Sedivy: And in exchange for being whipped, the girls and women would hand over colored Easter eggs in some cases, alcohol in the form of slivovice shots. They might tie a ribbon onto the end of the whip and such.
Patrick Cox: In this video, several of the women also donate bras to the cause. They tie them onto the end of the whips. After a while, the men move on in search of other females, getting a bit drunker with each shot of slivovice, home-made plum brandy. Watching this video out of context, it’s, well, shocking — not so much because of the barely concealed violent sexuality of the ritual. No, because it’s clearly regarded by every participant as 100% wholesome. It’s part of the culture. Or as Julie Sedivy puts it, part of the air you breathed.
Julie Sedivy: It was just one of those things that you grow up with like trick or treating at Halloween or exchanging presents at Christmas. It’s not something that you necessarily question until you have a reason to pop out of that perspective.
Patrick Cox: Which is exactly what happened to Julie. When she was four, her family moved to Canada. Where — when it comes to wholesome Easter fun — people favor bunnies over whips.
Julie Sedivy: I remember around the time that I was nine, one Easter, my father braided the whip and came and approached the girls in the house with the whip and my sisters and I just crossed our arms and said, Nope, we’re not doing that this year. And he looked, you know, very crestfallen, because, “What do you mean we’re not doing that?” That’s kind of like saying we’re not exchanging presents this year. But by then, I think we had absorbed that this felt weird. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able at that age to articulate why it felt weird or anything about its symbolism. It just felt weird.
Patrick Cox: So could you go through the languages that you learned in order because you’d list them in order?
Julie Sedivy: Sure. Should I list the forgetting in order as well?
Patrick Cox: Julie has a complicated linguistic history, characterized by learning and forgetting.
Patrick Cox: The learning wasn’t really learning, it was being a child picking up whichever language other people around her were speaking — that seemingly effortless gift that kids have. The forgetting worked more like the way Julie and her siblings came to reject the Easter whipping game. The normal and the commonplace gradually lost their context.
Julie’s years in Czechoslovakia were happy enough for her, less so for the adults in her extended family.
Julie Sedivy: What prompted us to leave were political reasons, as they did for many people.
Patrick Cox: It was the time of the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, a people-power movement. It pushed the communist regime to relax its grip on power and accept reforms that might– might — have set the country on the road to democracy. But some in Sedivy’s family didn’t think that would happen.
Julie Sedivy: My grandfather, who had actually been sent to a labor camp for his outspokenness in the early years of the communist regime, fled with his wife and unmarried children at that time because he was convinced that that period of openness would not last. My parents stuck it out, but then decided to leave after the invasion in 1969, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and basically suppressed the reforms that were happening in Czechoslovakia at the time.
Patrick Cox: The family escape took the guise of a weekend mini-break. They got three-day visas to visit neighboring Austria.
Julie Sedivy: So we left the country in a small car packed with three days worth of stuff that you would. So no family photos, no large amounts of cash. Basically, what you would take for a long weekend.
Patrick Cox: Not that she knew it then but the day they crossed the Iron Curtain into Austria was the first day of forgetting for Julie. Forgetting family, friends, a way of life — and forgetting a language. She’d started the imperceptibly slow process of losing her mother tongue.
The family spent time in Austria and Italy, as they waited to find out which country would take them in. Julie picked up some German, and then Italian. And then they got word that Canada had offered them residency visas. They flew to Montreal, their new home.
Sound of Julie as a child singing Frère Jacques
Patrick Cox: This is Julie aged 4, a few weeks after arriving in Montreal. She learned Frère Jacques at preschool. French had become her fourth language, though in this recording there is some confusion among Julie and her siblings as they wonder whether they’re being taught in French or English.
Sound of Julie and other family members talking
Patrick Cox: The family was, in fact, exposed to both French and English. At first, though, it was mainly French. Their first home was in a French-speaking neighborhood. But English was never far away, especially after they started grade school.
Patrick Cox: How did your parents adapt to you, presumably picking up English and French?
Julie Sedivy: Well, they were very happy that we picked up English and French as quickly as we did. They themselves had very limited opportunity to use those languages. My mom was a full-time mother after the four of us arrived there. Shortly came kid number five and kid number six, so she had her hands full. And my father had various jobs that didn’t put him in touch with a lot of English or French speakers. So one of his first jobs was driving a delivery truck for a bakery. I remember he spent some time working in a belt factory. Not jobs where you had a lot of conversation and a lot of high level linguistic interaction with people. So Czech remained very much our family language for some period of time. Once we started going to school, then the other languages came home. My older brother started school initially in French and then switched over to English at some point and we settled into English as being the chosen language of our education. By the time my younger sister was born, we were beginning to transition to speak in English among the siblings at home. So I remember talking to her in English when she was a baby and continuing that. And then that began — I think the period of life that is common for so many immigrants where the parents continue to speak their native language and the kids to growing degrees start answering back in English, mixing the two to some extent. But then English gradually taking over as the dominant language of the family.
Patrick Cox: And once that began, there was no turning back. It wasn’t just the Czech language that was fading into darkness: It was everything else about her early life. Which all came to head when Julie and her sister refused to do the Easter whipping ritual.
Patrick Cox: What do you think — Did you ever talk to your dad about that later on?
Julie Sedivy: No, I never did. And you know, it’s one of those conversations I really wish I had been able to have had with him, just kind of discussing what it was like for me as a kid to experience that set of straddling cultures, seeing each culture from a different perspective. What I was aware of at the time that we resisted this tradition was his disappointment and the sense that we were letting him down by essentially rejecting a tradition that he was attached to. And that was just one of many instances of his disappointment over our distancing ourselves from our ancestral culture. I do wish that I had been able to have a conversation with him about what motivated that resistance, some of what was going on and in our minds as we were growing up and trying to navigate these two worlds.
Patrick Cox: That’s a fairly sophisticated conversation that you’re describing, and of course, you may not have had the Czech to have articulated all of that stuff — and he wouldn’t have had the English either.
Julie Sedivy: That is one of the great tragedies of our family story. That’s absolutely right. Certainly by the time that we had enough awareness to be able to articulate some of these thoughts, our command of Czech was starting to slip away. And it was mostly grounded in practical everyday communication. We were not able to have these nuanced, delicate conversations. And yes, as you point out, he wouldn’t have been able to have them in English, either. So that, I think, was one of the reasons why those conversations never happened.
Patrick Cox: After the break, Julie seeks answers when she returns to the Czech Republic.
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Patrick Cox: It’s not a huge surprise that when she went to college, Julie Sedivy discovered linguistics.
Julie Sedivy: I remember just feeling that language was where I wanted to spend my life. At first, I thought this meant that I would become a novelist. So I started off being an English major, and then I took a course in linguistics. And that’s when I fell in love with linguistics, realizing that it was possible to look at language through a scientific lens, which just blew my mind.
Patrick Cox: For a long time Julie didn’t make the connection between linguistics and her personal history. She went on to teach linguistics at Brown and later the University of Calgary. And in that time, she just didn’t focus on issues that might have illuminated the loss of her mother tongue. She didn’t think of it in those terms — as a loss — even when her father, after decades of living in North America, even when he decided to return to the Czech Republic to live there, permanently.
Julie Sedivy: I suspect that a significant part of his decision was the feeling that he had never felt at home in North America, that he felt a growing sense of longing for the culture that he had grown up with and that after the fall of communism, it was suddenly becoming possible to reconnect with that. and be with his mother as she was getting older, be with his brothers and his family there.
You know, we were all the kids were into adulthood, so we had kind of dispersed into our various lives. But yes, he was. He was our dad. He came for regular visits in the summertime, you know, continued an involvement with our family. He just lived in the Czech Republic most of the time.
Patrick Cox: It was a few years after that that Julie’s relationship with Czech changed.
Julie Sedivy: The first time that I remember being aware of a sense of loss at all was immediately after the death of my father because he was my most significant connection to the Czech language. And along with the loss of him as a father, I suddenly became aware of the loss of Czech from my life and the sense that you know that that was a link that had been severed as a result of his death.
Patrick Cox: Julie began wondering how she and her father had grown apart. Was language the problem? His poor English, her barely functioning Czech: Was that it? Julie’s grief for her father crossed back and forth with a linguistic grief. Yet Czech — her version of Czech at least — wasn’t a language like English.
Julie Sedivy: For me, Czech was a private language. It was the language spoken by my family and close relatives, and hardly anywhere at all. And you simply absorb that sense of where different languages are appropriate.
Patrick Cox: Living thousands of miles from the Czech Republic in pre-internet times, you just didn’t hear Czech in the wild, in public spaces. One of the only exceptions — perhaps the most prominent, historically — was in 1990. That’s when Czech president Vaclav Havel — playwright and political prisoner under the Communists — that’s when Havel spoke to a joint session of Congress about his fairytale rise to becoming the first post communist leader of his country.
Vaclav Havel (addressing Congress): My advisors advised me to speak on this important occasion in Czech. I don’t know why. Perhaps they wanted you to enjoy the sweet sounds of my mother tongue. (applause)
Havel speaks in Czech.
Patrick Cox: There were very few moments like this. Julie realized the only way she could re-engage with Czech was to go to where it was spoken every day.
Sound of an announcement on the public address system at Prague’s main train station.
Patrick Cox: The re-entry was almost spooky, as she got off a train at Prague’s main station.
Julie Sedivy: When I arrived, of course I knew that the announcements would be made in Czech. And it absolutely felt as if one of my brothers had rushed up, grabbed the microphone and started speaking our own private family language that never gets spoken in public over the loudspeaker. And it was such a jarring experience. And that’s when I first had this visceral sense of there being an entire nation that speaks this language — being in this public place where Czech was the language that was spoken over loudspeakers was something that literally sent shivers all through my body.
Patrick Cox: Julie kept going back, and in 2015 she spent a couple of months in the Czech Republic. She left her English-speaking family behind in Calgary, and stayed in a small rural village — the village her father was from. The place was full of surviving family members who spoke little or no English.
Julie Sedivy: And it was the first time that I was alone in that country without someone who could translate for me and be an intermediary. So being forced to produce the language on a daily basis, being immersed in it just really had a phenomenal effect. I remember my sleep in those nights being interrupted. I would just wake up having these phrases and words of Czech floating around, and I would wake up with an awareness of these words and phrases in the way that you might wake up from a dream with an image or, you know, some event that had woken you up. There was no plot to these dreams at all. It was just the Czech language just bubbling around.
Patrick Cox: Julie stayed with relatives — actually slept in the very bed where her father and three of his brothers had been born. She was awakened every morning by the bells of the church next door. The sounds, the smells, the tastes: It was a sensory return to her childhood. There were jarring moments too. An uncle asked Julie why she’d abandoned her mother, meaning why had she moved to a different city in North America? It made no sense of Julie. Her mother was happy. She was happy. But that made no sense to her uncle.
Julie Sedivy: I had a little bit of a perspective of what my life might have been like had I stayed in a village, much like the one that my father grew up in and where many of my relatives of my age — or even the next generation — have stayed very close to their extended families, have lives that are very involved with each other on a daily basis — and they don’t go galloping off in pursuit of things like doing a Ph.D. in a foreign country. That’s just something that can look very weird from the outside.
Patrick Cox: Still, with each day she spent there, Czech words were coming back. Words she knew — or had known — and loved. Fun words too.
Patrick Cox: The word for idiot, B-L-B. That’s a fantastic word.
Julie Sedivy: Isn’t it a beautiful word? That word is Blb.
Patrick Cox: That does sound like an idiot.
Julie Sedivy: It’s utterly idiotic.
Patrick Cox: And then all the food words: Words for dishes Julie hadn’t eaten in decades.
Patrick Cox: “Veh Prol kneh..” I can’t even say it.
Julie Sedivy: Vepřo knedlo zelo. It’s a complex word that basically sticks together the words for pork, knedlíky which is a type of dumpling, and zelí, which is a sauerkraut-style cabbage. It’s the classic Czech dish.
Patrick Cox: And when you hear that compared to, I don’t know, “Pork and cabbage dumplings,” or something like that, how does it speak to you in a different way?
Julie Sedivy: Well, I can smell it in Czech. I can’t smell it in English. I have to kind of translate it into my mind — into the Czech word — to be able to evoke that sense of the house smelling of that particular food being cooked. It comes with lots of steam from the dumplings cooking and the roasting of the pork. This was a dish we often had on Sundays. We had a very firm ritual of having a Sunday dinner right after church where we would lay the table with the good china. And it was the one time we sat at a more formally-set table. I can make myself conjure those memories if I use the word in English, but it’s a more deliberate conjuring, as opposed to something that feels automatically packed into the word.
Patrick Cox: The way Julie describes it, before this trip to the family village, when she’d try to say something in Czech, she’d always hit a roadblock, usually before she could get a single sentence out.
Julie Sedivy: And then suddenly by the time I got there, the words magically appears. And in some cases there was a word that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades or thought about in decades. This just kind of seemed to spontaneously happen after a couple of weeks there. My ability to construct more complicated grammatical sentences grew in leaps and bounds. My comfort level with the language — my ability to understand people when they were speaking quickly. All of these things just felt like it was a hyper-acceleration of learning was the way that I experienced it.
Patrick Cox: Meaning that it wasn’t just a case of you immersing yourself in a different linguistic environment, but there was an advantage that you had because you were drawing on this sort of dormancy of fluency that you had from a very early age.
Julie Sedivy: Yes, that’s what I suspect was going on. And I just, you know, I think that must have been going on in some cases because words would come up that I’m sure that I hadn’t heard on that particular trip at any point that would just sort of reappear from my deeper past. So there’s no question that I was accessing knowledge that had been there that had simply been less accessible by virtue of spending most of my time in an Anglophone environment with the volume dial on Czech just being turned way, way down during those years.
Patrick Cox: That must have been that must’ve been so exciting.
Julie Sedivy: It really was. Yeah, it was wonderful. And, you know, during the pandemic years, I haven’t been able to go back, so I’m already feeling that sense of loss of accessibility. I’m doing my best to read in Czech, to listen to podcasts in Czech. But I think there’s something about producing the language that allows you to access certain aspects of it that you simply can’t get from being more passively exposed to it.
Patrick Cox: Now Julie’s background in linguistics came to the fore. She knew where to look for studies of people in her situation. And also she knew how to interpret the research.
Julie Sedivy: So there are a couple of case studies where someone who was exposed to a language during their early years, then completely severed from that language comes under hypnosis, where there is a technique used to kind of bring you back to the memories of that time period. And in a couple of these cases, the person would start speaking the language that they claim to have no knowledge of. This is very fascinating and very dramatic. It’s hard to know from those case studies how much of an outlier these individuals were, because I think typically we don’t have that strong a disconnect between our conscious and unconscious experiences of language.
Patrick Cox: She also found research that more systematically considered the effects of early childhood exposure to another language. Like with some internationally adopted kids.
Julie Sedivy: Situations where a child that was born and spent the very early part of their life in one country is then adopted and brought to a different country where they have no further relationship to their birth language at all. And a number of these studies have shown that even among adult adoptees who at the outset seem to have absolutely no recollection of their mother tongue in some cases, if you look at their brain activity, it doesn’t show any different patterns of responses to a language that they hadn’t been exposed to. Even in some of those cases, there’s evidence coming out that exposure, re-exposure to the language results in faster learning than if you had never been exposed to that language in the first place.
Patrick Cox: Many of these studies focus on speech perception. Typically, the sound structure of a language is one of the first things we absorb. So even if a child has been adopted as a one-year- old, before they’ve learned to put a sentence together they’ll have learned quite a bit about the sound structure of their native tongue. And some of these studies show that that sticks around, even among adults who in all other ways seem to have no knowledge of their birth language at all. What we don’t know yet is how helpful that early exposure to sound structure may be to re-learning, re-claiming the language later on in life.
Julie Sedivy: But I think, you know, I found that very interesting given my own personal experience of this sense of hyper accelerated relearning that was happening. And I think it’s a very important area of study because it speaks to the question of how much value is there in exposing kids to their heritage language early on,if you anticipate that they might not necessarily be in an environment where it will be that useful to them, that would be a very, very helpful question to know.
Patrick Cox: And you think of the number of refugees that have been resettled in the last ten years, and that it’s going to be a key question that huge numbers of people will have.
Julie Sedivy: And it’s massively relevant to the question of revitalizing endangered languages as well, I think. You know, to have a sense of understanding of what are the benefits of very early exposure?
Sound of the Czech national anthem.
Patrick Cox: This is the Czech National anthem. It’s got that national anthem kind of a sound to it, right? The title though: It’s a bit more unusual. “Where is my home?” Like, a question. The words go on to answer the question: Streams, meadows, orchards. That’s my home. It’s not quite that straightforward for Julie, of course.
Julie Sedivy: For me, that question, “Where’s my home?” is not exactly a rhetorical question. It’s more of a real question that I answer my cell phone to ask myself on a regular basis. And one of the things that you know, that actually surprised me as a result of my long trip back to the Czech Republic, I felt such a renewed connection to my Czechness that I found myself wondering on the plane trip back how it would feel to land back in Calgary — whether I would feel a sense of alienation from that environment where I would feel more aware of a sense of difference between myself and people in my daily life. And the answer is yes. And I also felt a renewed connection to my home in Calgary. Both of those things happened as a result of becoming reconnected to the Czech side of me. It felt that it was easier now to be comfortable in this environment that I recognized as being my home in some ways, but not my home in other ways. If I was able to bring with me that Czech part of me, you know, that originated overseas. The alienation felt less painful. There was more of a sense of acceptance of “Oh yeah, OK.” Being able to flip back and forth between perspectives on things without feeling that I didn’t belong in either of those perspectives. More of a sense that, yes, I live in both of these, or I live in multiple perspectives. I live in multiple homes.
Sound of the Canadian national anthem.
Patrick Cox: Julie Sedivy. She’s written a book about this and much more called Memory Speaks. We thought that in this episode we’d talk mainly about her family history and her rediscovery of her native tongue. But Julie is a linguist and the book is chock-full of her descriptions of dozens of linguistic studies that have a bearing on one aspect or another of her experience. It’s probably no surprise now you’ve heard her speak to hear me say that Julie is a wonderful writer. My guess is whether or not you have a background in linguistics, you’ll get a whole lot out of reading her book.
Kavita Pillay: Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey. Thanks to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America. Also to The World public radio program, and to the Hub & Spoke podcast collective of which Subtitle is a member. If you’re looking around for a new podcast to listen to, try one of the other Hub & Spoke offerings. Here’s one The world’s first podcast, Open Source, a show about arts, ideas, and politics. There’s a great recent episode with Randall Kennedy, author of the new book, Say It Loud! He talks with host Christopher Lydon about optimism and pessimism in an era of reaction and backlash. Listen at radioopensource.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Patrick Cox: Please rate and review Subtitle at Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. It really helps spread the word. Thanks– and thanks for listening to this episode. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.