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aries1988 : motherland   2

An American Immigrant in Paris

I’ve grown attached to France, too. That’s partly because the rest of the world has gotten worse. France is also where I had my children, wrote my books, and where I know the supermarket by heart — though I suspect I’ll always write grocery lists in English.
soulsearching  français  american  story  expat  life  couple  international  opinion  motherland 
march 2017 by aries1988
The Strange Persistence of First Languages - Issue 30: Identity - Nautilus
I was mortally offended when my first-grade teacher asked me on the first day of school if I knew a little English—I don’t know a little English, was my indignant and heavily accented retort. I know a lot of English. In the schoolyard, I quickly learned that my Czech was seen as having little value by my friends, aside from the possibility of swearing in another language—a value I was unable to deliver, given that my parents were cursing teetotalers.

I watched as my father grew more and more frustrated at his powerlessness to pass on to his children the legacy he most longed to leave: a burning religious piety, the nurturing of family ties, pleasure in the music and traditions of his region, and an abiding respect for ancestors. All of these became diluted by the steady flow of new memories narrated in English, laced with Anglophone aspiration and individualism. As we entered adulthood and dispersed all over North America into our self-reliant lives, my father gave up. He moved back home.

Losing your native tongue unmoors you not only from your own early life but from the entire culture that shaped you. 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.

Why is a heritage language so conducive to well-being? Michael Chandler, one of the authors of the suicide study, emphasizes that a sense of cultural continuity makes people resilient by providing them with a cohesive self-concept.

The complicated inflections of Czech, described as character-building by an acquaintance who’d learned the language in college, began to assemble into somewhat orderly rows in my mind, and I quickly ventured onto more and more adventurous grammatical terrain. Just a few weeks into my visit, I briefly passed as a real Czech speaker in a conversation with a stranger. Relearning Czech so quickly felt like having linguistic superpowers.

When Mandarin speakers hear nonsense syllables that are identical except for their tones, they show heightened activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, where people normally process sounds that signal differences in meaning—like the difference between the syllables pa and ba. But speakers of non-tonal languages like English have more activity in the right hemisphere, showing that the brain doesn’t treat tone as relevant for distinguishing words. A recent study found that Chinese-born babies adopted into French homes showed brain activity that matched Chinese speakers and was clearly distinct from monolingual French speakers—even after being separated from their birth language for more than 12 years.

For me, the English phrase pork with cabbage and dumplings refers to a concept, the national dish of the Czechs. But hearing the Czech phrase vepřo-knedlo-zelo evokes the fragrance of roasting meat, pillowy dumpling loaves being pulled steaming out of a tall pot and sliced with sewing thread, and the clink of the nice china as the table is dressed for Sunday dinner, the fulcrum of every week.

English was the language in which I forged my independence, the language of my individuation—but it was in Czech that I was nurtured, comforted, and sung to.
language  story  motherland  east-europe  czech  parents 
november 2015 by aries1988

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