Writing in your own language is not as easy as you might think. What if you have more than one language? What if your first language is so deeply buried within you, you have real trouble digging it out? What does that do to your brain, your heart, and the society you live in?
In Memory Speaks Julie Sedivy addresses all these questions. Her reflection on losing and reclaiming language and self is searing. I pre-ordered it as an e-book from Harvard University Press as soon as I heard about it, and devoured it in a couple of days.
Sedivy came to Canada from Czechoslovakia, as it was then, as a young child. She identifies with Nabokov’s experience of “language being yoked to memory.” Although he wrote in English (his “stepmother tongue”), his memoir had to be in Russian, the language of his childhood.
Sedivy has a linguist’s passion for endangered languages, not least to defend the indigenous ones in the land of her new home. She weaves her academic expertise into her personal story.
And she can write. Her book brims with vivid metaphors.
“Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. Like a household that welcomes a new child, a mind can’t introduce a new language without having some impact on the languages already living there.” The effect of this is a lot more nuanced than the newspaper headlines would have us believe. I could recognise myself in Sedivy’s descriptions of compartmentalising (healthcare happens in the language of the state you live in, Christmas cooking in the language of your maternal grandmother). I can understand how the desire to reconcile complex differences comes from having your brain firing on all cylinders in several linguistic directions.
“All speakers of minority languages, whether they realize it or not, carry within themselves a tally of their language’s value, a sense of the price they would be willing to pay to keep it.” This is a political issue. My job is to translate into English and edit in English for academics, so they can get published in the most valued language of the moment, but I live in a small multilingual country that’s been independent for just over a century. So I am hyperaware of the politics of language. Sedivy addresses this deftly, looking at the impact of policy, language nests, and migration on how languages thrive (or not).
“A grammar usually describes a language as if it were an object that can be dissociated from its speakers, like an image of a dress laid out on a bed ready for someone to put on. But native speakers also know what their language looks like when it’s worn—how the language drapes and flows…” Sedivy lost much of her Czech once she and her siblings switched to English at school, but relearned it by spending time there once she could, as an adult in the 1990s. Researchers have found that babies tune in to the sounds of the language around them even in the womb. Her preschool Czech did return when she returned there.
“Children learn language the way they learn to ride a bike—without the benefit of diagrams about muscle physiology or the physics of motion, but relying on raw intuition and repeated trial and error.” So (re)learning a heritage language is very different from being an adult student who is new to it. Classes should reflect this. Even language nests are not enough – the more people around you speaking the language, the stronger it grows. And language is a question of biodiversity as real as it is in the plant and animal world. It takes interventions to preserve that diversity.
“Many bilingual people think of language as a portal into alternative ways of being.” What this means for you personally, or for all of us as writers, is that we need to write in our other languages. Not just in English. Different kinds of writing. One person like this said:
“I am like a Swiss army knife. Multiple tools, and you can pretty much deal with anything, if I need a screwdriver, it’s in there. So if I need to be American, I’m in there.”
You choose whether you want to write academically or creatively in a language other than English. It is important for the language itself that you do. And it might make you a better academic, more creative. It might make your English, and your voice in the other languages, more interesting. You might make new connections and see things that, monolingually, you wouldn’t. Sedivy says it best:
“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. This is, for me, where all the heat and light can be found.”