‘Memory speaks’: How to reclaim your mother tongue without having to relearn it from scratch

When Julie Sedivy was four, her family fled their native Czechoslovakia. It was 1969, and Soviet tanks had rolled into the country following a period of political reform known as the Prague Spring. 

Sedivy’s family pretended they were taking a weekend minibreak. They got visas to visit neighboring Austria.

“We left the country in a small car packed with three days’ worth of stuff,” Sedivy said.  “No family photos, no large amounts of cash. Basically, what you would take for a long weekend.” 

The day they crossed the Iron Curtain into Austria was the first day of forgetting for Sedivy — forgetting family, friends and a language. She’d started the imperceptibly slow process of losing her mother tongue.

Would it be possible for her to reclaim her native Czech language years later, without having to relearn it from scratch? Recent studies show that reexposure to one’s mother tongue can expedite learning faster than for those who engage with a language for the first time. But it would take decades before Sedivy would return to the Czech Republic and realize this for herself.

After a few months in Austria, the family received word that Canada had offered to resettle them. They flew to Montreal — their new home. Sedivy’s parents enrolled her into preschool where she learned in French and sang “Frère Jacques.”

As is so often the case with immigrant families, Sedivy and their siblings quickly picked up the local languages, French and English, while their parents struggled to keep up. They spoke Czech at home. But increasingly, the children felt more at ease speaking French and, increasingly, English.

“That began the period of life that is common for so many immigrants,” Sedivy said. “The parents continue to speak their native language and the kids, to growing degrees, start answering back in English.”

It’s not just immigrant and refugee kids who slowly lose the ability to speak their mother tongue. Many international adoptees experience something similar. So, too, do children who are born in Indigenous communities, whose languages are not widely spoken. More often than not, those first languages remain forever forgotten.     

Sedivy’s father never felt at home in Canada. He clung to Czech culture, and he wasn’t able to master the English language, even as he watched his children growing up speaking fluent English. He eventually moved back to the Czech Republic, where he stayed until his death years later.

Sedivy, meanwhile, thrived in North America. She studied and taught linguistics in the United States and Canada. It wasn’t until later that she made the connection between her professional love of languages, and her personal linguistic story. She said the first time she remembers being aware of a sense of linguistic loss was immediately after the death of her father.

“He was my most significant connection to the Czech language,” Sedivy said. “Along with the loss of him as a father, I suddenly became aware of the loss of Czech from my life.” 

Julie realized the only way she could reengage with the Czech language was to go to where people spoke the language every day.  

She recalls her reaction to hearing Czech on her first trip back, as she listened to voice announcements at Prague’s main station.  

“That’s when I first had this visceral sense of there being an entire nation that speaks this language,” Sedivy said. “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.”

This was the first of many trips to the country of Sedivy’s birth. In 2015, she went to the rural Czech village where her father grew up. The place was full of surviving family members who spoke little to no English. She was forced to produce the language daily, hourly. Being immersed in it “had a phenomenal effect.”

It wasn’t just new words. Sedivy’s recall of the Czech she spoke as a child was strengthening. She was remembering words for household objects and the food she ate. One of them is vepřo knedlo zelo, a classic Czech dish. It’s a complex word that basically sticks together the words for “pork,” knedlíky, a type of dumpling, and zelí, a sauerkraut-style cabbage, she said. 

Sedivy says she can even “smell it” when she hears it in Czech.

“I can’t smell it in English,” she said. “I have to 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.”

“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.”

Sedivy became convinced that she was drawing on her onetime fluency that had remained lodged, dormant in her brain. Her background in linguistics kicked in. She knew where to look for studies of people in her situation — internationally adopted children, for example.

She read several studies of children who were born and spent the very early part of their lives in one country and were then adopted and brought to a different country where they had no further relationship to their birth language at all.

Some of these studies have shown that adult adoptees, who appear to have no recollection of their mother tongue, learn those languages fast when reexposed to that language — faster than people exposed to that language for the first time.

This is potentially great news for refugees and others who have forgotten their first language and wish to reclaim it.

Sedivy wrote about her own linguistic journey, and about research that sheds light on it in a book called “Memory Speaks,” published this year by Harvard University Press.

For Sedivy, the experience of rediscovering her first language didn’t get her stuck in the past, as she occasionally feared it might. In fact, it turned out that rediscovering the Czech part of her identity made the Canadian part that much more comfortable. 

It was a great relief to be able to flip “back and forth between perspectives on things, without feeling that I didn’t belong in either of those perspectives,” she said. 

“I live in multiple perspectives. I live in multiple homes.”

Related: A love letter to Haitian Creole: ‘Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann’

For more on Julie Sedivy’s reclamation of her mother tongue, listen to this episode of “Subtitle,”a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. “Subtitle” is supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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