Disowning Your Native Language.

I don’t normally post about things hidden behind paywalls, but Yiyun Li’s “To Speak Is to Blunder” (New Yorker, January 2, 2017) is so good I’m making an exception. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about someone’s personal relationship to language; I’ll provide a few excerpts so you can get the feel of it:

Years ago, when I started writing in English, my husband asked if I understood the implication of the decision. What he meant was not the practical concerns, though there were plenty: the nebulous hope of getting published; the lack of a career path as had been laid out in science, my first field of postgraduate study in America; the harsher immigration regulation I would face as a fiction writer. Many of my college classmates from China, as scientists, acquired their green cards under a National Interest Waiver. An artist is not of much importance to any nation’s interest. […]

Nabokov once answered a question he must have been tired of being asked: “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom.” That something is called a tragedy, however, means it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others.

I often feel a tinge of guilt when I imagine Nabokov’s woe. Like all intimacies, the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can be comforting and irreplaceable, yet it can also demand more than what one is willing to give, or more than one is capable of giving. If I allow myself to be honest, my private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language. […]

The tragedy of Nabokov’s loss is that his misfortune was easily explained by public history. His story—of being driven by a revolution into permanent exile—became the possession of other people. My decision to write in English has also been explained as a flight from my country’s history. But unlike Nabokov, who had been a published Russian writer, I never wrote in Chinese. Still, one cannot avoid the fact that a private decision, once seen through a public prism, becomes a metaphor. Once, a poet of Eastern European origin and I—we both have lived in America for years, and we both write in English—were asked to read our work in our native languages at a gala. But I don’t write in Chinese, I explained, and the organizer apologized for her misunderstanding. I offered to read Li Po or Du Fu or any of the ancient poets I had grown up memorizing, but instead it was arranged for me to read poetry by a political prisoner.

I love the deadpan “instead it was arranged” of that last sentence (no, you can’t read the great poetry you love, you must read the politically relevant stuff we want to hear). The whole thing only takes up four pages in the print version, and I personally think it’s worth getting the magazine to read it. And this (one of several quotes from Katherine Mansfield’s journal) makes me want to read Mansfield:

It is astonishing how violently a big branch shakes when a silly little bird has left it. I expect the bird knows it and feels immensely arrogant.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “Disowning” seems a bit extreme. Yiyun Li doesn’t seem to have forsworn Chinese, just pulled a Conrad. Perhaps the firewalled stuff implies a more radical amputation.
    I have actually known people who have forgotten their far-from-endangered mother tongues (Dutch in one case), to the extent that they can no longer communicate in them.

  2. “Disowning” seems a bit extreme. Yiyun Li doesn’t seem to have forsworn Chinese, just pulled a Conrad.

    No, it’s the right term. She can’t even remember things she learned in Chinese. The samples I quote are not representative and do not give you the basic idea, they’re just of particular LH interest.

  3. Very interesting and utterly idiocentric. It’s no longer behind a paywall, which may show that LH has become so powerful that his veiled hints now determine public access at the New Yorker.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    My goodness, yes, Hat. What a sad tale.

  5. *feels the power*

  6. “Yiyun Li doesn’t seem to have forsworn Chinese, just pulled a Conrad.”

    Which makes me curious what Conrad’s relationship to his native tongue was decades after he had adapted to the English-speaking world. Was he known to speak to still occasionally speak to visitors or exiles in Polish in his later years, or did he want to have nothing to do with the language?

  7. A good question.

  8. Reading a bit between the lines (but only a bit), this is someone who’s been in a mental hospital, probably for suicidal depression. As someone who’s been there too (with a different diagnosis), I call bullshit. She’s had some kind of trauma, and rather than facing it she is dressing it up by intellectualizing some obvious and well-established points about being bilingual. I will bet any reasonable sum that she still does mental arithmetic in Chinese, for example. She doesn’t write under the name of Nancy Lee (or whatever), either. There is also the neat contradiction about “writing in Chinese”: doubtless she hasn’t written poetry or fiction in Chinese, but neither have the vast majority of Chinese people, or any other kind of people. She says herself that she is a competent Chinese writer.

  9. She says she used to be a competent Chinese writer. That’s kind of the point.

  10. I doubt the competence has eroded, though the confidence may have.

  11. Quite a piece. It reminds me of some reasonably well-known author, but I can’t think who…

  12. As described — and this is a thing that happens — it’s more than confidence. She’s actively burying memories and alienating aspects of herself, which really can make them, not gone from the neurons, but inaccessible. She clearly has sufficient motivation to keep it up.

    As she admits in passing towards the end, it’s not actually about languages at all. That may roughly outline what’s there, and it may offer a handle to avoid direct contact, but the whole discussion of languages is a diversion.

  13. Again, I doubt if she can, however self-Orwellian, eradicate her knowledge of, and dependence on, Chinese arithmetic.

  14. I know a guy who forgot his native language, because his family moved abroad when he was at tender age of four, but then they returned home after a decade and he reacquired it again as a teenager, then he went overseas as a student and he forgot it again (learning fluently two different foreign languages in the process).

    Second time around he didn’t forgot his native language completely – he can still manage conversations (but writing anything is definitely out of question), kind of like this Chinese woman.

    That’s what happens to quadrilinguals in real life…

  15. I’m in the same boat as the guy described in the above comment by SFReader. I was born in the Netherlands, learning Dutch. Moved with family to Bermuda at age 5. Lived there a few years, started school, spoke English, forgot all Dutch. Came back to the Netherlands at age 7. Re-learned Dutch, forgot all English. Moved with family to the US at age nearly 11, re-learned English. Spoke Dutch at home through high school, had little practice since then except a few visits to the home country. Now, I’m very fluent in English, un-accented, I think and dream in English, and pretty rusty speaking or writing in Dutch — but able to read it quite well and I do research in Dutch publications. When essentially forced to speak Dutch for a few days, it comes back quite readily, but people say that I speak it with an American accent.

    I didn’t “disown” Dutch as this writer says she disowned Chinese. But I do identify with her statement that “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language.” I don’t express feelings readily and find it hard to do so. Still, I think that for me as well as for her that might be an individual quirk, not directly related to the language switches; and in her case I think it’s more related to her mental health difficulties than her language reorientation.

  16. I’m in a similar boat, though the language in my case, Japanese, was not my native one (though very close to it, since I was born in Japan and raised partly by Japanese ayahs, as they were called); I was fluent at four, when we returned to the US, but forgot it quickly and utterly, and by the time we returned to Japan when I was ten or eleven I had to start from scratch (though presumably the original immersion had left me with at least a heightened susceptibility). Unfortunately, I never picked up much during that second stay, and remain with only a few phrases.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    I see that the ‘pedia actually has quite a lot on Conrad’s Polish. including a fairly circumstantial account of a translation from Polish to English he made three years before he died, of Bruno Winawer’s play, “The Book of Job.” According to the source Conrad misses quite a few nuances, though you wonder from the account there if this was necessarily purely a matter of misunderstanding the original, as opposed to not attempting to carry over the effect into English. Still, Conrad evidently didn’t repudiate Polish in the sense that Yiyun Li has rejected Chinese. You could say he repudiated French, at least for literary purposes (the reasons he gives are interesting.)

    The Wikipedia account also contains the excellent word “Poglish.”

  18. The real tragedy of Yiyun Li seems to be that she has deliberately renounced the language in which she had her deepest feelings and embraced a language in which she is able to express her thoughts but is insulated or disconnected from her emotions. That is what gives the piece its lyrical quality, with its (to me) tortured and drawn-out explanation of her mental state and its passages from authors whose works she read in an attempt to access (or perhaps even ‘create’) her feelings in English.

    Perhaps, as John Cowan says, she does retain the ability to do mental arithmetic in Chinese or even write in Chinese, but she is quite wilfully suppressing this for personal, clearly psychological reasons. To escape the emotional pain, she is suppressing the very language she felt that pain in. She writes very well and gives a revealing window into her mental world, but I’m not sure how much I could stand reading an author who is writing in a foreign language in order to escape her past.

  19. Incidentally, I think she is totally different from either Nabokov or Conrad in this. They were not denying or repressing their native language like Yiyun Li. They did not have to deny their native language in order to write in English.

  20. When I was seventeen, at the peak of my fluency in German, I made a conscious choice to do all my mental arithmetic in German. It was briefly awkward, but after a couple months it was second nature, so the extent that I would sometimes quote quantities in German without even noticing that I was doing it. All through this time, my primary language of communication was English.

    However, I never tried to do calculus auf Deutsch, so far as I remember. And when I went off to college and had little exposure to German for several years, I drifted back to doing mental arithmetic in English.

  21. Incidentally, I think she is totally different from either Nabokov or Conrad in this. They were not denying or repressing their native language like Yiyun Li. They did not have to deny their native language in order to write in English.

    Exactly, as she herself says.

    I’m not sure how much I could stand reading an author who is writing in a foreign language in order to escape her past.

    But most authors (and creative people in general) seem to be driven to creativity by life/family experiences that most of us wouldn’t want even if it would make us good writers; I myself try to divorce my knowledge of writers’ lives and psychology from the experience of reading their works as much as possible, because otherwise you wind up being unable to read anything but works to which nothing but a bare name is attached (e.g., Homer).

  22. For me the problem is the sheer negativity of peering into such a tortured mental world. Perhaps her body of literary work is more positive than the painful world-view revealed in the article.

  23. Part of me strongly rebels against critiques that seem to verge on imputation of false consciousness, but–if very gingerly–I do share some of the skepticism directed at her claims.

    It’s perfectly possible to avoid using your native language, of course. And if you throw yourself heart and soul enough into your second, you absolutely can come to curse and cheer not merely instinctively, but (more importantly) with just as much satisfaction as in the mother tongue. In other words, with enough willpower and (self-imposed) necessity, you can totally do all your living in a language you speak with an accent. But I think it’s important to distinguish this very attainable substitution of one’s native tongue from actual replacement of it, which I would claim in the strongest terms is absolutely impossible. The distinction might not matter much for most practical uses, but the difference is profound. All experience has forced me to make peace with the (sigh) hard-wall fact that compared to native fluency, second-language competency has the depth of a skating rink.

    She writes:

    Over the years, my brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. And memories—not only those about America but also those about China; not only those carried with me but also those archived with the wish to forget—are sorted in English. To be orphaned from my native language felt, and still feels, like a crucial decision.

    Part of this is perfectly plausible to me. I dream and mutter to myself in Japanese all the time. I think it’s much rarer to dream of people you actually know well in one language speaking in another, but it happens, and who wants to rule anything out in dreams? But the bolded parts I don’t believe for a second. I can just barely believe that she might believe them herself. I’ve heard plenty of examples of people becoming rusty in (some competencies of) their native tongue, and have experienced enough flashes of disfluency myself to believe that I could, as John put it, lose confidence in my English performance if I cut myself off from it long enough. But barring (god forbid) actual neurological trauma, I don’t think one could ever really lose the native language itself. Seriously, I don’t even think you can really “lose” native vocabulary. You can lose access to it, but if you ever really acquired it, you’ll still understand it when you hear it.

    True, this is often dismissed as “mere” passive fluency. As language learners, we want “active” fluency, right? But as Yiyun Li’s excellent writing shows, for the obsessively and crankishly dedicated (I say it with love) active fluency is actually a much more level playing field to compete with natives on. It’s in “passive” comprehension that they wipe the floor with us.

    I’m sure Hattics have experienced this in all sorts of ways, but I always think about talking over the phone at a loud train station (concert, etc.). There’s definitely a limit x1 of ambient noise, phone static, etc., beyond which it’s hard to make out anything at all, but there’s also definitely some range from x2 to x3 for which I can effortlessly make out English but will miss snippets of Japanese like skips on a CD (dated, I know), while beneath x3 both are easy. I’m sure in part this is about native precision on the phonetic margins, but my hunch is that it’s more the unmatchable body of “data”–a sense of the ranges of possibilities of expression–that natives bring to bear, and so unconsciously that they feel they’ve “heard” what they’ve only correctly guess-processed. Even given fifty years of absolute self-quarantine from Chinese, I bet Li will still be better at this in Chinese than she ever will be in English.

    It’s telling, I think, that she only quoted Nabokov in part. My copy of Lolita is half a world away, but this, found on the net, accords with my memory:

    My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

    There’s one interpretation of “untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile” that sees it as a reference to Nabokov’s power of expression in Russian, and perhaps that’s not exactly wrong. But I’ve always thought of this as the best description I know of the everyday, mundane experience of native-language facility–at least after one has the frustration of an endlessly truculent second-language fluency to compare it with.

  24. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think one could ever really lose the native language itself. Seriously, I don’t even think you can really “lose” native vocabulary. You can lose access to it, but if you ever really acquired it, you’ll still understand it when you hear it.

    Well, you can if you’re young enough – especially if you haven’t grown a long-term memory yet. It’s probably impossible above the age of 6 or so, though.

  25. Good point. I should have been clearer that I was mainly thinking about second-language learners like Li. Our host himself (above) seems to have experienced exactly the situation you suggest, when he left Japan at 4.

  26. Our host himself (above) seems to have experienced exactly the situation you suggest, when he left Japan at 4.

    With the usual caveat not to gloss data as anecdote.ᴘʟ, I went through a similar case. My early socialisation was entirely in Hebrew, which I’m told I spoke in full (i.e., non-holophrastic, non-telegraphic) sentences by the age of two and a half, but I completely lost it when we moved from Israel and have never managed to reacquire more than minimal competence.

    I was a bit younger at the time than our gracious host when leaving Japan, though, so this doesn’t affect elessorn’s point.

  27. Just stopping back to say that beyond the anecdata herein, “first language attrition” is indeed a thing that has been scientifically examined in some detail.

  28. I’ll just add that I in no way doubt any of the stories told on this page, and that they simply aren’t comparable to Li’s case, where she lived in China and in Chinese until at least age 19. For myself, there are a few languages I can read out loud (with partial or no comprehension) just fine until I come to a number, and then I automatically snap back to English even if I know how to say the number in the language of the text. 2017 is irredeemably “twenty seventeen” to me.

  29. I loved the article, too. I related to it personally as an immigrant. I also like the part you quoted at the end about the small bird and the big tree. Such a nice observation, and so much can be metaphorized. I linked my review of the same article if you are interested. Click on my name!


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