Losing Your Native Tongue.

Madeleine Schwartz has a thoughtful and wide-ranging piece in the NY Times Magazine (archived) that begins with her own background:

My mother is American, and my father is French; they split up when I was about 3 months old. I grew up speaking one language exclusively with one half of my family in New York and the other language with the other in France. It’s a standard of academic literature on bilingual people that different languages bring out different aspects of the self. But these were not two different personalities but two separate lives. In one version, I was living with my mom on the Upper West Side and walking up Columbus Avenue to get to school. In the other, I was foraging for mushrooms in Alsatian forests or writing plays with my cousins and later three half-siblings, who at the time didn’t understand a word of English. The experience of either language was entirely distinct, as if I had been given two scripts with mirroring supportive casts. In each a parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles; in each, a language, a home, a Madeleine.

She moved to Paris in October 2020 and “realized my fluency had its limitations: I hadn’t spoken French with adults who didn’t share my DNA.” She cites Julie Sedivy, who we’ve talked about a number of times, and describes her own difficulties in learning to use French as an adult:

Compared with English, French is slower, more formal, less direct. The language requires a kind of politeness that, translated literally, sounds subservient, even passive-aggressive. I started collecting the stock phrases that I needed to indicate polite interaction. “I would entreat you, dear Madam …” “Please accept, dear sir, the assurances of my highest esteem.” It had always seemed that French made my face more drawn and serious, as if all my energy were concentrated into the precision of certain vowels. English forced my lips to widen into a smile.

But going back to English wasn’t so easy, either. I worried about the French I learned somehow infecting my English. I edit a magazine, The Dial, which I founded in part to bring more local journalists and writers to an English-speaking audience. But as I worked on texts by Ukrainians or Argentines or Turks, smoothing over syntax and unusual idioms into more fluid English prose, I began to doubt that I even knew what the right English was.

She then moves on to more general considerations:

People who move to new countries often find themselves forgetting words in their first language, using odd turns of phrase or speaking with a newly foreign accent. This impermanence has led linguists to reconsider much of what was once assumed about language learning. Rather than seeing the process of becoming multilingual as cumulative, with each language complementing the next, some linguists see languages as siblings vying for attention. Add a new one to the mix, and competition emerges. “There is no age at which a language, even a native tongue, is so firmly cemented into the brain that it can’t be dislodged or altered by a new one,” Sedivy writes. “Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there.” […]

Even languages that seem firmly rooted in the mind can be subject to attrition. “When you have two languages that live in your brain,” says Monika S. Schmid, a leader in the field of language attrition at the University of York, “every time you say something, every time you take a word, every time you put together a sentence, you have to make a choice. Sometimes one language wins out. And sometimes the other wins.” People who are bilingual, she says, “tend to get very, very good at managing these kinds of things and using the language that they want and not having too much interference between the two.” But even so, there’s often a toll: the accent, the grammar or a word that doesn’t sound quite right.

What determines whether a language sticks or not? Age, Schmid says, is an important factor. “If you look at a child that is 8, 9 or 10 years old, and see what that child could do with the language and how much they know — they’re basically fully fledged native speakers.” But just as they are good language learners, children are good language forgetters. Linguists generally agree that a language acquired in early childhood tends to have greater emotional resonance for its speaker. But a child who stops speaking a language before age 12 can completely lose it. For those who stop speaking a language in childhood, that language can erode — so much so that when they try to relearn it, they seem to have few, if any, advantages, Schmid says, compared with people learning that language from scratch. Even a language with very primal, deep connections can fade into the recesses of memory. […]

Researchers have stressed that a first language used through later years can be remarkably resilient and often comes back when speakers return home. But even adults who move to a new country can find themselves losing fluency in their first language. Merel Keijzer, a linguist at the University of Groningen who studies bilingualism, surveyed a group of Dutch speakers who emigrated as adults to Australia. A classic theory of linguistic development, she told me, argues that new language skills are superimposed on older ones like layers of an onion. She thus expected that she would find a simple language reversion: The layers that were acquired later would be most likely to go first.

The reality was more complicated. In a paper Keijzer wrote with Schmid, she found that the Dutch speakers in Australia did not regress in the way that she predicted. “You saw more Dutch coming into their English, but you also saw more English coming into their Dutch,” she says. The pattern wasn’t simple reversion so much as commingling. They “tended to just be less able to separate their languages.” As they aged, the immigrants didn’t go back to their original language; they just had difficulty keeping the two vocabularies apart. […]

A change in language use, whether deliberate or unconscious, often affects our sense of self. Language is inextricably tied up with our emotions; it’s how we express ourselves — our pain, our love, our fear. And that means, as Schmid, the language-attrition expert at the University of York, has pointed out, that the loss of a language can be tied up with emotion too. In her dissertation, Schmid looked at German-speaking Jews who emigrated to England and the United States shortly before World War II and their relationship with their first language. She sent questionnaires asking them how difficult it was for them to speak German now and how they used the language — “in writing in a diary, for example, or while dreaming.”

One woman wrote: “I was physically unable to speak German. … When I visited Germany for 3 or 4 days in 1949 — I found myself unable to utter one word of German although the frontier guard was a dear old man. I had to speak French in order to answer his questions.” Her husband concurred: “My wife in her reply to you will have told you that she could and did not want to speak German because they killed her parents. So we never spoke German to each other, not even intimately.” Another wrote: “I feel that my family did a lot for Germany and for Düsseldorf, and therefore I feel that Germany betrayed me. America is my country, and English is my language.”

Schmid divided the émigrés into three groups, tying each of them to a point in Germany’s history. The first group left before September 1935, that is, before the Nuremberg race laws. The second group left between the enactment of those laws and Kristallnacht, in November 1938. The last group comprised those who left between Kristallnacht and August 1939, just before Germany invaded Poland.

What Schmid found was that of all the possible factors that might affect language attrition, the one that had a clear impact was how much of the Nazi regime they experienced. Emigration date, she wrote, outweighed every other factor; those who left last were the ones who were the least likely to be perceived as “native” speakers by other Germans, and they often had a weaker relationship to that language […]

The recognition in linguistics of the ease with which mastery of a language can erode comes as certain fundamentals of the field are being re-examined — in particular, the idea that a single, so-called native language shapes your innermost self. That notion is inextricable from 19th-century nationalism, as Jean-Marc Dewaele, a professor at the University of London, has argued. […]

Regarding a first language as having special value is itself the product of a worldview that places national belonging at the heart of individual life. The phrase “native speaker” was first used by the politician and philologist George Perkins Marsh, who spoke of the importance of “home-born English.” It came with more than a light prejudicial overtone. Among Marsh’s recommendations was the need for “special precautions” to protect English from “becoming debased and vulgarized … by association with depraved beings and unworthy themes.”

The idea of a single, native language took hold in linguistics in the mid-20th century, a uniquely monolingual time in human history. American culture, with its emphasis on assimilation, was especially hostile to the notion that a single person might inhabit multiple languages. Parents were discouraged from teaching their children languages other than English, even if they expressed themselves best in that other language. The simultaneous acquisition of multiple tongues was thought to cause delays in language development and learning. As Aneta Pavlenko, a linguist at Drexel University and the University of York, has noted, families who spoke more than one language were looked down on by politicians and ignored by linguists through the 1970s. “Early bilinguals,” those who learned two languages in childhood, “were excluded from research as ‘unusual’ or ‘messy’ subjects,” she writes. By contrast, late bilinguals, those who learned a second language in school or adulthood, were treated as “representative speakers of their first language.” The fact that they spoke a second language was disregarded. This focus on the importance of a single language may have obscured the historical record, giving the impression that humans are more monolingual and more rigid in their speech than they are.

Pavlenko has sought to show that far from being the historical standard, speaking just one language may be the exception. Her most recent book, a collection of essays by different scholars, takes on the historical “amnesia” that researchers have about the prevalence of multilingualism across the globe. […]

All of this has led some linguists to push against the idea of the “native” speaker, which, as Dewaele says, “has a dark side.” It can be restrictive, stigmatizing accents seen as impure, or making people feel unwelcome in a new home. Speakers who have studied a language, Dewaele says, often know its grammar better than those who picked it up with their family. He himself prefers the term “first-language user” — a slightly clunky solution that definitively decouples the language you speak from the person you are.

She discusses the author Yoko Tawada, who moved to Germany from Japan in her early 20s and “works on books in both Japanese and German; she writes fluidly in both languages”:

What emerges in her work is not a single language but a betweenness, a tool for the author to invent as she is using it, the scholar Yasemin Yildiz has noted. Yildiz quotes an essay by Tawada called “From the Mother Language to the Language Mother,” in which a narrator describes the ways that learning German taught her to see language differently: Writing in the second language was not a constraint, but a new form of invention. Tawada calls her typewriter a Sprachmutter, or “language mother” — an inversion of the German word for mother tongue. In a first language, we can rarely experience “playful joy,” she writes. “Thoughts cling so closely to words that neither the former nor the latter can fly freely.” But a new language is like a staple remover, which gets rid of everything that sticks and clings.

Of course the idea that “in a first language, we can rarely experience playful joy” is absurd, but we all have our own peculiar ideas based on our own peculiar experiences. In any case, there’s lots more at the link if you’re intrigued by what I’ve quoted.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    George Perkins Marsh (a fellow of rather diverse interests and occupations by post-nineteenth-century standards) seems to have used “native speaker” in the context of lectures on the history and grammar of English he delivered at Columbia in 1859, but the claim that he originated it does not stand up to cursory inquiry. For example, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft used it in 1845 in a book where the relevant “native speaker” is that of some Algonquian language (possibly Ojibwa? I imagine it’s clear if you browse back enough pages from the hit …), which does not necessarily fit the political story Schwartz is trying to tell, and Schoolcraft had previously used it in an 1835 article discussing inter alia someone else’s translation of the Gospel of St. John into Chippewa, where the “native speaker” was likely one of that language. And it was used before that in an 1829-published book by the English missionary William Ellis where in context the L1 of the “native speaker” referred to was probably Tahitian or some closely related tongue.

  2. the claim that he originated it does not stand up to cursory inquiry.

    Yeah, I figured as much but was too lazy to investigate myself. It’s warm here in Hadley, and I’m spending my time on the porch with iced tea…

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    That one could well have been accurate – I was just curious, especially after learning that Marsh’s published works ranged from “The Earth as Modified by Human Action” to “A Compendious Grammar of the Old Northern or Icelandic Language” via “The Camel, His Organization, Habits, and Uses, with Reference to His Introduction into the United States.” Oh and he also spent over two decades serving as the U.S. ambassador to Italy.

    The empirical claim that has a bigger “CITATION NEEDED” sign blinking next to it is the one that “the mid-20th century” was “a uniquely monolingual time in human history.”

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I feel like there might be a change there from a native who is a speaker to a speaker who is native.

    ETA: Here’s the William Ellis one:
    ‘at a recent public meeting… the native speaker concluded by saying, “Behold, under the gospel of Jesus Christ, this land, where man-eaters have dwelt, has become a land of neighbours and of brethren.”‘


  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I had noted to myself that my earlier examples of “native speaker” did involve folks who might be more generally referred to as “natives.” However, the phrase “native speaker of Irish” occurs in an 1834 issue of the Weleyan-Methodist Magazine, in the context of a bunch of high-minded busybodies devoted to the goal of spreading the Wesleyan-Methodist vision of religious truth to benighted Irish-speaking Papists in their own language. I don’t know whether “native” could have had the same potential colonialist vibe in that context or not.

    That text also uses the phrase “native Irishman.” Colonialism? Well, another contemporaneous text* contains this sentence: “If an Englishman writes in French, another Englishman who knows something of French, will perceive the marks of a native Englishman; and a Frenchman who may not understand English, will discover that it is not the language of a native of France.” That doesn’t seem like a particularly colonialist use of “native,” and is essentially using the “native speaker” concept without that exact phrasing.

    *From one of a series of 1831 lectures by James Bennett, D.D., collected and published in a volume entitled “An Antidote to Infidelity.”

  6. ktschwarz says

    the claim that he originated it does not stand up to cursory inquiry

    I wonder if Madeleine Schwartz looked up “native speaker” in the OED online; G.P. Marsh’s 1859 lecture is the earliest citation there. Before Google, that would have been due diligence. But unfortunately for the OED, that sub-entry was published in June 2003 as part of the full revision of native, when Google Books didn’t exist yet. Caveat lector. I agree, Schwartz should have dug further before taking off with a narrative about worldviews and prejudicial overtones.

    (“Native language”, on the other hand, goes back centuries, almost as old as “native” itself.)

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Not, of course, that the etymology has any relevance to the actual meaning, but “native” is an unhappy term in this context inasmuch as it seems to suggest that you are born with a language (the more unfortunate, as in other senses, “native” actually does seem to preserve the “congenital” sense fairly consistently.)

    On the other hand, I can’t see “prepubertal tongue” getting much traction as an alternative.

  8. David Marjanović says

    The language requires a kind of politeness that, translated literally, sounds subservient, even passive-aggressive. I started collecting the stock phrases that I needed to indicate polite interaction. “I would entreat you, dear Madam …” “Please accept, dear sir, the assurances of my highest esteem.”

    Uh, but that’s written French. People don’t say veuillez agréer, Monsieur.

    It had always seemed that French made my face more drawn and serious, as if all my energy were concentrated into the precision of certain vowels.

    Fair enough. I haven’t tested it, but I think I suddenly become lip-readable when I speak French.

    English forced my lips to widen into a smile.

    …what kind of English is that?

    On the other hand, I can’t see “prepubertal tongue” getting much traction as an alternative.

    rozele has been using “cradle tongue” consistently for years, and didn’t Tolkien do something like that, too?

  9. Uh, but that’s written French. People don’t say veuillez agréer, Monsieur.

    She was talking about written communication.

  10. I’ve seen the term “mother tongue” bandied about in UNESCO documents, as being the language one is most comfortable with. But in some regions the phrase “mother language” is used as a kind of vague acknowledgment of an ancestral language that one may or may not actually be able to use.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Even “mother tongue” is not always accurate, of course. Not only on the obvious individual level, but sometimes even systematically. There actually are cultures where your father’s language is considered to be your primary language.

    If only it didn’t sound so daft, I quite like “prepubertal language.” My Ghanaian colleagues could all speak at least two languages as well as a monoglot would have spoken them, including English, which they had typically learnt from their first few years onwards: to say they were not “native” English speakers as well as “native” Kusaal speakers (or whatever) seems pretty arbitrary. And in fact, although there are relatively few monoglot English speakers in Ghana (apart from foreigners) there is most definitely a perfectly real thing called “Ghanaian English.”

    Similar cases abound across the world as a whole.

    What’s Greek for “prepubertal”? Maybe that would sound better …

  12. Protophemic? That might be better than proephēbikos…

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    “Protophemic” is suitably lacking in transparency for a technical term of art … I like it. (Though it does rather summon up the spectre of the lesser-known Cyclops, Protophemus. Luckier than his more famous brother Poly, one hopes. The moral is, don’t eat Greeks.)

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    She was talking about written communication

    It’s certainly false wrt spoken French. I seem to recall a spoken-morpheme-per-second analysis of various languages in which French pretty much romped home as the winner.

    After all, this is the language in which the single short vowel /o/ can represent two morphemes. (Three, at a pinch, even: to + the + masculine.)

    [Kusaal, of course, has several distinct words consisting of no segments whatsoever, but it achieves this by forbidden morphophonemic dark magic, and is thus disqualified.]

  15. Michael Vnuk says

    ‘The experience of either language was entirely distinct, as if I had been given two scripts with mirroring supportive casts. In each a parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles; in each, a language, a home, a Madeleine.’

    I read your introduction to the quote too quickly and thought ‘a Madeleine’ was a Proustian reference by the author. On more careful reading, I see that the author is Madeleine Schwartz.

  16. Surely both Madeleine and madeleine are intended.

  17. ktschwarz says

    “Cradle tongue”, though not lemmatized in the OED, goes back to at least 1870 in Google Books (I don’t count an earlier appearance in “the hope that on the soil of India he would make greater progress in the knowledge of the cradle tongue of Europe”). “Mother tongue”, like “native tongue” and “native language”, is documented since the 1400s.

    Tolkien actually believed there was such as thing as a native language that one had an inborn inclination toward, which he distinguished from a cradle tongue, which was learned. From “English and Welsh” (via this discussion):

    … We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

    (The famous “cellar door” paragraph follows this.) No doubt linguists in general would call that, let’s say, eccentric — personally, I think it’s nuts. But that was how he explained his enthusiasm for Welsh, despite the discouragement of his schoolmasters, who pressured him to prioritize Latin and Greek. He seems to hint that it’s a biological inheritance:

    As I have said, these tastes and predilections which are revealed to us in contact with languages not learned in infancy – O felix peccatum Babel! – are certainly significant: an aspect in linguistic terms of our individual natures. And since these are largely historical products, the predilections must be so too. My pleasure in the Welsh linguistic style, though it may have an individual colouring, would not, therefore, be expected to be peculiar to myself among the English. It is not. It is present in many of them. It lies dormant, I believe, in many more of those who today live in Lloegr and speak Saesneg. It may be shown only in uneasy jokes about Welsh spelling and place-names; it may be stirred by contacts no nearer than the names in Arthurian romance that echo faintly the Celtic patterns of their origin; or it may with more opportunity become vividly aware.

    Modern Welsh is not, of course, identical with the predilections of such people. It is not identical with mine. But it remains probably closer to them than any other living language. For many of us it rings a bell, or rather it stirs deep harp-strings in our linguistic nature. In other words: for satisfaction and delight – and not for imperial policy – we are still ‘British’ at heart. It is the native language to which in unexplored desire we would still go home.

    I don’t buy it; if legions of English souls all thrilled to the very sound of Welsh, they wouldn’t have spent Tolkien’s whole lifetime stigmatizing it and trying to stamp it out.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Legions of Americans thrill to the joy of sex, yet spend their lifetimes stigmatizing it and trying to stamp it out. Ambivalence makes the heart grow fonder.

    I suspect it’s the rebarbative orthography, not the sound of Welsh that promotes repressive tendencies. The Welsh do seem to be of two minds whether they should share freely.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    The Welsh do seem to be of two minds whether they should share freely

    Sure, there wants fire where there are no lively sparks of roughness.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    … ophthalmologists are like kings,—
    They brook no contradiction.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    “to endure,” Old English brucan “to use, enjoy the use of, possess; eat; cohabit with,” … from PIE root *bhrug- “to enjoy.” [etymonline]


  22. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    TIL that bruge and frugt are root cognates. Also disfrutar.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    They brook no contradiction

    By morphic resonance, the name of that very play appears as an answer in the crossword I’ve just done. Uncanny!

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I can only speak from my experience, especially with our daughter, who was less than four when we arrived in France. My wife is a native Spanish speaker and I am a native English speaker, as you may have guessed. When we came to France 37 years ago my wife’s English was better than my Spanish, so we mainly communicate with one another in English (to this day). However, my wife always spoke to our daughter in Spanish (and still does) and I always spoke to her in English. So she grew up hearing two languages every day at home, both of them different from what she was hearing at school and on television. When she was five she was effortlessly trilingual (at the level of a five-year old of course), and has remained so ever since. Something I noticed when she was about ten was that her English was more that of an adult than that of a child, but that is hardly surprising, as she mainly heard English from me.

    She never gets confused and always knows what language she is speaking. When she was little we took her to England, the USA and Chile when we could, so she realized that her parents were not the only people who spoke these weird languages and could only manage haltingly in French. When she was just starting to speak (in English, as we were living in Birmingham) my wife took her to Chile for 15 months in order to establish her right to Chilean nationality when she was older, and I went myself on sabbatical for eight of those months. When she came back to Birmingham she was only speaking Spanish, but she switched abruptly to English after a few weeks. When we were driving across France to get to Marseilles she said something to my wife in Spanish, and then said exactly the same to me in English. However, she always refused to translate, saying that she didn’t know if asked, for example, how to say “house” in Spanish.

    Later on she had German at school and picked it up fairly quickly. In 1999 we participated in a meeting in Hungary at which there was a German professor with two children of about our daughter’s age. We assumed that they would speak to one another in English, but no, they spoke to one another in German, as her German was better than their English. As for other Romance languages, she was easily able to make much more sense of spoken Portuguese, and even Rumanian, than her parents could. (Italian also, but my wife and I can more or less understand Italian).

  25. Stu Clayton says

    Also disfrutar.


  26. it’s true, i do like “cradle tongue” best of the options! partly because it puts the emphasis on chronology rather than demography, partly because it has less of an implication of exclusivity (and can in some times/places imply a language acquired from a non-blood-relative), partly because it stresses informal/social acquisition, and partly because “mameloshn”*, in yiddish, means specifically the yiddish language (rather than any old cradle tongue), which has meant that “mother tongue” doesn’t work well for me in english anymore.

    * tastily mixed in its spelling: מאַמעלשון

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    However, the Kusaasi don’t have cradles (though they do have mothers. In fact, many people have more than one mother, which goes quite well with also having more than one mother tongue, come to think of it.)

    [Ethnicity is inherited patrilineally around those parts, but you still grow up speaking your mother’s language first. Because History, there are a good many people in the Bawku area who identify as Mamprussi but are L1 Kusaal speakers and can’t speak Mampruli at all. I was given my first copy of the Kusaal New Testament by a colleague who was in exactly that position.]

  28. My mother’s parents were English. She grew up surrounded by a family group who spoke a rare dialect of what I think was Sesotho – I say rare because nobody has been able to translate some of the words she used so it may now have disappeared, though she was fluent. She went to an Afrikaans boarding school where English wasn’t spoken so she became trilingual. To the end, she and my uncle occasionally spoke Sesotho among themselves. Because I learned Afrikaans at school and grew up surrounded by Zulu speakers, our family still sometimes flips in and out of English and the odd Afrikaans or Zulu words or phrases. But our native language, English, is the constant because it’s what has surrounded us.

  29. She was talking about written communication.

    The author is almost purposely vague on the difference between written and oral communication. She brings up the “stock phrases” immediately after talking about people accusing her of almost “yelling at everyone”. That doesn’t sound like written communication. Nor does the description of French making her face more drawn and serious, while English makes her smile.

    I also detect an element of the humble-brag in her so-called difficulties with English after only a few years in France. As an expat in Europe who actively tries to avoid English whenever I can, it is still amazingly difficult to lose your native English in the 2020s. To become one of those wizened expats who starts speaking in bizarre mannered English with foreign words thrown in you would have to live in rural Romania for five years with no access to the internet.

    I know those types really did use to exist – I came across older expats like that when I lived in Osaka in the early Heisei era, and Schwartz’s stories about German speakers in the US also ring true to me. Even in Austria some of the Americans who have been here since the 1970s ocasionally sound odd to me. But Madeleine Schwartz was born too late for that world, she lives in a world where most of the professional class in Paris speaks excellent English, Europeans routinely watch Netflix shows in English, English advertising is everywhere and the loud voices of American tourists and expats constantly boom out on the métro. A common complaint from new American residents in Austria is “how can I possibly learn German if everyone here speaks English all the time?” France in general is better, but Paris is now shockingly Anglophone compared to 20 years ago. Even other Europeans who visit France generally expect the French to speak English back to them.

    It even seems harder in these days of rampant globalization to lose one’s American accent. My Gen X American peers who have spent 30 years in the UK often do use odd ticks, British vocabulary and funny intonations that indicate they have gone at least partially native. And naturally some American expats even exaggerate how “native” they have gone. But I also have good friends who raised their children from birth in the UK, yet both children, now in their late teens, speak with normal American accents. The mother is American and the father is Russian, but the children went to British schools in London their whole lives. I can only assume a steady diet of media and perhaps an undercurrent of never really feeling British somehow enabled/encouraged them to sound as American as any kid in Seattle.

  30. That doesn’t sound like written communication.

    But it was — reread the passage. And you seem awfully eager to discredit her first-person, lived experience on the basis of how you assume things should have gone. People differ widely in their personal adjustments to situations, and those situations themselves differ widely. Don’t presume that what you think is generally true (based on your own experiences and reading) must apply to everyone everywhere.

  31. …an aspect in linguistic terms of our individual natures. And since these are largely historical products, the predilections must be so too.

    Does not sound very biological.

  32. Surely, people have preferences and our preferences are statistically predictable to an extent and both individual preferences and statistics can have some historical explanation.

    The question is whether we can meaningfully assemble a ‘language’ from those.

    (And no, I don’t even object to biology. Some of preferences can even be biologically pre-determined.)

  33. @Vanya: A common complaint from new American residents in Austria is “how can I possibly learn German if everyone here speaks English all the time?”

    I used to enjoy visiting Germany or Austria as opportunities to refresh my German fluency. But that’s harder and harder. Part of the problem is that I am normally surrounded by other scientists, and I don’t have the vocabulary to discuss tricky physics questions in German. So everyone automatically speaks English around me, even when they know I can handle non-technical German. The other part is that as soon as I hesitate in a German-language conversation, everyone immediately wants to switch to English. Combining the two issues, at an after-work dinner when I was visiting the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, our work-related discussions were entirely in English, so the Biergarten waitress asked me if I wanted a menu in English, which I refused.

  34. Amanda Adams says

    Vanya, thank-you.
    I say that my younger daughter is a “native speaker” of English, French, Catalan & Castilian. Those are languages she lived in before she spoke anything. She said “caillou” & “poupée” before she said pebble or doll – a Frenchwoman was looking after her while I was teaching. She went to preschool in a Catalan preschool where a lot of the children spoke Castilian at “recess”. She was playing all day with little French children in the summers, from the time she was pre-verbal. I could also separate English from American, in her linguistic vault. Her father is English. I am – sorry – from Seattle (which seems to have become paradigmatic of something recently. Not sure what yet.). Once, when she was very young – maybe 18 months? Maybe 2? some Catalans brought an Italian woman to our house to talk about typography, or something, with us. Daughter was very, very quiet…after about an hour & a half, she said something to the woman in Italian. It seemed she was just accustomed to people speaking differently, & when a new one swam into her ken, she listened, & adapted. Worked out the sound shifts & a few short words?
    I am pleased to say she is now 37 & has done a year of university in Milan so the Italian is real; & studies more languages than I can keep track of. She’s doing Arabic, now. For fun. But she’s an industrial designer. She likes talking to people.
    But the point was, not “my daughter is great” – I know they all are – the point was if she learnt first four languages concurrently with “learning to talk”, of what is she a “native speaker”? Or not?
    Only yesterday, we happened to be at a party (! very unusual) & a visiting American friend of her Catalan godfather’s daughter asked her “how long did it take you to learn Catalan?”
    She said she didn’t remember. (He asked me, too. My answer was longer.) It was a Catalan party. I don’t think I heard three words of Castilian.
    Edit: I should add because I think I have mentioned it here before, that she is the only person I have ever heard, speak a sentence that included American English, Catalan, & French words containing rs & keep all the rs right. You all probably know many.

  35. . And you seem awfully eager to discredit her first-person, lived experience on the basis of how you assume things should have gone.

    Goddamn right. My own first person lived experience, and my experience of observing and living among literally thousands of expats in Europe for the past 14 years, as well as many years living as a multilingual fluent English speaker in Russia, Japan, China and Kazakhstan, force me to conclude the author is exaggerating significantly for dramatic effect. Sorry. She’s trying to make herself part of the story to draw the reader in (fair enough I suppose from a journalism pov) but she is actually in no danger whatsoever of her native English „eroding“. Please.

    She’s also confuses sociolect with language. I can imagine a native New Yorker who goes to live in rural New Hampshire for several years would also find their native language „eroding“, as they would be just as deprived of New York slang, yiddishisms, the constant eruption of language all around them on the streets, etc. as the author is.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    I had already reread the passage. Like Vanya, I found no indication that she was referring only to written communication.

  37. Vanya, my Russian is most definitely not as good as it used to be.
    Apart of calques (per se not bad) I frequently find myself doing in Russian what many people including myself do in foreign languages: using heavier and straightforward constructions reminiscent of technical writing.

  38. @Brett: What you describe may even be institutional policy – e.g., at the company where I work (a subsidiary of a major German company operating internationally), the rule is that we switch to English when there is one non-German speaker in the meting. For that purpose, someone who struggles to keep up with a technical discussion or business negotiations in German counts as non-German speaker.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    we switch to English when there is one non-German speaker in the meeting

    I knew a girl at university who would always speak only Welsh if there was one other person present who could speak it (regardless of how many there were who couldn’t.)

  40. PlasticPaddy says

    Someone may have been a tad (Daddy-issues?) insecure. I can understand it if she was used to speaking with someone in the group in Welsh and with no one in the group in English.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    No, she was very clear that she was Making a Point.
    It struck me at the time as not being the ideal way of making said point, but still …

  42. J.W. Brewer says

    David E.: Was the university in question physically located in Wales? Because if not it would be Making a Funnier Point.

  43. David Eddyshaw says


    (And the girl in question did not appear to me to be remarkable for her sense of humour.)

  44. I think I have previously told the story of how I was with a group of fellow students at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (I was there for Irish classes) and the Welshpersons among them ostentatiously chatted in Welsh, excluding the rest of us. Which they had a perfect right to do, of course, but they also had the air of Making a Point.

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I cannot figure out what recent thread had led me to comment on the old WASP custom of “symmetric” male names where the surname could equally well be the given name and vice versa. But this U.S. Memorial Day you are invited (if a U.S. citizen or well-wisher) to offer some mental or spiritual gesture of remembrance to Lieutenant Commander McClelland Barclay, USNR (1891-1943), who failed to survive the sinking of the LST-342 by a Japanese torpedo in the Solomon Islands. He was a well-regarded commercial artist and magazine illustrator who had offered his services to the Navy as a producer of recruiting posters and the like, but then somehow finagled his way at a fairly advanced age into postings in combat zones so he could try his hand at being a real war artist.

  46. Stu Clayton says

    I got my knickers in a bad twist once when Making a Point about linguistic prowess. On vacation years ago with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City, as we walked along I was regaling him with rather rude details about recent adventures with a Young Man. This was all in German, because I thought it was cool to relate such things in public without anyone being able to understand. I mean, Salt Lake City is behind the cosmopolitan curve, right ?

    We waited at a light, and as we moved on some people behind us started talking German with each other. Imagine my embarrassment ! Well, at least my reaction was evidence that in a pinch I can muster a conscience and sense of propriety. And they were probably only tourists.

  47. Taffy was a Welshman. Taffy was a git
    Taffy hated speaking English, even just a bit.
    When I went to Taffy’s house, he said, “I’m Making a Point”;
    But he really just liked setting Saxon noses out of joint.

    (Taffy, by the way, is just a diminutive of one of the several Welsh forms of David.)

  48. Stu Clayton says

    I was definitely not up to date on SLC education:

    The University of Utah is noted for its research and medical programs. It was one of the original four universities to be connected to ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet,[173] in 1969, and was the site of the first artificial heart transplant in 1982.[174] Located in Salt Lake City, the Institute of Human Anatomy is a privately owned human cadaver lab.[175]

    But “privately owned” ?

  49. It’s the privately owned humans who leave the best cadavers.

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    @Stu: perhaps more relevantly, the Mormons’ Missionary Training Center (located elsewhere in Utah) is the largest and most sophisticated “privately-owned” entity giving American Anglophones crash-course instruction in other languages (55 or 60 different ones at present). It’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons to the comparable language-learning programs run by the Defense Department and the State Department (and probably also the CIA etc.), but my sense is it’s pretty well-regarded for effectiveness in what it tries to accomplish before sending the trainees out into the field.

  51. Stu Clayton says

    @JWB: Sounds good. In crash courses it is unlikely that people learn the naughty words I was using. So maybe I was embarrassed for zilch.

  52. For what its’s worth I consider both Spanish and English to be my native languages and I normally consider the phrases “native language” and “mother tongue” to mean the same thing. Sometimes though, thinking of my self and my upbringing, I consider Spanish and not English as my mother tongue. I learned Spanish before English despite having been born in the U.S. because it was the language of my parents and the home ( I learned English through t.v. programs like Sesame Street, etc.). I learned Spanish from my mother and in my entire life I’ve only ever spoken Spanish to my mother* and probably only ever will so in that sense I sometimes consider Spanish to be quite literally my mother tongue no matter how well or poorly I speak it.

    *Like Charles V, I also speak Spanish to God, mostly.

  53. What do English speakers (uninterested in linguistics) usually ask when they need to learn what is someone’s L1?

    I’m asking because in Russian, say, when someone tells you that someone has only been learning Russian for two years, you ask “and what’s her native language?” (or “what’s her native [one]?”).

    But in Russian “native language” is used frequently even by children and both words “native” and “langue” are native.

  54. I think “and what’s her native language?” would be perfectly normal; you could also ask “and what did she grow up speaking?”

  55. Stu Clayton says

    I avoid asking the question like that. It’s only when someone has a (slight) accent that I want to know more – but only just a little more. I’ve found that some people get bristly or resentful. As I do, for instance. “An accent, moi ??”

    Instead, I say: “I notice a slight accent there that reminds me of a language other than German. As an American I have an accent on some days. What language do you speak besides German?”

    That is, first I make it clear that I’m just curious, and am in the same (occasionally-)noticeable-accent boat. Then I leave it to them to name a language that sorta explains the accent – whatever may be the status of that language in their lives.

  56. Keith Ivey says

    Most English speakers are not aware that “native” and “language” are not native, so their theoretical foreignness has no effect on usage.

  57. J.W. Brewer says

    There are a number of phrasings it seems like you could use in AmEng. If the person’s English is pretty good you might ask about “first language,” which I think maybe seems more politely open to the possibility that second-language fluency in English might have achieved an equal level even if later in sequence. I know that as a matter of strict logic “native” or “mother” language needn’t mean the one you currently speak better than anything else, but maybe there’s sort of an implied rebuttable presumption to that effect? Or even if not, maybe sort of an opposite implied assumption that if you do speak an L2 as well or better than your “native” language it’s vaguely tragic because of exile or assimilation or something.

  58. Stu Clayton says

    If one is at the mercy of scruples about tragic revelation, it might be best to hold one’s tongue.

    There are people who say “I probably shouldn’t be saying/asking this, but ..” followed by impudent remarks/questions. This used to bug me no end, until I hit on a suitable reaction. I interrupt sternly at the “but”, and say “don’t say/ask anything you shouldn’t. You’ll have a bad conscience, and will blame me for not having stopped you”.

    That stops ’em in their tracks.

  59. Heh. I know people who react to the German equivalent of such introductory sentences with a less polite Dann lass es

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    I, too, go for the vagueness approach. I ask something like “what languages do you know?”

    I tend to ask this of people who look (or sound) as if they might be from West Africa; most people seem to be happy enough to tell me in some detail. More than two languages is pretty common …

    But I’ve normally already explained by that point that I used to live in Ghana and in Nigeria, which probably helps.

  61. David Marjanović says

    if she learnt first four languages concurrently with “learning to talk”, of what is she a “native speaker”? Or not?

    Congratulations – she’s got four native languages. Two is reasonably common, three is rare, four is exceptional.

    And I absolutely love the story about Italian!

    This was all in German, because I thought it was cool to relate such things in public without anyone being able to understand. I mean, Salt Lake City is behind the cosmopolitan curve, right ?

    …yeah, German is not safe for that kind of purpose; neither is anything else this side of Hungarian. (Hungarians may be everywhere you look, but they’re thinly spread, mostly.)

  62. Most English speakers are not aware that “native” and “language” are not native, so their theoretical foreignness has no effect on usage.

    @Keith, English “language” corresponds rather neatly to Russian yazyk.

    But there is an issue with “native”. The Russian word very literally corresponds to the Latin word. Compared to English “native” it has entirely different meaning and connotations. It’s a term of endearment among other things.

  63. LH, Stu, JWB,thanks!

    I think “and what’s her native language?” would be perfectly normal; you could also ask “and what did she grow up speaking?”

    In Russian “native langauge” is something you use without hesitation already in elementary school. But I rarely see or hear it in English and I thought maybe in English the situation is different.

  64. Salt Lake City is behind the cosmopolitan curve, right ?

    Because of the Mormon missionary tradition Utah has far more Americans per capita who can speak a (non-Spanish) second language somewhat fluently than probably anywhere else in the US. Even Hungarian might be risky. Mitt Romney was probably the only serious Presidential candidate in recent times who could really speak a foreign language well (French, which he learned while a Missionary). Naturally for political reasons he never advertised this.

    Jeb Bush supposedly speaks Spanish well, but a good friend of mine from Mexico claims his Spanish is “grating on the ear” (political bias may be in effect though). Obama is apparently a good example of language loss, getting back to the original thread topic – spoke fluent Indonesian as a child, but by all accounts is pretty rusty now.

  65. @Vanya: John Kerry has been fully fluent in French since he attended a Swiss boarding school as a child.

  66. J.W. Brewer says

    The other recent presidential contender from a Utah-Mormon background (Jon Huntsman, who did not secure the nomination he sought) was reported to have pretty good competence in Mandarin, a combination of youthful missionary service in Taiwan plus much more recent diplomatic service in Beijing. I think his campaign did try to play this up, because it did not have the same negative baggage as French fluency (fancy rich boy who went to a Swiss boarding school!), although of course his campaign ultimately did not succeed. Whether Huntsman was actually fluent in Mandarin, or just surprisingly-good-for-an-American is a question I’m not sure of the answer to.

  67. David Marjanović says

    I think his campaign did try to play this up

    I knew about it, so… probably.

  68. Consider this: I was born in Buenos Aires but at the age of six months I was taken to Bolivia, where my father had his business. My parents spoke Yiddish between them, and a rather good but not excellent Spanish to me and my sister, who was fluent in Yiddish while I understood it well but never spoke a word of it (I preferred my parents not to know that I understood everything they said; pretty devious, if you ask me). I also understood but didn’t speak Quechua, because that was what my nanny spoke. At the age of six we went back to Buenos Aires where me and my sister had a hell of a time figuring out the dialectal differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, to the consternation and amusement of our school mates who had no idea what we were talking about. Ah, and since my parents were fervent zionists I learned Hebrew starting at the age of six (in what I now know was a weird mixture of Israeli and Biblical Hebrew). Later on, at 19, I went to live in Israel for about 10 years and became a fluent speaker, and even free of that annoying Buenos Aires singsong. Then I migrated to California where I only speak English, other than Spanish with my sister over zoom (strongly salted with Hebrew and Spanish words), and Hebrew with the one Israeli friend I still have. So what’s my L1, mother tongue, my native language? Well, I’d say that since nowadays I dream in English, my dominant language is English. At one point it was Spanish, at another point it was Hebrew. Did I ever dream in Yiddish? Perhaps in Quechua? No idea, no recollection, but sometimes hearing a Peruvian or Bolivian song something stirs inside me. Of course it would be weird going around asking people what language they dream in even if that’s the only question that makes sense, at least in my case. I think the concept of a person having a dominant language based on the language they dream in is the right concept and it should be adopted by the whole world (thus ending hunger and wars, yeah), though I know that if it were ever adopted sooner or later sexually tinged jokes would become common and that would be the end of it.

  69. Wow, that’s amazing. I envy you. Quechua!

  70. @Ryan: Thanks for sharing!
    Just my anecdata point, but I dream in all three languages I am more or less fluent in (English, Russian, and my native German), but I still have the biggest lexicon and the least faulty grammar in German. So “language of dreams” doesn’t clinch it for me.

  71. @Ryan: Thanks for sharing!

    Did you mean Eduardo?

  72. Oh, sorry, yes.

  73. David Marjanović says

    There’s not a lot of internal monolog in my dreams. What there has been has all been in my native German – but I’ve spoken small amounts of a number of languages, mostly English, in dreams; even held (well, imagined) short conversations.

    Wow, that’s amazing. I envy you. Quechua!

    Seconded. Such different languages! All I can speak, or even read, is in shouting distance of Standard Average European, except for selected bits of Mandarin!

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