Nautilus

The Strange Persistence of First Languages

Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying amidst the sheets like his own stone monument.

It was hard for me not to take my father’s abrupt exit as a rebuke. For years, he’d been begging me to visit him in the Czech Republic, where I’d been born and where he’d gone back to live in 1992. Each year, I delayed. I was in that part of my life when the marriage-grad-school-children-career-divorce current was sweeping me along with breath-sucking force, and a leisurely trip to the fatherland seemed as plausible as pausing the flow of time.

Now my dad was shrugging at me from beyond— “You see, you’ve run out of time.”

His death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue. Czech was the only language I knew until the age of 2, when my family began a migration westward, from what was then Czechoslovakia through Austria, then Italy, settling eventually in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, a clutter of languages introduced themselves into my life: German in preschool, Italian-speaking friends, the francophone streets of East Montreal. Linguistic experience congealed, though, once my siblings and I started school in English. As with many immigrants, this marked the time when English became, unofficially and over the grumbling of my parents (especially my father), our family language—the time when Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life.

Many would applaud the efficiency with which we settled into English—it’s what exemplary immigrants do. But between then and now, research has shown the depth of the relationship all of us have with our native tongues—and how traumatic it can be when that relationship is ruptured. Spurred by my father’s death, I returned to the Czech Republic hoping to reconnect to him. In doing so, I also reconnected with my native tongue, and with parts of my identity that I had long ignored.

The author in the arms of her father, Ladislav Sedivy, together with her mother Vera and her older

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