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Can You Lose Your Native Tongue?

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:

It appears that what is at the heart of language attrition is not so much the opportunity to use the language, nor the age at the time of emigration. What matters is the speaker’s identity and self-perception. … Someone who wants to belong to a speech community and wants to be recognized as a member is capable of behaving accordingly over an extremely long stretch of time. On the other hand, someone who rejects that language community — or has been rejected and persecuted by it — may adapt his or her linguistic behavior so as not to appear to be a member any longer.

In other words, the closeness we have with a language is not just a product of our ability to use it but of other emotional valences as well. If language is a form of identity, it is one that may be changed by circumstance or even by force of will.

Stories of language loss often mask other, larger losses. Lily Wong Fillmore, a linguist who formerly taught at the University of California, Berkeley, once wrote about a family who emigrated to California several years after leaving China’s Canton province in 1989. One child, Kai-fong, was 5 when he arrived in the United States. At this point in his life, he could speak and understand only Cantonese. While his younger sister learned English almost immediately and made friends easily, Kai-fong, who was shy, did not have the same experience in school. His classmates called him “Chi, chi, chia pet” because his hair stuck out. Boys mocked the polyester pants his grandmother sewed for him. Pretty soon, he and his classmates were throwing rocks at one another.

Once Kai-fong started learning English, he stopped speaking Cantonese, even to members of his own family. As Wong Fillmore writes: “When Grandmother spoke to him, he either ignored her or would mutter a response in English that she did not understand. … The more the adults scolded, the more sullen and angry Kai-fong became.” By 10, he was known as Ken and no longer understood Cantonese well. The family began to split along linguistic lines. Two children born in the United States never learned Cantonese at all. It is a story, Wong Fillmore writes, “that many immigrant families have experienced firsthand.”

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