One of the most memorable trips of my life took place in 1994 and involved traveling as a graduate student to Prague in the company of some of the most formidable linguists of North America and Europe. It was my first return to the country of my birth since I’d left Czechoslovakia as a small child in 1969—given that my family had emigrated illegally, virtually Sound of Music style, a visit back wasn’t possible until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Barbara Partee, who had spent a good deal of time in Prague, served as our tour guide. I was impressed with her fluency in Czech and charmed by her accent. I’d never heard Czech spoken with an American accent before, but it sounded exactly as I would have imagined it. My own Czech was in ruins. Like many immigrants, I’d learned my heritage language as a child within rather constrained domestic spheres and had never used it to negotiate cab fare or discuss existential concerns, let alone describe my professional activities. But the first time I shyly dusted it off and uttered a few sentences, protesting that I had forgotten the entire language, Barbara turned to me with perhaps a tinge of envy and exclaimed, “You’ve probably forgotten more Czech than I’ve spent years learning! And, there’s still a lot left.”
As it turns out, a language is rarely truly forgotten, merely submerged.
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