It's one thing to lose your first language when you move as a child to another country where a second language is spoken, but it's quite a different matter when you go to another country as an adult and make a conscious choice to give up your native tongue and adopt the language of the place you have chosen to live.
Yiyun Li (b. 1972), the Chinese American author, is such a person. In some respects, her story of conversion to English reminds me of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), who wrote in English as the natural outgrowth of his cosmopolitan multilingualism, and Ha Jin (b. 1956), who chose English "to preserve the integrity of his work".
Yiyun Li's switch to English seems much more vexed and dramatic. In the process of converting from Mandarin to English, Li twice attempted suicide. For her, choosing English was a matter of forming a new identity. She had a fierce determination to give up Chinese, but it was tantamount to giving up her old self. Li felt a keen sense of the dividing line between native language and adopted language, between old home and new land, and they were all jumbled together in a painful process of detachment and attachment. Li searingly relates the sharp dissonance between between feelings and thoughts about language and life in her latest essay:
"To speak is to blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue" (New Yorker, 1/2/17: 31-33)
Some poignant quotations:
…this violent desire to erase a life in a native language….
Yet language is capable of sinking a mind. One's thoughts are slavishly bound to language…. We can kill time, but language kills us.
[VHM: Li speaks of the English phrase "to kill time" as one that "chills" her. She relates to every word in that visceral way.]
Over the years, my brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English…. To be orphaned from my native language felt, and still feels, like a crucial decision.
It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language.
Li consciously made her decision to think, live, and write in English in the face of opposition from friends and advisers.
The Chinese Australian professor of cultural studies Ien Ang's account of how English became her primary language is quite different from any of those mentioned above. She was born in Indonesia, grew up in the Netherlands, went to Taiwan where people expected her to speak Chinese even though she couldn't really do so, then ended up in Australia where she finally found a language for daily life. Ang deftly describes the psychological and cultural challenges presented by her predicament in On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West (2001).
Sometimes whole peoples gradually give up their native language and have it replaced by that of a political force greater than their own, as in the case of Manchu or Taiwanese being replaced by Mandarin:
"Manchu film" (12/31/16)
Most of us go through life speaking the language we were born to. Those who are fortunate pick up one or more additional languages along the way, but they seldom supplant our mother tongue, much as we may love them.
[Update: "The Rare Writer Who Hates the Word ‘I’" (NYT, 2/15/17)]