Abandoning one's mother tongue

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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)

"How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language "

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.



48 Comments »

  1. Vance Maverick said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

    I found this article (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/02/to-speak-is-to-blunder) disturbing, obviously because of the painful personal story, but also because Li seems to have chosen quite deliberately an awkward, slightly un-idiomatic English — a kind of internal exile to go with the expatriation. I remember her first novel having quite plain "errors" of word choice, confusing for example "humility" and "humiliation" — but now, I think she's perfectly conscious of this.

    (I recall reading that Conrad spoke English with a strong accent. Maybe the idiosyncratic magniloquence of his writing style covers an "accent" too.)

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 1:53 am

    就这么个破事儿还呜呼哀哉罗里罗嗦自作多情个不完真他妈受他妈不了–赵纳川(b. 1976)

  3. peterv said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 2:16 am

    And Conrad's novels quite often have narrators who relate stories they have heard from others, as if to distance the reader by several removes from the actual words.

  4. Andy said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 3:03 am

    Peterv…. The frame story in Heart of Darkness is part of a tradition that goes back to The Ancient Mariner and Ozymandias, even the earliest gothic fiction The Castle of Otranto (Walpole pretended he had 'heard' the story while in romantic Italy). I think Conrad's choice of form must have been deliberately in this tradition. I don't know if Conrad's other works are similar.

  5. GH said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 6:36 am

    Some are, some aren't. The Marlowe stories are, I think, all told second-hand, and so is Under Western Eyes. But The Secret Agent, Nostromo and most of his short stories are not, unless I misremember.

  6. gallivant said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    Also worth mentioning is half-Italian novelist Rafael Sabatini who, despite being a polyglot, said “all the best stories are written in English" and chose to write in it.

  7. m said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    For many immigrants of all ages, coming to the US between around 1880 and 1922 meant giving up both past identity and native language in a way comparable to the experiences you describe. Some did better than others at obliterating their first language, but many tried to do so. I believe there are a number of memoirs and fictions written by language-changers who shared their efforts within ethnic communities or who assimilated on their own. What's different now, I think, is that those you cite feel so isolated.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    For those of you who are wondering, "Jonathan Smith" and "赵纳川" would appear to be two identities of one and the same person, and the long string of Chinese characters in THEIR comment more or less constitute a harsh, fractured, jarring, crude Mandarin sentence.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    Making a deliberate choice of one's primary language (whether as writer or as speaker) is not as rare as VHM seems to believe, and not usually as melodramatic as Yiyun Li makes it out to be. I personally have gone through three such choices as my life's circumstances changed (from Polish to Hebrew to German to English). Among writers who happened, like me, to be Polish Jews, the Singer brothers chose to write in Yiddish, S. Y. Agnon in Hebrew, Bruno Schulz and Julian Tuwim in Polish, Jurek Becker in German, and Romain Gary in French. No big deal!

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 10:18 am

    I forgot: Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian.

  11. peterv said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    Andy – Maybe, maybe not. The novel of Conrad's which earnt him the most money was "Chance", which has multiple narrators, speaking in turns in a partly nested (and quite confusing) structure. Once into the novel, most readers find it hard to identify who is saying what, perhaps even more so for the original readers since the novel was first published as a serial. Why would Conrad have adopted such a confusing structure? Perhaps he too was confused. Or perhaps he was trying to avoid direct responsibility for the words or ideas in the text. Is there any other possible explanation?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    peterv: Because he thought confusion, and maybe finding one's way out of the confusion, would add to readers' experiences? Because he didn't realize how confusing the book would be? (I haven't read it.)

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 10:48 am

    @Coby Lubliner

    But to Yiyun Li, it was, and still is, a very big deal, almost costing her her life. Could the difference be that, unlike all the individuals you mention (except S. Y. Agnon), the switch was within Indo-European, whereas hers was from a Sintic language to an IE language?
    Here it may be worthwhile to look at the vigorous discussion that is going on over at this post:

    "Nouns, verbs, and ontological metaphors" (1/5/17)

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=30222

    In any event, for some people the transition from one language to another may be smooth, but for others is clearly traumatic. Yiyun Li is not the only Chinese person I know who experienced tremendous anxiety shifting from Mandarin (or other Sinitic language) to English. For many the challenge was simply so great that they never made the change, and they remained monolingually Sinitic, even though they lived in an English language environment their whole life. The same holds for millions of mainland Mandarin speakers who lived in Taiwan their whole lives where they were surrounded by Taiwanese speakers, but never learned any Taiwanese, even though Taiwan was their home for a half a century or more.

  14. Cervantes said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 11:55 am

    Han Suyin wrote mostly in English and French — though I guess she's a special case, being only half-Chinese to begin with.

    And Coby, to your list you can add Martin Buber, who considered himself a Polish Jew; aside from Hebrew and Yiddish, he worked in German, Polish, and eventually in English.

  15. Vance Maverick said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    Another writer who switched languages deliberately was Beckett — can anyone speak to how his French reads to a native? Obviously he didn't abandon English, but leveraged the second language to write a highly personal form of his native language.

  16. Cervantes said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

    Vance, Beckett sometimes wrote in French because, he said, the words came too easily in English. He wanted to have to think more.

  17. David Morris said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

    I am intrigued that Yiyun Li has chosen to keep using her Chinese name, even though 'choosing English was a matter of forming a new identity' (cf Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)

  18. julie lee said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

    @Victor Mair says:
    "But to Yiyun Li, it was, and still is, a very big deal…. Could the difference be that, unlike all the individuals you mention (except S. Y. Agnon), the switch was within Indo-European, whereas hers was from a Sintic language to an IE language?
    … Yiyun Li is not the only Chinese person I know who experienced tremendous anxiety shifting from Mandarin (or other Sinitic language) to English. For many the challenge was simply so great that they never made the change, and they remained monolingually Sinitic, even though they lived in an English language environment their whole life. "

    Victor Mair has a profound understanidng of this, of which I have some experience–of the swtich of "mother tongue".

    Chinese was my language till age 7, when I was flung into an English-dominated society and had to switch to English. After that I grew up in English-language boarding schools ( in the British colonies) whose objective was to produce English-type young ladies. After I became an "English" young lady, I was flung into a completely Chinese society in Hongkong and Taiwan and expected to be a Chinese young lady. My parents moved in the most elite Chinese cultural and intellectual circles (including cabinet ministers, ambassadors and famous professors–Chien Mu, Tang Chun-yi etc.__) , and here I was, completely illiterate and mute in Chinese. I was you might say an imitation English young lady (product of British colonial education), and now the pressure to become a genuine Chinese young lady was tremendous. I felt embarrassed when my parents took me to these cultural gatherings where people's conversations were sprinkled with witty allusions to and quotes from the Chinese classics. I felt immense pressure to learn Chinese, including Literary or Classical Chinese At no time did I feel like committing suicide, but I did feel lonely for many many years. That's because all the other young ladies I knew who were like me– Chinese girls who couldn't speak Chinese, daughters of diplomats and the like–made no attempt to learn Chinese as I did. They felt that Chinese was so difficult that it would be impossible for them to master it, and so they never even tried. (Nowadays of course the teaching of Chinese has so advanced that countless numbers of foreigners have learned Chinese, and Mandarin isn't even considered an "exotic" language anymore.) Among my Chinese friends like me who only knew English, I was the only one who took up the study of Chinese, including Mandarin and Literary or Classical Chinese. I felt lonely for a very long time because all my Chinese-speaking contemporaries in America who came from Taiwan were engaged in an intensive study of English, to better their English in an English-speaking society. I was the only one among them who engaged in an intensive study of Chinese—in order to become a bona fide Chinese person acceptable to my parents' rarefied circle of the then Chinese cultural elite (who meanwhile most of them were no more, had died of old age, and so it was a phantom society in my mind that I was qualifying and polishing myself for). Not only did I engage in this intensive study on my own, but I also wanted to switch identities—that is, grow into a Chinese person, with Chinese sensibilities, which I found to be quite different from the English or European sensibilities that had been cultured into me in my English-language schools. This was also a lonely enterprise, as all the Chinese people I knew who were also switching personalities–switching identities– were switching in the opposite direction–from Chinese ones to American ones so as to survive better in an American society. In my solitary enterprise, I never felt like committing suicide like Yiyun Li, but I did feel lonely.

  19. maidhc said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    To add another author who was a child of immigrants–Jack Kerouac. His L1 was French. He was brought up in an environment with many Francophone immigrants. His education was in Rnglish though.

  20. The Other Mark P said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

    Most of us go through life speaking the language we were born to.

    I wonder about this.

    I grew up speaking English, but I don't speak the English of my parents (either in accent or word choice) and I don't speak the English I learned in primary school either, although I do retain the accent. The changes are not huge, but they are there, and result in the odd mixture of a "low" accent and "high" register.

    And that's a person who hasn't changed official language.

  21. Bill Benzon said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 7:15 pm

    @Andy, There's Wuthering Heights as well. Nelly Dean tells the story to Lockwood, and he tells the story to us.

  22. Brett said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

    The whole genre of epistolary novels is part of the same cultural tradition.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 10:47 pm

    Julie Sedivy, "The Strange Persistence of First Languages: After my father died, my journey of rediscovery began with the Czech language" (11/5/15)

    http://nautil.us/issue/30/Identity/the-strange-persistence-of-first-languages

  24. LLReader said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 11:59 pm

    Don't forget Jhumpa Lahiri's choice to write in Italian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/12/07/teach-yourself-italian

  25. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 8:15 am

    @LLReader:
    That's very interesting to me, because I recently met a 50ish Ukrainian-American man who told me that one of his best friends left Ukraine about the same time he did, in 1994, and is now in Italy, writing poems in Italian.

  26. raempftl said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    The 2016 Kleist prize was given to Yoko Tawada who writes in her native Japanese and German which she only learnt after coming to Germany when she was already 22. The prize is given to German (!) authors.

    (There are several videos on Youtube where she discusses her experience in English.)

    Wladimer Kaminer also lernt German as an adult after immigrating to East Germany in 1990. He has sold millions of books he wrote in German.

  27. AntC said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    @Victor millions of mainland Mandarin speakers who lived in Taiwan their whole lives where they were surrounded by Taiwanese speakers

    I know you have a soft spot for "Taiwanese"; but a place (not just a person) that has consciously changed its language is … Taiwan.

    Here I am in Taiwan. The everyday language on the street is Mandarin. All the public signage is in Mandarin. Most of the TV is in Mandarin. There are people who have not just spent their whole lives in Taiwan, so have their parents and grandparents, all speaking Mandarin. If any language nowadays can lay claim to be "Taiwanese", that language is (a Taiwan variety of) Mandarin.

    Sure there is plenty of Hokkien spoken/understood. There are some very elderly for whom Hokkien or Hakka is their first language. (As there are some who understand Japanese — however reluctantly they came to learn it originally.)

    But I don't think you can legitimately use "Taiwanese" to somehow denigrate Mandarin speakers in their own country.

  28. julie lee said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 11:37 am

    In the examples given above almost all the switches are from a European language to a European language or Indo-Euroean language, which is much easier, than a switch between an IE language and a non IE one like Chinese and Japanese. How many, if any of the above examples switched from writing in a IE language to publishing in Chinese or Japanese? The only one I know of is Victor Mair's younger brother who began studying Chinese as an adult. He is a poet and I Ching scholar in English but also a poet in Chinese who won a top poetry award in China for his Chinese-language poetry. He also writes beautiful Chinese prose, which I've read. I believe he's still a rarity. His name is Denis Mair.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 11:44 am

    @AntC

    No denigration intended whatsoever. I used the past tense and was simply trying to describe the situation as I witnessed it when I lived in Taichung four decades ago. My own Chinese relatives — from Shandong via Sichuan — were a case in point of what I was saying about mainlanders not learning any Taiwanese / Hokkien, even though completely surrounded by it.

    You are talking about now; I was talking about then.

    Nonetheless, there are still parts of Taiwan where Taiwanese / Hokkien is alive and well. Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a highly educated Taiwanese person in his thirties whose mother tongue is / was Taiwanese / Hokkien, but like many Taiwanese his age, especially those who have spent most of their life in the north, he mainly speaks Mandarin. What's extremely interesting is that his own cousin, who owns a scooter sales and repair shop in the south, speaks Taiwanese / Hokkien, and doesn't know Mandarin. The same is true of the cousin's family and customers.

  30. Thorin said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

    To give another example of a native speaker of a non-IE language writing in an IE language, Elif Şafak writes in both Turkish and English (she wrote "The Saint of Incipient Insanities" and "The Bastard of Istanbul" in English). She explains why here: https://www.englishpen.org/pen-atlas/but-why-do-you-write-your-books-in-english-and-turkish/

  31. julie lee said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    Elif Safak is admirable for being able to write and publish in both Turkish and English, but I don’t think it is that difficult a feat since she started learning English at the age of ten. The difficulty is when you start in adulthood. Many Chinese who grew up in China and Chinese schools have learned to write beautifully in English. As far as I know, they started learning English in secondary schools in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In an earlier generation, they included John C. H. Wu, Wellington Koo, Lin Yutang and many others. Many more now. The novelist Yiyun Li’s experience switching wholesale from Chinese to English may have been traumatic and driven her to the brink of suicide, but it was not _lonely_, as mine was. She was swimming with the tide, since all the Chinese from China and Taiwan I know were doing the same (intensively switching from Chinese to English), while I was swimming _against_ the tide, in the direction (from English to Chinese) _opposite_ to my generation of compatriots. My brother when he arrived in Germany as a penniless foreign student many years ago had to switch very fast from Chinese to German, so he wore earphones at night when sleeping in order to listen to and learn conversational German all through the night in his sleep. He was of a sanguine and humorous nature, however, so he never felt like committing suicide, even though the measure was one of desperation.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

    From an anonymous reader:

    Lahiri is an interesting case in point. She is a UK-born author who considers herself American, who lives in Rome and teaches at Princeton. Her book about learning Italian and her efforts to write in Italian have been panned.

    Milan Kundera is a Czech-born writer who became a naturalized French citizen in 1981.

    I see you mention Conrad; Nabokov didn't achieve international prominence until he began writing in English.

    There was a well-known Czech writer in NY in the 702-80s; part of the NY literary scene with Mailer. Wrote one or two famous books then committed suicide. It was later learned that he had hidden his Jewishness.

  33. Cervantes said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

    There was a well-known Czech writer in NY in the 702-80s; part of the NY literary scene with Mailer. Wrote one or two famous books then committed suicide. It was later learned that he had hidden his Jewishness.

    Jerzy Kosiński? He was from Poland.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

    From another anonymous reader:

    Jerzy Kosinski, born in Poland, wrote THE PAINTED BIRD and BEING THERE in English. He served as President of American P.E.N.

    He committed suicide in 1991.

  35. jluo said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 6:31 am

    This also reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov – who wrote Lolita, Pnin and many other works in English. I assume he never tried to abandon Russian (and sources said he grew up speaking Russian, English and French simultaneously), but his writings did show the kind of migrant mentality (Pnin is the most obvious one).

  36. Andrew Usher said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    It seems this thread is really about people's mental problems, not really about language at all. Sane people write in the language most appropriate to the totality of the circumstances, and don't agonize over it.

  37. David L said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:42 am

    Lahiri is an interesting case in point. She is a UK-born author who considers herself American, who lives in Rome and teaches at Princeton. Her book about learning Italian and her efforts to write in Italian have been panned.

    Reviews of Lahiri's book have been mixed but some people have expressed admiration. Here's Howard Norman in the Washington Post, for example.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    @Andrew Usher

    It seems this thread is really about people's mental problems, not really about language at all. Sane people write in the language most appropriate to the totality of the circumstances, and don't agonize over it.

    Psychology is by no means irrelevant to language issues. Here at Language Log, we have three established categories: "Language and psychology", "Psycholinguistics", and "Psychology of language".

    The angst over language that many people feel when transitioning from one culture to another is genuine, and often formidable.

  39. Cervantes said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 10:53 am

    Andrew Usher:

    It seems this thread is really about people's mental problems, not really about language at all.

    That's quite a dichotomy; elaboration might help …

  40. julie lee said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    Is psycholinguistics linguistics, is sociolinguistics linguistics, is a white horse a horse. The last question a famous one posed by the School of Names (aka School of Logicians, School of Debaters) of circa 3rd century BC China.

  41. TheLong1930s said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    Until four years ago I'd lived in Italy, and in Italian, for ten years, and it remains the language I speak at home now I've returned to the UK. The one clear psychological/linguistic/psycholinguistic change I've noticed is that in English I no longer have a 'default' accent: I seem to be aware of making a conscious social choice every time I open my mouth with regards to my native language, which can be at times rather tiring and irritating. I don't find this with Italian, even though I'm bidialectal there and can and do switch accents accordingly.

    Offered as anecdotal evidence, for what it's worth.

  42. Eidolon said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

    The article "To speak is to blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue" requires a more close reading than I am currently able to give it, but from reading it briefly it seems as though Mrs. Li's dilemma is more driven by her *rejection of [what I assume to be Mandarin Chinese]" than her adoption of English, and in fact she even says so directly. There is probably a political and/or personal explanation buried between lines, since she describes her mother's hometown as being "taken over by Communism" and also talks about an abuse of power by her Army squad leader back in China; so personal trauma might be involved regarding why she decided to abandon her Chinese language and presumably identity altogether.

    But, as strange as it is, and as observed above, with the exception of her name, which is still in Mandarin Chinese. Ironic, as one would think that would be the first and most important marker to change, since it invariably and inevitably paints her as a Chinese person on first impression. Perhaps there is a deeper explanation there, too, that I am currently not able to discern.

  43. Andy said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 12:13 am

    @TheLong1930s
    Interesting! In Italian you speak in two accents or two dialects?

  44. TheLong1930s said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 7:25 am

    @Andy I have a stronger or weaker Roman accent, but can switch between Standard Italian and Romanesco.

  45. julie lee said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

    @Eidolon says:
    “But, as strange as it is, and as observed above, with the exception of her name, which is still in Mandarin Chinese. Ironic, as one would think that would be the first and most important marker to change, since it invariably and inevitably paints her as a Chinese person on first impression. Perhaps there is a deeper explanation there, too.”

    Yes. I haven’t read Yi-yun Li's article (I can’t find my New Yorker now), but from what I gather, since she rejected her mother-tongue Chinese, and she had experienced an abuse of power in China, I would guess she wanted to expunge her past as much as possible. But there seems to be a love-hate conflict, as she doesn’t change her name. I think of Jean Amery, an Austrian Jewish Holocaust writer who was filled with hate for his concentration-camp Nazi torturers and who then changed his name from Hanns Chaim Mayer to Jean Amery and who had a long-time desire to cease writing in his mother-tongue German but instead write in French and become a French intellectual. I’m told that many Jewish writers who survived Nazi persecution and whose mother-tongue was German wanted to reject not only Germany but the German language. This was almost impossible, as Amery has pointed out, because your childhood, your memory, your being, is embodied in your mother-tongue. And Amery continued writing in German, for he said a writer has to write, even if it must be in German. So there is a love-hate relationship with the language. Amery eventually committed suicide. One of my well-read Jewish friends says almost all the important Jewish writers who experienced the Holocaust later committed suicide. I wonder how many of them were conflicted over their German mother-tongue.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 8:01 am

    @julie lee

    Way back in the very first comment, Vance Maverick gave the URL for the electronic version of the article:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/02/to-speak-is-to-blunder

  47. Ned Danison said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 8:14 am

    It's interesting that Li focuses on the literal (and visceral) aspect of "kill" in the idiom, and that VM notes she often does this kind of thing. This is what we — that is our brains — do when we learn a new language. Literal meanings in idioms and metaphors are visible before they fade into the background, after the language box decides they're not salient. But do they fade away completely? Will using a new language exclusively sever the metaphors we are/are not habituated to?

  48. julie lee said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

    Thank you Victor Mair for the electronic version of Yiyun Li's article. I have just read it.

    Her essay is like a mystery novel, strewn with cryptical clues. Yet unlike a mystery novel, neither the clues nor the mystery are fully explained in the end and we are left with tantalizing questions.

    One thing is clear. While my own attempt to switch from an English "mother tongue" to a Chinese "mother tongue" is tied up with passion (perhaps misguided), obsession, even neurosis if you will, Yiyun Li's abandonment of Chinese for English is tied up with something more serious, mental illness. She was hospitalized for mental breakdowns twice and says her grandmother committed suicide, so there is a genetic component.

    One unanswered mystery is why Li was so violently determined to abandon Chinese. "People often ask about my decision to write in English….I do not want to touch the heart of the matter." "My abandonment of my first language is personal, so deeply personal
    that I resist any interpretation—political or historical or ethnographical." There are clues. She says she has destroyed her old journal and all her hundreds of letters from friends in China, leaving only some things that that she will keep but never open again. "These (destroyed) records, of the days I had lived time and time over, became intolerable now that my time in China was over." Of her mother she says: "I can seek to understand my mother’s vulnerability and cruelty, but language is the barrier I have chosen." Did she want to erase the memories of hate, or was it memories of lost love? She does not say. What she does say is that abandoning Chinese and adopting English was her salvation (" my private salvation… is that I disowned my native language"). She does say that she had a gift for expressing herself in Chinese, the "public language", for giving speeches in Chinese, but that they were lies, that she was uncomfortable in this facility with this "public language" and its lies (" listeners were moved to tears by the poetic and insincere lies I had made up".) Only years later did she ask herself: "Can one’s intelligence rely entirely on the public language; can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?" By abandoning Chinese and adopting English, she acquired a private language that could more authentically express her authentic self. Her adoptive English became her " private language". Language can express thinking. As for expressing feelings, she says: " It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language."
    So her article deals with the basic categories of "public language" versus "private language", and "native language" versus "adopted language".
    Surprisingly, while English is a"public language" for many of us, it has become a "private language" for Yiyun Li.

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