I've forgotten more Czech than Barbara Partee has learned

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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.

A number of intriguing studies reveal the cognitive remnants of previously-learned languages that have fallen into disuse. “Forgotten” languages appear to make their continued presence known primarily through re-learning; even when initial testing suggests that a language has been lost, those who have been exposed to it earlier in life often show dramatically accelerated re-learning. This has been observed in the domains of grammar, vocabulary, and particularly, phonology.

One of the most remarkable examples of the language “reactivation” effect can be found in a paper by Leher Singh and colleagues; the researchers compared American-born native English speakers with a group of Indian adoptees who had been raised from a young age (between 6 and 60 months) in English-speaking families with no further meaningful contact with their language of origin. The children were between the ages of eight and sixteen years old at the time of testing, and initially, neither group could reliably discriminate between dental and retroflex consonants, a distinction that’s exploited by many Indian languages, but not English. However, after listening to the contrasting sounds over a period of mere minutes, the adoptees, but not the control group, were able to discriminate between the two kinds of consonants. (A disclaimer: individual results may vary! Variation appears to be highly characteristic of language attrition and reactivation.)

These studies mesh with my own impressions from my visits back to the Czech Republic that significant parts of the language are still there, awaiting excavation. Speaking Czech is for me like living in a pervasive tip-of-the-tongue state, struggling to give phonetic shape to words whose meanings—and even nuances of use—I’m aware that I know, if only I could pronounce the damn things.

Like many language attriters, I’ve retained a rather uneven profile of language abilities, which makes for some interesting social interactions. Unlike those who learn a second language in adulthood and retain a telling accent even after they’ve achieved complete fluency, I can often pass for a native speaker, at least briefly. I’m unfazed by the “ř” sound (as in the name of the Czech composer Dvořak), a phoneme so perverse that not even the neighboring Slovaks attempt it (it has sensibly been dropped by the Poles in recent years). I can also competently pronounce the name of another Czech composer, Janáček, whose form demonstrates the marked phenomenon of dissociating primary word stress from vowel length, so that stress is placed on the first syllable even though the second vowel is long. (North Americans inevitably place stress on the second syllable, which, come to think of it, they often do as well in pronouncing my own last name.) My prosody is close to perfect, and I’m a pro at sprinkling my speech with idiomatic discourse markers, accompanied by native-like shrugs, gestures and facial expressions. So, it can cause some consternation for my listeners when I sail through several sentences with a show of mastery that few foreigners achieve, only to trip over some elementary morphology in a way that would (and does) make a four-year-old snicker. Or, with utter confidence, substitute one word for another phonetically similar word that has a completely unrelated meaning. I once bewildered a stranger by politely inquiring “Would you suddenly know where the train station is?” An easy mistake (I thought), confusing the words najednou (suddenly) and náhodou (by any chance). On another occasion, I replied to a query about my occupation by claiming to be a savior (spasitelka). Alas, in reality, I am a mere writer (spisovitelka).

But as the studies suggest, one of the most remarkable aspects of language “attrition” is the resilience of the language even in the face of profound neglect. I’d experienced this on previous visits, including that first one in 1994, but never before as dramatically as I am now, part way through a six-week stint in my father’s home town in Southern Moravia (Moravská Nová Ves, population approx. 2500), where I’ve gone to spend some time kick-starting a new writing project while getting to know my relatives.

For the first time, I’m immersed in a Czech environment with no English speakers around to provide relief from the effort of conversing in Czech, and no bilingual speakers to turn to for rescue in moments of catastrophic lexical access.

Southern Moravia, like many rural areas of the Czech Republic, can be a punishing environment for non-native speakers. English speakers typically have daily encounters with adults whose command of English is imperfect. But very few people choose to learn Czech as a foreign language, and those who do rarely gravitate toward the small villages. In the experience of the local villagers, the world divides up into those who know the language, having learned it from birth, and those who don’t. I’ve routinely been mocked for making errors in Czech, especially if I’ve been corrected before for the same error, as if I were unusually dim or inattentive for making the same mistake twice after having been set right the first time. (Perhaps this mindset also accounts for the fact that young people, who learn English in school from the early grades, absolutely refuse to speak English with me, claiming they don’t know the language.)

There can be a striking lack of accommodation or cooperation on the part of listeners. Once, when traveling with my brother, I watched him flounder in Czech at a small town gas station, trying to convey which pack of cigarettes he wanted to purchase—he had forgotten the brand name, and was trying to describe the appearance of the package. Ignoring his pointing gestures, the cashier sat stone-faced through his attempts. When she finally identified what he wanted, she tossed the cigarettes on the counter, saying contemptuously, “As you can see, the package is red, not pink.” My brother apologized, “I’m sorry, my Czech is very bad.” “I can see that,” she replied without cracking the slightest smile.

With exposure to my mangled grammar and fumbled words, my Czech relatives have learned to hide their amusement and now make a sincere effort to contribute helpfully to my attempts at communication. Even more miraculously, I’ve seemingly progressed through several months’ or years’ worth of language acquisition in days. To my astonishment, words that I haven’t used in years suddenly roll out of my mouth, though a week ago, I couldn’t have successfully rummaged through my lexicon to find them. The outlandish case-marking system of the language, which surely is responsible for the sturdy moral character of the Czechs, is beginning to seem less murky. I happily string clauses together, sometimes more than two at a time! Re-learning the language feels like having linguistic superpowers.

There’s a deep lesson here for me as a lapsed speaker of a heritage language: it has taken remarkably little time and effort for that language, which I’d thought was largely lost even back in 1994, to be nudged out of its dormant state and flower once more. And there are so many of us lapsed heritage language speakers. As aptly described by Robert Lane Greene in his book You Are What You Speak, the heritage languages spoken by immigrants to the U.S. typically whither in just a generation or two. Had I fully realized, at the time that I was raising my own children, how easily I could slip back into my mother-and-father tongue, I might have made greater efforts to provide some meaningful exposure to Czech for my own children. As it is, they’re going to have to learn the language the hard way, should they summon the courage to learn it at all, and will likely never be mistaken for native speakers, even for a few sentences.




  1. Steve Kleinedler said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    This is fascinating!– my family ultimately comes mostly from Southern Moravia (Straznice), and although I'm third generation, my mom speaks fluently and my father pretty well, and when I was a child I was taken to many cultural events in mid-Michigan where Czech was spoken all around me. My mom also taught Czech. So there's a very small set of words I know natively, and I can make the “ř” sound, too. I also spent the summer of 1994 in the Czech Republic (in Olomouc). So the parallels are interesting to me, even though I'm not a native Moravian.

  2. James C. said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    The phenomenon of reacquiring a lost language has tremendous import for documenting and revitalizing critically endangered languages. It’s common that even though the “official” speakers may be disappearing, there is a generation of people who have a moderate level of exposure to the language as children. These people can, with support and encouragement, recover their lost language and contribute meaningfully to revitalization efforts.

  3. Ondřej Vágner said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    As a native Czech speaker, it is quite interesting to compare the approach the "natives" have when you try to speak their language. While English-speaking listeners seem to have infinite patience while you're trying to piece together a sentence containing more than three words at a time, and the French watch with benevolent amusement a stranger trying to better himself by learning their far superior language, we Czechs have a tendency to be rather protective of our language.

    Partly, it might be our natural xenophobia, but mainly I suspect it's just because there are hardly any major dialects in use – sure, speakers in Brno might have a slightly different vocabulary to someone from Ostrava, but when they actually speak, they both use the same grammatical structures. On the other hand, someone from India and someone from Canada might use quite different structures yet still agree they're both speaking English, so there's a certain laxness in terms of "correctness". Plus, there's the whole thing of "everyone in the world learning English", so I suspect the natives have just learnt to cope with us mangling their language in our own special, idiosyncratic ways.

    By the way, since we're on the topic of language protectiveness, it's "spisovatelka". Don't try to worm your way into our language with your evil, forn ways. Teeth gnashing silence on the surname. For now.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

    Americans with no ethnic connection who study Czech may be unusual in general, but there's at least one prominent American university where at some point within the last decade Czech became the preferred way for many members of the football team (and certain other athletes) to satisfy their foreign-language requirement. http://yaleherald.com/bullblog/5-classes-to-take-if-you-need-an-easy-language/

    (My explanatory hypothesis is that Czech and Polish, which also makes the list, are at this particular campus mostly taught by non-tenure track faculty whose continued employment is at the sufferance of a department politically controlled by tenured scholars of Russian literature whose attitudes toward the scholarly value of less-prominent Slavic languages are unpredictable. So the teachers of the less-prominent languages feel under constant pressure to keep enrollment at a sufficient level to avoid getting dropped from the curriculum, and developing a reputation among some social network(s) of students for being "fun" and/or "easy" is one way to do that if there's no other natural constituency for the language.)

  5. Julie Sedivy said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    Ondřej. Look. I'm trying, OK? Indeed, I do seem to fall apart when words accumulate more than two syllables, so thanks for the correction. Sigh. As for my surname, I can accept no blame for that. North American immigration bureaucrats simply could not cope at the time (and perhaps not now) with the fact that Slavic surnames are slightly different for men and women, not to mention all their weird orthographic embellishments. But you make an interesting point about the language protectiveness, and I've often wondered whether there would be much more neutralization going on in the Czech case system if the language had not remained relatively insulated from the incursions of non-native speakers.

  6. Eric said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    I've had similar experiences to the author in dealing with populations who lack experience with non-native speakers. I found this to often be the case in Greece– few tourists there speak any Greek at all, so demonstrating even marginal proficiency often led to people assuming I was completely fluent and rattling off a paragraph of rapid-fire Greek at me. Similar experiences in Portugal and even in rural parts of Italy. It's an interesting phenomenon.

  7. JQ said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

    Does anyone think this reactivation thing can apply to varieties or accents within a language?

    I grew up in Australia between the ages of 1 to 7, and then spent the next 10 years in a variety of expatriate environments mostly consisting of Americans, in non-English speaking countries (Thailand, Singapore, Japan, France). I spoke Mandarin and Cantonese at home and English in school.

    The other Aussie kids that came to the schools I was at lost their accents within a few months.

    I then moved to the UK. I've been back to Australia many times but only for 2 weeks maximum. Aussies say my accent is British. I feel that if I spent longer there, my Australian English would reactivate but I can't tell whether this is based in reality or just wishful thinking. However, in the UK people say my accent is not British, but they can't tell where it is from since it isn't entirely American, nor is it like any sort of Chinese native speaker who learned English as an adult.

  8. michael farris said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

    If anyone needs encouragement to learn Czech, they should realize it's the official language of Liberland.


  9. Vanya said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    Very interesting article. As a Russian and Polish speaker, I often attempt to speak some sort of butchered Czech on my frequent trips driving through the Czech Republic. I have noticed that in more touristy places, like Cesky Krumlov, Olomouc or even Znojmo, people seem happy to hear even my heavily Polish tinged Czech, but in provincial Moravia I often get the reception Julie describes – if you are going to try to speak Czech, speak it right.

  10. Imran Ahmed said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    Very interesting post, thank you.

    As a heritage speaker of Urdu trying to (re-)learn it now, along with reading skills, I am finding the grammar extremely easy and intuitive, and the vocabulary comes back to me with much less trouble than I expected (though spelling is still a problem). Sadly, I can't say the same for phonology in my case. Native speakers, and other heritage speakers, can easily pick up on my weak differentiation between aspirated letters and their non-aspirated counterparts.

  11. Ondřej Vágner said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    I spoke in jest, Julie (curse you text-based communication for severe lack of non-verbal cues [you can't see it, but I'm shaking my fist and growling, "Barrowman!" {hmm, I wonder how deep these parentheses lead (not deep, turns out, I have to recurse [which does bring other opportunities of its own, mind you {preparing to perform inception (vwooom)}])}]). I am quite open-minded about languages, my own or others' (besides, coming up with new words is such fun!), so I'm perf- wait, you want to do WHAT with the cases? And I suppose you want we get rid of "y" as well, right? What are we, Slovaks?!

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

    I lived in Prague for a year and failed to learn the language, through a combination of my own limitations and what Ondřej Vágner describes.

    Basically, I couldn't find anyone to speak Czech to. I have never been anywhere else where people aren't happy to have a foreigner try to learn their language. But there strangers were decidedly frosty, and those I got to know better wanted to have a proper conversation, for which their English was far more useful.

    By the end of the year, and many daily hours of learning from a textbook, I could (slowly) express most basic things I needed to, with decent command of grammar (except the verbs of motion, obviously), but my listening skills were terrible and I couldn't have a conversation more complex than renting a car.

    Contra Vanya, I found that in my brief trips to rural areas, Czechs were more 'charmed' that someone was trying to speak their language and willing to help. My theory was that in Prague people felt besieged by foreigners, and treated the language as a kind of country within the country, impregnable to all but the most nativised outsiders.

    My own failure of imagination is to blame as much, though. One time I was on a train with my wife, whose Czech was meagre compared to mine. The ticket inspector came by and said something to us. I sat there silently trying to piece together the case agreement, until my wife said, "Yeah he's probably asking to see your ticket."

    Speaking of my wife, she's lost much of her ability to speak her native Romanian in general. But I've noticed that when arguing with her family her language becomes far richer and more fluent – even if not fully grammatical – the angrier she gets! The effect of loss of self-consciousness, perhaps?

  13. mira said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

    I'm a non-native speaker of Czech who lived in Zlin and Brno. I have a very good accent — I'm a talented mimic — and most people I met randomly were more likely to think that I was from some part of the Czech Republic where they talk funny, or that I had some sort of mild mental disability, and I think that general unfamiliarity with foreigners speaking Czech is the reason for that.
    As far as speaking English, I had the opposite experience from Julie, by the way — once people found out I was American, they really wanted to speak English with me, or at least try. I had to be very insistent that I didn't want to speak English. It's interesting that my experiences were so different from Julie's — I wonder to what extent that's to do with the fact that people expected her to speak Czech better, since she was born there, and they expected me to speak it not at all.

  14. Ritzler F said,

    April 16, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

    Related: the Czech "translating prohibited" sign in the last image of ths post: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=14905

  15. michael farris said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 12:53 am

    As a non-native but fluent user of Polish (who's tried and mostly failed to learn some Czech too) I'm wondering how much the pronounced differences between standard and colloquial Czech affects this kind of thing.

    I remember once in Prague asking for something with the word malý (small, masc sg nom) and the guy behind the counter repeated 'ten malej?' in a tone suggesting I was kind of confused and/or simpleminded, and whichever I used děkuji or děkuju always seemed wrong.

    The textbooks I've seen are all about standard Czech and barely mention or don't mention a lot of more or less universal spoken forms that are different. IME (very limited) Czech speakers have little conscious awareness of the differences. I remember one being surprised to realize that he actually said von and not on (he). Similarly they might underestimate the differences (since they're used to negotiating between them) and the obstacle they constitute in learning.

    I imagine heritage speakers would have a base of colloquial which would make them seem initially more fluent than they are leading to annoyance at constant hesitation while non-natives trying to speak textbook Czech are clearly signalling that they don't know how things really work.

    In a city constantly full of foreigners like Prague, the semi-diglossia acts as a second layer of insulation distinguishing complete outsiders (no Czech), wannabes (standard Czech) and those worth dealing with (colloquial Czech).

  16. Rubrick said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 2:22 am

    I believe something similar happens with place memory, wherein when you return to a location from childhood, never visited since, you find you recall where things are without having any conscious knowledge of them ("Around that corner is the sandpit I used to play in!").

    Which means, of course, that you might suddenly know where the train station is. :-)

  17. Michael Proctor said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 3:04 am

    Interesting that North Americans stress the second syllable of Janáček, which makes sense if that's actually the long vowel. My sense is that Australians tend to stress the first syllable and lengthen it accordingly: [ˈjɐː.nɐ.ˌʧek].

  18. Scott McClure said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 5:13 am

    Mike, it's true that length and stress are independent in Czech phonology. But I'm pretty sure that the realization of stress involves at least some phonetic lengthening, so I don't think the Australian [ˈjɐː.nɐ.ˌʧek] pronunciation is really too far off.

  19. Rakau said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 5:28 am

    I am a fluent second language speaker of Te Reo Maori. I brought my children up speaking Maori from birth. They didn't start speaking English until they were school age. My mother in law always said she couldn't speak Maori; that she'd forgotten it. She was critical of language revival efforts and said that it was a waste of time learning to speak Maori. She was a stubborn and proud woman. I think that she wouldn't try because she didn't want to make mistakes. She did revive her heritage language. She did it safely (for her) by speaking to my children when they were young. She relearned from children who were native speakers who had learned from second language speaking parents. My mother in laws attempts were initially quite surreptitious. I caught her conversing with my children a few times but she continued to deny that she could speak. In the end she started speaking openly. She was immensely proud that her grandchildren could speak her language fluently. I have seen others learn with, or from their young children and grow into Te Reo Maori as their childrens' language became more sophisticated as they grew up.

  20. Julie Sedivy said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 5:42 am

    Rakau, that's a very moving anecdote, and it would be utterly fascinating for linguists to document that process. Though my own kids are grown now, I suspect I will be speaking Czech to my young grandchildren, should I have any. I'll check in and report on our progress a number of years from now!

  21. Rodger C said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 6:54 am

    North Americans inevitably place stress on the second syllable

    Music announcers, in my experience, tend to stress the first syllable of "Janáček" and shorten the second.

  22. BlueLoom said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 8:00 am

    My mother was born in Ukraine, and her first language was Yiddish. As an adult, her AmE was fluent and accent-free. She spoke Yiddish only on our occasional visits to see her mother, who never really learned much English.

    My mother held both BA and MA degrees (this was true for only a very small cohort of women born in 1903/1904–she was never sure which). By the time I traveled with her in Israel (in 1979) she was so deep into senior dementia that she did not recognize her children & grandchildren and often had trouble expressing herself in any language. She probably had not spoken Yiddish since her mother had died in the mid-1950s.

    As we were leaving Israel, we ran into a gentleman at the airport who was having trouble making himself understood by anyone at all. It seems that he spoke only Yiddish. My mother stepped into the fray and served as translator, apparently speaking flawless Yiddish with him and translating what he was saying back into English (despite her own dementia-caused limitations in English).

  23. languagehat said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 8:44 am

    Interesting that North Americans stress the second syllable of Janáček, which makes sense if that's actually the long vowel. My sense is that Australians tend to stress the first syllable and lengthen it accordingly: [ˈjɐː.nɐ.ˌʧek].

    We don't. I was surprised that Julie said that, because I don't think I've ever heard any of my fellow Americans stress the second syllable; it's always the way you describe it (except perhaps with a schwa in the second syllable).

    Incidentally, if anyone's wondering what Julie's name "should" be, it's Šedivá.

  24. John Cowan said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 8:57 am

    I grew up hearing and saying /ˈjɑnətʃɛk/ with proper stress, but vowel length isn't phonemic in NAmE. It is in AusE, though: saying the name as "Yunarcheck" should get the right vowel lengths and qualities.

  25. Bean said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 8:58 am

    This is precisely why I hesitated, the other day, in calling myself a "native Italian speaker", but I decided it was true because I didn't learn the language consciously, through lessons, trapped in a classroom, but in a true immersion situation. I learned it first when I was about four by going for a family visit, and spent Grades One and Two (so, 6-8 years of age) in Italy, in school, with other Italian kids, living my life at home in Italian. (Surrounded also by Sardinian speakers, so I have great comprehension of Sardinian, but can't really string a sentence together, mostly because I haven't tried – the kids just listened when the grownups spoke in Sardinian – no one ever taught us it because it was still considered an inferior dialect at the time – things are different now).

    When we came back to Canada my little brother was four and had forgotten all his English. Then in subsequent years he forgot all his Italian, literally all of it except food words, but re-learned it by going to Italy a few times. However, currently, my Italian vocabulary is much bigger than his, and the grammar (weird verb tenses) come effortlessly to me, compared to him. This has got to have something to do with how old we both were (8 vs 4) when we left, and how we each dredged it up differently when we were young adults. He knows more dirty words than me, having been a teenage boy during some of his visits. :P

    In between those two Italian visits, when I was five, I started French Immersion Kindergarten. One year only, but it's amazing how much I retained so that when I entered the "late immersion" program in Grade Seven I was way, way ahead of the other kids. And by the time I went back to English school in Grade Ten I was very competent, able to challenge all the "core French" exams offered in high school without taking the courses. Then again I set French aside for years. Now my daughter has started immersion, and I also spent a few months working with French Canadian contractors, and it's all coming back to me, obscure verb tenses, vocabulary, colloquial ways to boss kids around, everything, like a spring bubbling up of its own accord. There was also a memorable trip to France in 2002 in which I was surprised at how much useful French I had retained somehow.

    The human mind is amazing in how it stores information.

  26. Mr Punch said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 9:35 am

    My father grew up in Paris speaking French, but as a child he had German-speaking nursemaids. On first meeting, Germans would often take him for a countryman because of his pronunciation – although he did not really know the language at all well.

  27. Julie Sedivy said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    I stand corrected on the NAmE pronunciation of Janáček. Evidently there's more variation that I had thought. I wonder if perhaps musical education is a factor, such that those who are familiar with the composer have a greater awareness of which syllable should bear stress—and then lengthen accordingly. And yes, my name is really Šedivá. Don't forget to place stress on the first syllable, lengthen the last, and palatalize the coronal stop.

  28. Michael Trittipo said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 10:26 am

    Thank you for an enjoyable article. Heritage learners are an interesting class, and certainly do often have "a rather uneven profile of language abilities." And certainly coming back to a language after several years not using it can present some interesting situations.

    Two points gave me pause, however.

    First — the "outlandish case-marking system"? What makes Czech case-marking any more outlandish than the case-marking in any other language with robust declensions? What makes its case-marking more outlandish than that of Polish or Russian? Or more outlandish than say, that of, Hungarian, Finnish, Latin, . . .? Or is "outlandish" a trace of popularizing here, trying to get on the good side of what some hypothetical monolingual English-speaking reader might say of any and all highly inflected languages, that the very notion of declining nouns and adjectives is outlandish (as the typical English-speaking reader may not even notice his or her own vestiges of inflection)? One might as well say French has an outlandish verb system.

    Second — my own experience in Moravia in 2007 found folks rather more accepting and welcoming than the ones noted in this post. Granted, I was mostly in Brno for the month, and folks there are more accustomed to furriners traipsing about, but I never once spoke or felt any pressure to speak English during the time, and often was in shops or restaurants in smaller towns, too. That said, different foreigners' mileage may vary. How else to explain the existence of the campaign called "Češi a cizinci – mluvme spolu," which includes segments like one findable at YouTube by searching for "Američan v české restauraci aneb Nebojme se mluvit česky." (I could give links to the campaign's website and the videos, but am not sure links will post at LL.) My accent is better than that guy's, though, and my vocabulary is extensive enough to read Čapek and Viewegh without a dictionary, so perhaps the folks who met me put me in categories more like those Mira suggests in her comment. :-)

  29. mira said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    I agree with Michael Farris above that the quasi-diglossia situation in Bohemia makes things far worse for foreigners who have learned "spisovna cestina". This is not the case in Moravia, where the dialect is much closer to the standard (at least with regards to the "malej", "mejdlo", "vokno" business).

    A joke: A guy from Prague gets on a tram in Ostrava and it's completely full, the only seat open is next to the window and a man is sitting in the aisle seat. He says to the man, "Posuň se až k voknu" (Move over towards the window). The man doesn't do anything, so he repeats himself: "Heleee, posuň se až k voknu!" The man in the seat turns and says, "No tak už kvokni!" (So cluck already!)

  30. Julie Sedivy said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

    Nice one, Mira! My first linguistics joke in Czech—thanks!

  31. Michael Trittipo said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

    Ah, links are allowed. So to the article's mention of "lack of accommodation or cooperation," here is a page about the campaign mentioned:


  32. John Emerson said,

    April 18, 2015 @ 12:33 am

    I have known at least two first generation Americans (one Swedish, one Arab) whose parents forbade them to try to learn their heritage language, and wouldn't speak it to them. The parents had a real hatred of their Old Countries, for quite understandable reasons.

    I will tell one anecdote for what it's worth. Then I was in college around 1980 I became friends with a guy who had just returned to the US after about 15 years. He had learned Arabic, Persian, and Turkish during that period, and at one time he was teaching Persian to Arabs or Arabics to Iranians, I forget which. My Arabic friends (from Yemen) told me that he spoke Arabic without an accent , or rather, that he spoke with a Gulf States accent but not an American accent.

    I've been told that this almost never happens, and my speculation (for what it's worth) is that constant dope smoking puts you into that receptive childhood state where phonology and prosody are easy to learn.

  33. recovering Magyar said,

    April 18, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    My story is a little different from Julie’s and the others who have recounted theirs in this thread. I was monoglot Hungarian till the age of ten, though obviously aware of other languages (German, Russian). This means that I became literate in Hungarian and the language never disappeared, though it did slide into the background in my early teens while I was acquiring English. This was done via total immersion and for a year or so, I was silent until I had acquired fluency. At home we always spoke Hungarian, so there was a kind of ready-made diglossia around me. In this sense, it was not at any time a heritage language, just another mother tongue, albeit one that was kept in a subaltern state by English.

    The struggle thereafter was twofold – to acquire the same level of high cultural fluency in Hungarian that I had in English and to break out of the rather frozen family Hungarian that had grown largely out of touch with the contemporary language environment. It’s been hard work and it never ends, but it has its own rewards, above all a constant reminder that there are always multiple responses to any situation, that ambiguity is ever present, that the different language communities necessarily mean divergent interpretations of the world.

  34. Nathan said,

    April 18, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    My own submerged Russian story: my mom is Canadian Doukhobor, so I grew up surrounded by a lot of Russian, even though I only learned it in school, and I'm nowhere near fluent. I'll sometimes have dreams where people speak fluent Russian, though, so I was pretty fascinated at the possibility that I subconsciously knew more than I thought. I finally did wake up one morning, remembering the exact Russian words someone had said in my dream, so I could check how good it was. Sure enough: what I'd dreamt was perfect Russian was in fact total gibberish,

  35. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    April 19, 2015 @ 3:13 am

    As someone who spent a goodish chunk of my life teaching Czech to foreigners and then teaching teachers to teach Czech and other languages to foreigners, I'm extremely skeptical of linking the reactivation research to this individual case. I know of many cases of people with some childhood exposure to the language who were not able to (re)acquire it with appreciable ease.

    I would not have predicted the reactivation research results but on balance they are not implausible. However, they do not speak to the question of actually speaking/knowing a language – which is so much more than identifying phonological distinction. We could look for other analogies, closeness of related languages – we can expect to find similar effects there (eg in morphology between Slavonic languages), but it's hardly a case of reactivation.

    It's also a question of how much exposure one had prior to the period of nouse. I doubt Julie would have been able to deal with Czech cases quite as well if she'd last heard Czech when she was 3 years old. Or even if the infamous ř would come to her quite so easily.

    I'm a bit suspicious about the early exposure mysticism that surrounds this (and similar) research. Would it apply to things like smells, as well? But it does reveal some questions around the 'dual articulation' thesis. Also, as this thread suggests, reactivation experiences are quite common – but it's hard to distinguish them from cases of recall of past memories. I've learned quite a few languages very badly when I've worked for the Peace Corps and would visit a country for a month or three. On occasion I would have a chance to come back and experience a period of accelerated reactivation of whatever linguistic skills l'd once possessed. But I doubt that this will be related in any significant way to the reactivation research that's causing so much talk of late.

    However, there seem to be some undoubted effects (albeit of questionable sizes and corresponding cause) that will have to keep us guessing as to the nature of language competence.

  36. Dr. Decay said,

    April 20, 2015 @ 4:39 am

    "… a language is rarely truly forgotten, merely submerged"

    To add to that, here is an experience, not with a forgotten first language, but with a forgotten second language. Like many academic departments the world over, mine here in France frequently hosts foreign professors on sabbatical leave. Most arrive saying either, "I never studied any French" or, "I studied French in high school but after x years of neglect (often x>20), I don't remember anything". When we release these people into the wild, the difference between these two groups is dramatic. The high school french learners become operational (negotiating a trip to the market or the bank) in a month, or at most two. Members of the other group rarely take less that 6 months despite good intentions, french lessons and lots of encouragement. So even learning as a teenager seems to become dormant rather than disappearing.

    It seems like there would be a fairly large sample of such people in the world with which to gather better data on this phenomenon than my little anecdotes.

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