Can a person have more than one native language?, part 2

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Based on these two tweets, this 85-year-old Swedish woman has at least two native tongues:

Since the videos are conveniently provided with English and Chinese subtitles, you can follow what she is saying.

Hannah is speaking in the topolect of Wuzhai (Wǔzhài 五寨 ["Five Villages"]), a county of northwestern Shanxi province, China under the administration of Xinzhou City.  She was born in Wuzhai County in 1933 and left at the age of 13.

Recently, Hannah recorded a video in a pure and authentic Wuzhai topolect, telling stories she had heard and singing songs she had learned as a child.

Judging from the mastery of Wuzhai topolect displayed by Hannah in this video, it is one of her native languages.  I should add that many distinguished Sinologists, authors, and diplomats who were born in towns and villages spread all across China, but who came to America for their higher education and careers, retained the Sinitic language of their birth into adulthood, and made good use of it in their research and writing, e.g.:

Pearl Buck (1892-1973) — born in America, but grew up in China from the age of 5 months

Ida Pruitt (1888-1985)

George Kennedy (1901-1960)

Hellmut Wilhelm (1905-1990)

James R. Lilley (1928-2009)

David Tod Roy (1933-2016)

J. Stapleton Roy (b. 1935)

Carma Hinton (b. 1949)

Language Log readers will be able to add many other names to this list, not just for China, but for numerous other countries as well.



"Can a person have more than one native language?" (4/26/19)

"How to maintain first and second language skills" (4/25/19)


[h.t. Jichang Lulu]


  1. cliff arroyo said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 2:01 am

    I keep having the feeling that two things are being confused, acquisition and cultivation.

    Leaving aside writing for a moment…

    Acquisition: Is a language picked up naturally from the child being in an environment where it is naturally used (both to the child and to others in the environment).

    Cultivation: Has a language been cultivated (fex in a formal system of education) so that the speaker can speak easily on any subject and the speaker has intuitions that are in line with educated speakers of the language.

    Lots of children acquire a language (or languages) natively but for whatever reason that knowledge is not cultivated and so they have underdeveloped vocabularies and may not be comfortable talking about some topics or they don't have access to formal registers.

    Similarly lots of people don't acquire a language natively but it in the context of formal education and then end up cultivating that language more so that it becomes their dominant mode of expression and have more finely developed vocabularies and greater access to formal registers in the non-native language than in the native langauge.

    "Native speaker" has come to refer to a person who has acquired a language naturally and then cultivated it in the context of an educational system. But again, the two things don't necessarily go together.

    What happens with the Chinese example from the previous post is people confusing acquisition and cultivation and thinking (for example) that since Mandarin is the child's native language it doesn't need special cultivation and so priority in cultivation is given to another language and one result ends up being odd gaps in the native language.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 3:32 am

    Cliff — ("fex in a formal system of education"). What did you mean/intend by "fex" ?

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 3:45 am

    fex = for example (an idiosyncratic abbreviation o fmine)

  4. John Swindle said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 4:49 am

    I don't get what her two native tongues are. Wuzhai and Putonghua? Although she says her spoken Chinese is Wuzhai. They describe her as Swedish, and she says she's not Chinese. Has she been to Sweden? Maybe she also speaks Swedish! Maybe she's IN Sweden, for that matter, and went there when she left Wuzhai and Ningwu at 13.

  5. Tim Morris said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 3:18 pm

    Very well put, cliff arroyo – I think you have defined a vital distinction. Any number of academics cultivate a non-native language to a degree where they can more be authoritative about some aspect of that language, especially its standard and/or literary forms, than a lot of native speakers. They might still defer to native speakers about many other aspects of that language; but any given language is a complicated mix of codes.

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