“Memory Speaks,” published by Harvard University Press, is a unique autobiography by the linguist, Julie Sedivy. The author chronicles the author’s linguistic journey of recovering her mother tongue, the native Czech language, through memories.
Like many immigrant children, Julie Sedivy did not know she was leaving behind her home and homeland forever when she accompanied her family for a weekend trip. It was the late 1960s, and Sedivy was only four years old.
The Soviet tanks had entered her country and city just a few days earlier. It was the time of what later became known as the Prague Spring.
Leaving Home For A Weekend To Never Return
Sedivy’s family planned their departure from the turbulent times by getting visit visas to Austria. The family packed three days’ worth of stuff, food, and clothes into their small car.
They didn’t want to risk bringing large amounts of cash, family photos, or anything one wouldn’t take on a weekend getaway. As Sedivy’s family crossed the border and entered Austria, young Julie Sedivy was surrounded by a foreign language – a phenomenon that would continue for the rest of her life.
As Sedivy’s parents tried hiding their Czech status, they only continued speaking in their mother tongue in private. As a result, young Julie soon lost her grip on her mother tongue.
Realizing The Loss Of Mother Tongue
Studies have shown that relearning one’s mother tongue is much easier than learning a new language. As a grown woman, Julie Sedivy experienced it for herself when she revisited her homeland after decades.
After staying in Austria for months, Sedivy’s family learned they could officially resettle in Canada. The family flew to Canada soon, where Julie was enrolled in a preschool.
Growing up and learning in Canada, Julie's mind replaced her mother tongue with French and English. Though like all immigrant parents, Sedivy’s parents also felt comfortable speaking Czech at home, she responded and initiated conversations in French and English.
Decades later, Sedivy’s father went back to his homeland, never being able to fully feel at home in Canada. As an immigrant child growing up in Canada, Sedivy had become more comfortable in the languages of her new home and has forgotten her mother tongue.
On the other hand, Julie Sedivy became so fluent in English and French that she became a linguistics professor in the US and Canada. The loss of the Czech language didn’t become clear to her until the loss of her father.
Memory Speaks: Reclaiming Mother Tongue Without Relearning It
After her father passed away, Sedivy made sure to visit her homeland every year or so. She described hearing Czech spoken out loud at the airport just as she had landed as “something that literally sent shivers all through my body.”
Sedivy described “smelling” things in Czech, translating them into English, and other similar surreal experiences. She recounted her journey of re-exposure to her mother tongue and rediscovering her Czech identity in her book “Memory Speaks,” published by Harvard University Press.