“The condition we call exile is, first of all, a linguistic event,” wrote Joseph Brodsky, the famed Russian-American poet expelled from the Soviet Union who went on to become the United States’ Poet Laureate in 1991, the year the USSR fell and my family and I left Soviet Ukraine for the American Midwest. Like many in the diaspora following perestroika, we arrived with political refugee status in one of the most significant immigration floods of the 20th century following the Second World War.
Sponsored by a Jewish community in Wisconsin (I was seven, my brother 12), I was placed in an Orthodox Jewish school, where I gulped up English and Hebrew as quick as I could; and, sure enough, the growing mind, an organ without borders, I was trilingual within a couple of years — albeit a horribly lopsided tri-. I teetered upon these three languages, my literacy and lexicon swaying from month to month, year to year. After three years in the Orthodox Jewish school, I was put into a public school, where my English continued to excel, though my Hebrew began peeling (even though I spent my summers with my grandparents who had immigrated to Israel, we spoke mainly Russian with them and within the Soviet-immigrés bubble there).
I hopscotched easily in my juvenescence from one language to another, and in both inmy Israeli and Wisconsin homes, I felt fluency in the fluidity between languages rather than within each one. The Hebrew word avatiach (watermelon) made my mouth instantly salivate. Yet nothing was quite as satisfying to my spiky adolescence as the English word “whatever”. And there wasn’t a more adamant way of expressing my immediate preference than with the Russian verb khotet (to want): da ya khochu, net, ne-khochu — Yes, I want it, No, I don’t want it.
I had no awareness that what I was doing was “multi-lingual” and took it for granted that these languages would always be available to me. It wasn’t until decades later, in my 30s, after I had immigrated on my own back to Europe (Paris, France) and became naturalised French, that I stumbled upon a recording of myself, barely seven, in the Soviet Union, right before we left. I’m chirping away poems, songs, wishes — it was a cassette we made for my grandparents in Israel. I listened to that little girl’s voice speaking in Russian, and my throat closed. I remember squinting, not to make tears, but to keep from fainting. All the blood was leaving me, I felt, from my veins, and from my lineage. That distant voice, I heard it as if hearing a recording of a child I had once mothered, now deceased.
The progressive loss of a language, known as language attrition, is not only all too common in our current era of immigration, but an unspoken death that we don’t know how to grieve. Losing one’s mother tongue, or “first language attrition”, not only signifies the severing of ties to our sense of personal history and heritage, but the dislocation of the very fundamental units of being that make up our identity. “Our first language represents certain values, like safety, childhood, and even our more “primitive” feelings… like being shocked, angry, or scared,” Elin Asklöv explains in her essay on navigating bilingualism, “Code-Switching”; losing access to that language can feel like those primary reflexes are stunted, denied, eradicated.
I felt fluency in the fluidity between languages rather than within each one
In Russian, “Motherland” is Rodina, the root word rod meaning birth — the mass or territory that gives birth. From this same word we get rodnaya/rodnoy — darling. To have been someone’s darling and to be no longer… And yet, the language isn’t gone. It is, rather, away, like a missing person, with no body to claim, an oscillation of faith. My parents still only speak Russian to me and I understand them without a hitch. I can watch TV or movies in Russian, no problem. But I read and write at the pace of a child and when it comes to speaking, I find myself hot-cheeked and mute. At times it is because I cannot find my words. At others, it is because I’m disoriented by the speaker who is uttering them.
Monika Schmid, a professor in linguistics at University of Essex who has written extensively about language attrition, explains that the experience of this phenomenon is “quite similar to the changes in language use often found in the very early stages of dementia.” Admittedly, they are completely different cognitive processes, but they do share those unbearable symptoms of terror, disorientation, and the feeling of utter abandonment.
Unlike neurological diseases, however, language attrition is an oddly lucid experience of loss, and one that is kept meticulously alive with self-blame for the impairment. As early as my teens, I could feel my mother tongue slipping away. And all I did was help it along. How hard I worked to shed all Slavicisms from myself, to become that soap-scented citizen with minty breath, good teeth, and frizz-free hair. (I even named my first pet, a lop-eared bunny, after America’s first President, George Washington, in the hopes of fitting in — only to find my choice of name mocked at school. But to my young, Soviet-bred mind, what better way to pay homage to one’s country?)
The red scare mentality was still alive and well in 1990s Wisconsin. I felt it when I pressed my small body against the school bus window, as a whole busload of kids chanted at me, “Go back to Russia!” I’m not even from Russia, I wanted to explain, I’m from Ukraine… Ignorance aside, however, this geographical complexity was another deep disturbance within my Slavic identity, as I’m from the Russian-speaking city Kharkov/Kharkiv in the East, so I never got to learn my country’s true native tongue, Ukrainian. Or later, in my American History class, when the teacher called on me to explain the Cold War to the room, as I must surely know a good deal about it. I was 12.
Language attrition is an oddly lucid experience of loss, and one that is kept meticulously alive with self-blame for the impairment
The particularity of immigrant children like myself is that we were not only traversing one language to another, but from the old (Eastern) world into the new (Western) one, and — this was the most crucial for us — from childhood to adulthood, all simultaneously. The ways that we translated these identities was weighted down by the stakes that integration held. Some families bound together within communities where their original language and culture could co-exist with the American lifestyle. But my family was a lone wolf. I didn’t have a Russian-speaking community wherein to take cover. The priority for us was to assimilate as quickly as possible. For the adults it meant: find a job, get the green card, apartment, medical coverage, children enrolled in school, etc. And for the children it meant: gain access to American puberty.
In my teens, I wanted to become an actress. I polished my English to sound exactly like the actors I saw on TV. I drove around in my blue Toyota Corolla (license plate: OPHEL1A) to every audition I could find. I remember how it felt to be in the car, repeating my lines over the radio tunes, enunciating with pristine diction. I would have traded every last trace of my Russianness with any devil that came my way back then. When I realised I wanted my Russian back, I felt like a traitor who had no right to call upon the language she herself had denounced.
My grandfather, my last relative of that generation, passed away this year, two weeks before his 96th birthday. A Russian literature and language teacher during his time, he had always disciplined us to communicate with utmost delicacy and reverence for language. I was so ashamed, all that rubble on my tongue, trying to express to him the things he would soon take to his grave. When I received the news of his death, I felt a dual grief — for the departed person, and for a departing language. He was the last person with whom I spoke only Russian, as he didn’t speak English.
There are, of course, paths to re-learning a language, courses, re-immersion. But, in the end, the grieving is not so much for that language, as for the person who has lost it, for their sadness, embarrassment, nostalgia, and fright. It is for the exiled darling, that missing person who looks back at us in the mirror.