This article for published first in Translorial, the magazine of the Northern California Association of Translators,
and then reprinted in PLD Data Magazine, the Portuguese Language Division of the American Translators Association (ATA).


  To be born once is no more miraculous than to be born twice.

            I realized for the first time that I was beginning to lose my native language about 12 years ago, while listening to a Czech TV announcer on a San Francisco TV channel (channel 26). This is a channel catering to linguistically diverse audiences in the salad bowl that is the San Francisco Bay Area. The announcer was speaking Czech, a language that I grew up speaking and used to express what I was thinking and feeling for the first 29 years of my life. I could understand every single word that was coming out of the mouth of that TV announcer, but for some reason, the language that I heard in that moment had an artificial, funny sound to it and to my surprise I found the sound of it mildly irritating to my ears.

            Puzzled and disoriented, I switched to a Chinese TV channel to hear a differently sounding language and test it on my ears, then to English, and then to Czech again. I remember how baffled I was when I realized that I was beginning to lose the feeling for my first language. It was a confusing, yet not a completely unpleasant realization. After all, one reason why I left my homeland as a young man was to learn other languages as fluently as possible. Was this perhaps a sign that I was beginning to approach my goal? We can only learn other languages by using those other languages rather then our own native language. But our native tongue is like an atom bomb during a nuclear conflict - you either use it, or you lose it. In a way, we cannot really learn another language until we start forgetting the first one. It’s like falling in love again - it can happen again only when we have forgotten what it felt like the last time around.

            Every foreign language has a unique sound giving it a different quality that other languages do not have. Our ears are usually finely attuned to pick up the different, peculiar pitch of those foreign sounds, but we don’t really hear the sounds of our own language because we are surrounded by it all the time. It is hard to see a tree in the middle of a thick forest. When I asked a native English speaker a quarter century ago what Czech language sounded like to her, she said that Czech to her is a “shi-shi-shoo-shi” sound. I guess its sounds like a goulash made of sibilants and unpronounceable groups of mine fields called consonants. A fascinating phonological insight from across the English Channel! (or La Manche, depending on your native language).

            Chinese to me, once a native Czech speaker, presently a non-native speaker in several languages including Czech, sounds like the howling of a wolf. Those falling and rising Chinese tones sound so exotic, dangerous, and strangely inviting to my ears. Why is it that none of European languages takes advantage of tones the way Chinese or Vietnamese does? Why leave an entire sonic dimension of a language unexplored and wasted? The best way to build the Wall of China around your civilization to protect it from invading barbarians is probably to combine 5 or 6 falling and rising tones and reinforce the wall with a few thousand complicated ideographs expressing those exotic but melodious howls of Chinese. Is that how and why the Chinese language was created in this manner?

            I know a lot of people who have no native language anymore. I believe that it is in fact true that you can only be really native in a language if it is the only language that you know. As soon as you become quite fluent in an additional language, your first language will be tainted by your second one. Conversely, you cannot really become fluent in another language unless you start forgetting your original language. This is, incidentally, a theory that many immigrant parents in America subscribe to. Especially Japanese mothers seem to think that the brain of a child is not big enough to hold comfortably both Japanese and English. If you try to put both languages in that cramped space, one of them will be flawed. And since English is much more important than Japanese in this country, they simply do away with Japanese.

            I personally believe that even if it were true that you can be really fluent only in one language, you are much better off if you can speak two or three or more languages, even if all of those languages will be necessarily flawed as a result of your somewhat excessive attempt at linguistic cross-dressing. This difference of opinion in our house is probably just another symptom of the terrible clash between the Japanese culture of my wife and the Bohemian tradition of her husband. The Japanese believe that you should speak and write only one language if you want to speak and write it really well. The Czechs have an untranslatable proverb that says that you are a human being as many times as many languages you know. (Kolik jazyku znas, tolikrat jsi clovekem). If you know only one language, you are alive only once. If you know two languages, you are alive twice, you have two lives and two souls. As far as I know, there is no similar Japanese proverb.

            I also believe that this notion of native fluency should be considered in context rather than as an absolute. Isn’t it true that basically all books about science were written a few hundred years ago in most of Europe in a language that was dead, at that point about a thousand year dead? How can you be fluent in a language that has not been used by anybody except scholars and priest for centuries?

            I read in a newspaper about a Hungarian man who was kept in Russia as a prisoner of war for 55 years. Because he never learned Russian, he could not communicate with anybody. It seems to me that he was really a prisoner of his native language. Nobody around him even knew that he was Hungarian. He eventually returned to Hungary, which must have been a completely foreign country to him after all those years. Now this is clinging on to one’s native accent a little bit too much. After all, our languages and accents are only a means of communication. As long as we understand what is going on in the world around us and as long as we can express what we want to say, our language or accent is really not all that important. But do we really understand what is going on in the world around us, regardless of our language? And even if we did and if we had something to say in a language that others could understand, would anybody listen?

            Small children do not distinguish between nativeness and non-nativeness at all because they regard all languages as one before the part of their brain that is processing linguistic information becomes fully developed. They sort of throw all words into one place, the way they throw impatiently toys and dirty clothes on their bed to run out and play some more with other children. I used to have a childhood friend whose grandparents were German. His grandmother never learned Czech because the small town where I grew up in Southern Bohemia was about half German and half Czech before World War II, although very few Germans were allowed to stay after the war. Because my friend Vasek used to spend every summer with his grandparents when he was a child, every summer he would learn enough German to communicate with his grandmother, only to forget it during the rest of the year when he was away from his grandmother. By the time he was about 13 his parents were complaining that this is not good for his native fluency in Czech and his poor grandmother had to learn broken Czech to communicate with Vasek. By the time Vasek was 15, he did not know a single word of German.

            When I lived in San Francisco, we had a Chinese babysitter named Mrs.Took who was regularly babysitting my son Andy. This meant that Andy, who was about 2 or 3 years old at that time, lived part of the day completely surrounded by Chinese environment where all the adults and all other children spoke only Chinese to each other. I watched with utter amazement when Mrs. Took would say something in Chinese to Andy and Andy would respond just like a Chinese kid. Mrs. Took would say something completely incomprehensible to me, Andy would walk to a chair, bring her his jacket, and Mrs. Took would zip up Andy’s jacket. Andy was too small to zip up his own jacket, but not too small to learn Chinese. But once he was no longer going to Mrs. Took’s apartment, he had no use any more for Chinese and forgot completely every word of a language that became useless to him, just like my friend Vasek. Well, he knows one Chinese word, “Wa-Wa”, which is what Mrs. Took used to call his stuffed penguin. I thought that Wa-Wa means penguin in Chinese, but I found out that it actually means a “doll”. As Andy does not need to hold his Wa-Wa any more when he goes to sleep, Wa-Wa is forgotten somewhere on the bottom of a box of old toys and so, unfortunately, is Andy’s Chinese.

            Once puberty strikes and raging hormones take over a child’s body and soul, the native language is stored fairly safely in one part of the brain and other languages will be stored in a different part. That is, according to scientists, one reason why it is much more difficult for adults to learn a foreign language than for children. You have to go to a different part of the brain every time you try to speak a different language and that’s a lot of extra work.

            Which brings us to the topic of adults, such as this eternal teenager, who do not speak their original language any more since not even their immediate family members speak their native language. The only logical conclusion, based on the results obtained in scientific experiments when electrodes were placed on various lobes of the brain to measure the response of “little grain cells” of native and non-native speakers when words were spoken in different languages, is that my brain and the brains of  people who use mostly their non-native languages in everyday life probably looks like scrambled eggs. Everything is kind of mixed together. Or perhaps there are slightly different connections in the part of the brain that processes linguistic information in people like me, unlike in people who mostly speak in their native language?

            It’s hard to say. I realize that English is not my native language and never really will be. There will always be fine details that will probably remain beyond my grasp in a non-native language. That is one reason why I decided to translate for a living mostly Japanese and German patents. (Although the main one, of course, was that it pays better than other types of translation). But your native fluency is less important in this type of translation than for instance when you are translating novels. “Patentese” is a very rigid language using the same constructions, often ad absurdum, in order to create a description and lay a claim to an innovative technological step, sometime an imaginary one. The same principles operate in Japanese, German, Czech or English. No matter which sphere of technology a patent translator is dealing with, it is very helpful if the translator has a solid knowledge of Latin and Greek, as well as some classical Chinese in case of translators from Japanese, when the translator is looking for a proper term that perhaps is yet to be coined in English. Who has the time and resources to study all these things in America where it is common knowledge that there is no money in languages, unlike for instance in the law or dentistry? I personally believe that a thorough linguistic education is as a very important part of the required training for patent translator, as important as their native or close to native fluency in the target language and their understanding of the subject at hand. Technical specialists who are not really linguists are more often than not poor translators. But that would be a different story and a different article.

            The fact is that I don’t really have a native language any more or a single country that I could call my home. And I don’t see why I should. When I am in California or Virginia, I often feel that I am a Czech because I sometime perceive things differently than most Americans. When I am back in Prague or my hometown in Southern Bohemia, I feel that I am an American because I definitely perceive the same reality quite differently from people around me who speak my formerly native language.

            In a way, I am carrying my native language and my native country in my heart and in my brain. That is where my nativeness resides. And when I die, my country and my language will die with me.

            And another child will be born somewhere, unhappy with having only one language, one culture, one country, and one life, and he or she will in his or her own way discover the greatest adventure all: another language, another country, and another life as I did.

            Because to be born twice is a little bit more miraculous than to be born once,
 which is probably what Voltaire meant.


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