Foreword Reviews

Starred Review:

Memory Speaks

On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self

A psycholinguist and a Czech immigrant to Canada, Julie Sedivy lost her first language, so much so that her “Czech heritage began to feel more and more like a vestigial organ.” She is not alone in this experience: Generation 1.5 immigrants are the most likely to forget their native languages, she writes. Pivoting what’s personal into a larger academic inquiry, Memory Speaks is a deep text that investigates how language functions as a dynamic, organic entity, with a life cycle that mirrors the environmental pressures of its speakers.

Using Sedivy’s loss as an entry point, the book examines linguistic life spans in communities around the world, considering both individual speakers and their greater communal and social contexts from three vantages: why languages wither, personally and collectively; how and why language so often defines a boundary between identities; and the possibilities for linguistic revival for individuals and communities. It positions English as an invasive linguistic force, showing how its dominance in media, entertainment, and business as the “language of success” contributes to rapid language die-off and increasing monolingualism. But Sedivy notes that the pattern, which would hold true for any language that fulfilled these criteria, can also be applied to ensure a language’s success.

Sedivy’s approach is humanist, showing that language functions as both an art and a science, indivisible from its speakers and the human consequences of linguistic die-off. Whether displayed through an Indigenous speaker’s mourning when no other native speakers survive, or in the code-switching done between household and public lives in immigrant families, the book unveils the larger ecosystems that language encodes.

With implications for communities and identities, Memory Speaks is an astute linguistic investigation, showing that language is something both in people and of them.

Reviewed by Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. No fee was paid by the publisher for this review. Foreword Reviews only recommends books that we love. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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