Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (Hardback)
  • Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (Hardback)

Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (Hardback)

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Hardback 368 Pages
Published: 19/10/2021
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From an award-winning writer and linguist, a scientific and personal meditation on the phenomenon of language loss and the possibility of renewal.

As a child Julie Sedivy left Czechoslovakia for Canada, and English soon took over her life. By early adulthood she spoke Czech rarely and badly, and when her father died unexpectedly, she lost not only a beloved parent but also her firmest point of connection to her native language. As Sedivy realized, more is at stake here than the loss of language: there is also the loss of identity.

Language is an important part of adaptation to a new culture, and immigrants everywhere face pressure to assimilate. Recognizing this tension, Sedivy set out to understand the science of language loss and the potential for renewal. In Memory Speaks, she takes on the psychological and social world of multilingualism, exploring the human brain’s capacity to learn—and forget—languages at various stages of life. But while studies of multilingual experience provide resources for the teaching and preservation of languages, Sedivy finds that the challenges facing multilingual people are largely political. Countering the widespread view that linguistic pluralism splinters loyalties and communities, Sedivy argues that the struggle to remain connected to an ancestral language and culture is a site of common ground, as people from all backgrounds can recognize the crucial role of language in forming a sense of self.

Distinctive and timely, Memory Speaks combines a rich body of psychological research with a moving story at once personal and universally resonant. As citizens debate the merits of bilingual education, as the world’s less dominant languages are driven to extinction, and as many people confront the pain of language loss, this is badly needed wisdom.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674980280
Number of pages: 368
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm


At once an eloquent memoir, a wide-ranging commentary on cultural diversity, and an expert distillation of the research on language learning, loss, and recovery. - The Economist

Engrossing and poignant. - Irina Dumitrescu, Times Literary Supplement

Engagingly describes the disorienting and sometimes shattering experience of feeling one’s native language atrophy as a new language takes hold…[A] beautifully written book…Sedivy elegantly captures why the language(s) we use are so dear to us and how they play a central role in our identities. If we believe multilingualism is valuable, then we must work to preserve language contexts while embracing linguistic diversity. - Fernanda Ferreira, Science

As a child trying to fit in with her new surroundings, Sedivy quickly forgot much of her Czech…Relearning Czech as an adult offered redemption, and Sedivy’s book is in part an account of how through that act of learning she has found ways to bind disparate aspects of her identity…Beyond the striking anecdotes from her own biography, Sedivy’s book is at its best when she brings insights from psycholinguistics to the page. - Gavin Francis, New York Review of Books

In this insightful and informative analysis, Julie Sedivy examines what happens to memory, dreams, and even the sense of self when you enter another language. It is a book which speaks to the condition of countless people who have changed language and culture in our globalized world. - Eva Hoffman, author of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

Julie Sedivy’s book is not just a study of what it means to cradle more than one language or more than one culture, perhaps even more than one identity—it is a profound elegy to memories that endure despite displacement and the many time zones that define our lives. - André Aciman, author of Homo Irrealis: Essays

[A] moving and deeply personal account…Sedivy also makes a case for saving endangered languages…The connection between language and memory is…beautifully rendered…An astute, thoughtful volume. - Publishers Weekly

With implications for communities and identities, Memory Speaks is an astute linguistic investigation, showing that language is something both in people and of them. - Foreword Reviews (starred review)

One of the finest books I have ever read about language: a wise and humane amalgam of poetry and scientific rigor, rooted in Julie Sedivy’s deeply-felt personal experience. Full of compassion and sharp-edged insights, Memory Speaks will touch all of us who care about the tongues we speak and about the countless tongues now falling into oblivion. - Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages

At last, a go-to book on bilingualism and why it matters. One part science and one part personal history, Sedivy’s book guides us through the eternal question of how we handle two or more languages. It leaves us monolinguals looking deprived rather than as the default. - John H. McWhorter, author of Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter—Then, Now, and Forever

Beautifully told. It is also packed with a tour of the science on bilingualism, in which [Sedivy] is an expert, as well as the controversial topic of how one’s native language influences thought. As if that were not enough for this fascinating book, she…illuminates what is lost when a language dies. - The Economist

Fascinating…In a panoramic vista of how we inhabit language and how it inhabits us, with openness and curiosity, Sedivy studies the process of losing one’s language and also provides several paths to reviving and reclaiming one’s lost self. - Aqsa Ijaz, Dawn

A graceful blend of personal memoir with the author’s scholarly field of psycholinguistics, Memory Speaks offers generalist readers an opportunity to appreciate the marvelous complexity of human language—an ancient technology that our digital age’s most hyped AI, telematics and algorithms have yet to match. You don’t need to be an academic linguaphile—or even an everyday Wordle enthusiast—to reap rewards from this provocative book. - Christine Wiesenthal, Alberta Views

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A scholarly tome that reads like a doctoral thesis. This does not minimize its value, but does lessen its use by many who need it most. Bottom line is that there are too many languages being lost globally, but the... More

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