Language Attrition and Transmission

Apparently Leanne Hinton, from whom I took an American Indian Languages class, wrote some years ago about the Asian immigrant language experience. It’s hard for me to understand how people lose their languages, since my parents did a pretty good job, I think, better than a whole lot of people, of transmitting Cantonese to me in the stream of the development of Chinese across the centuries. Yes, I need help to understand some of the stylized language in Cantonese operas, since it’s a neoclassical Cantonese that uses a vastly different vocabulary from what I normally use, but for the most part my command of Cantonese is decent enough that my linguistic roadblocks aren’t usually noticeable.

I am, however, only semi-literate in Chinese, despite having been in Chinese school for 13 years. I’ll tell you why: I didn’t study, and my Mandarin never actually got good. Still, determined not to be completely out of the loop and interested in classical Chinese and its literature, I took classical Chinese for two semesters. Nevertheless, I can feel my Chinese slipping the longer I have no occasion to speak a varied Cantonese on a daily basis. It would be quite frustrating to experience language attrition now, since I’ve been able to hold up for so long without major problems with my Cantonese.

I’ll be on the immigrant end of that experience in ten years’ time: when I am, I’ll be struggling to do it right. No, Cantonese is in no danger of falling completely out of use within my lifetime, but I judge so many to be semi-speakers only, or uncultured market fishmongers, that I, even I, feel as if I must be a guardian of what I have received. Many times in a sea of savage lives sanitized in capitalism or socialism I feel I alone have the power and the charge to be one who does not submit to the inexorable demands of a world that loves the present, idolizes the future that it believes it can engineer and ignores the past, yet tells itself that its own experience is superior to that of the past.

In the face of that I laugh and I grieve. I take no delight in the roughshod trampling over of things that are worth keeping. It is in protest that I keep my 1950s pronunciation of Cantonese, in protest that I, though proficient enough in English, keep most of my English out of my Cantonese, in protest that I do not speak like someone straight out of the pop culture of the season.

At the same time, there’s always that urge to avoid parochialism and do more than just Chinese: God knows I have interests in many other languages too because of their fundamental differences from English and Chinese. I’m drawn to Wintu because of its way of viewing (grammatical) number, having a distinction that isn’t singular and plural; to Muskogean languages because of their active-stative polypersonal verb agreement; to Chukchi because of its extensive incorporation of words; to Nuuchahnulth because of its lexical class fluidity; and to various American languages of the Pacific coast because of their rich “directional prefixes”.

Am I a dinosaur for hating the extinction of what is not valued because it is no longer clear that it is immediately useful? Am I an old geezer for often conceiving of “now” as the fifty years before and fifty years after the time of speaking? I like to think I’m just not as wantonly destructive as the people I see around me. Is it too much to ask to expect people to try to lengthen their attention spans and think about life in a sacramental and not a utilitarian way?


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