Listen to this essay, narrated by C.S.E. Cooney:
A - Attrition
L1 attrition is the concept that as your second language approaches native-like fluency, your native language—your L1—begins to deteriorate.
B - Bait
Your father tells you he and your mother have decided to sell the house. He tells you this via text message. You haven’t spoken in months. He’s trying to shock you into a response. He texts that if you want to see the house one last time you better do it soon.
C - Compliment
You’ve become uncomfortable thanking people when they tell you how great your English is, how accent-free. Instead, you tell them you’ve lived in the US for twelve years now. You say you grew up speaking German and Russian, so picking up new speech sounds has always been easy for you. You try hard not to sound apologetic.
D - Distance
The number of miles between the house your parents are selling and your own house in which you sit right now is 5,127.
E - Erosion
The German word for language is Sprache. Lose a bit of it and it becomes Rache, which means revenge. Lose just a little more and you’re left with ache.
F - Fortunes
You visit your grandmother in the Ukraine every other childhood summer. One day she says to your mother, when you’re thirteen and in the room, “You can’t rely on this one. She’ll move far away and won’t take care of you.” Her Russian words sound ominous, more prophecy than criticism. You didn’t know that between your sister and you, you’re considered the bad one. Of all the things your grandmother ever says in your presence, this is the only one you’ll remember.
G - Grief
There’s this bit in Paul Auster’s starving-artist memoir where he’s getting ready to make a meal of the last two eggs in his fridge, with no money to buy more, when he drops one of the eggs and it breaks on the dirty hardwood floor of the French farmhouse where he’s living with his girlfriend, an irretrievable loss. The rest of the scene will erode in your memory, but you retain the haunting grief over the egg that broke.
H - Home
The word Fernweh, literally far-ache or distance-ache, means the opposite of homesickness, which is Heimweh, home-ache. It is commonly translated as wanderlust, but you know that’s exactly wrong because there is space between lust and ache, and to lose that space is to understand nothing about the difference between leaving and leaving.
I - Indifference
One of the factors thought to trigger the onset of L1 attrition is integrative motivation: the desire to maintain ones’ cultural ties. The physical distance to the country of your birth and the lack of communication with those who speak your native language may be eating away at your words, but so is, you’re beginning to understand, your own emotional distance. When you first encounter the concept of L1 attrition, there’s relief at having learned the name for the way certain German words and constructions have begun to feel threadbare and slippery. But you quickly realize that naming it doesn’t absolve you of anything, that this, too, is somehow your fault, a punishment for decades of using the language you shared with your parents as a barrier rather than a bridge.
J - Jealousy
You have a hard time deciding how to respond to your father’s message, a harder time cataloging your feelings. You’re dizzy with the vertigo of standing on the cusp of a loss, not wanting to look straight at it. You bristle at the cold way he’s presented you with the information, if you want to see it one last time, not we’d love for you to visit, identifying the potential loss as yours, not theirs. And you can’t escape the hot wire of jealousy, because you know they’ll move closer to your sister, the mother of their only grandchild, and a grandchild trumps anything you have to offer. Which isn’t fair at all: your sister also lives an easy two-hour train ride from their house, while you left them and moved 5,127 miles away.
K - Karma
Your 11th grade English teacher speaks a strange German, slanted somehow and muddy, with a beautiful roundness you will later learn to associate with American English. She’s a native German but got her degree in the US. You remember thinking that she can’t really be German, be really German, can she? Two decades later, you know that people who were born where you were born are likely to think this about you, and it makes you never want to open your mouth again in the country of your birth.
L - Lineage
“This is my punishment for leaving my family. Now you’re leaving me.” You hope every day that your mother has forgotten she ever said this to you, for her sake and yours. Because you could tell she meant it, her Russian words cracking your heart open like an egg.
M - Metaphors
Your past is buried in the rubble of your native tongue. You’re a continent and one of your major languages is dying out because you’re not doing enough to preserve it.
You’re a tectonic plate pushing off into the ocean, crashing into an unfamiliar land mass. The people you leave behind don’t follow: the journey is too long and you don’t have the infrastructure to provide a safe harbor, a soft landing.
N - Name
There are many ways to pronounce your first name, and you don’t intrinsically have one you prefer or consider correct. You’ve lived in many places and each of them brought a new iteration with it.
But also, your mother, your father, and your sister each have their own way of pronouncing it.
This has always been so, but one day you wake up and realize that you really don’t know how to say your own name.
O - Overdue
When Paul Auster is in town for a reading you stand in the long autograph line with your threadbare copy of Hand to Mouth, the ripped-off back cover reattached with scotch tape. “Oh,” he says when he takes the book from you, “That one’s more of a how-not-to.” You can’t tell if he’s amused or a little bit uncomfortable. It’s his final stop on a long tour and maybe this is what he says every time he’s handed his old, self-indulgent memoir. Either way, looking back at your life you can see what he means and wish he’d told you this fifteen years ago.
P - Plot
You’re eleven when your father buys a plot of land one town over, to build a house on. He drives you out there and you and your sister run around the tall grass. There are no houses yet and no streets, only meadows that smell of nearby farms and forest, criss-crossed here and there by the tire tracks of proud future homeowners.
Your father builds the house with his own hands, and one muddy winter day he takes you to visit the half-formed house. You roam the bare construction, climb carefully up a ladder that your father holds steady for you, and emerge through a hole that will later lead to the staircase landing. You stand in the empty box that will become your room until you leave for another country ten years later, the first room that you don’t share with your sister. Wind pours in through the glassless windows and you’re dizzy with the vertigo of future ownership and belonging.
Q - Quiet
L1 attrition produces anxiety and depression in many affected speakers; there are some accounts of selective mutism. Imagine being so distressed over the loss of your native ability that you’d rather not speak at all.
R - Ransom
For days you keep looking at your father’s message, typed out in clunky German, his fourth language after Kurdish and Arabic and Russian. In spite of errors in spelling and grammar, it gets the point across perfectly. They’re selling the house. If you want to see it one last time, you better do it soon. Text and subtext. More ransom note than invitation.
S - Sorry
You’re fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and your mother says, “You should be a lawyer,” bitter and impressed about how you turn every argument in your favor through a vicious twisting of a language that is not her own. Two decades later you don’t think you can win a single argument in German anymore. All you have left are apologies, and you’ve lost the ear to judge whether they sound at all sincere.
T - Trust
Like many children of recent immigrants, you’re on phone pick-up duty throughout your childhood. In the corner of your living room sits a forest green rotary and you hate it. One time you answer the phone in front of your parents and a stranger asks you if you ever touch yourself. Your parents can’t hear him and stare at you bewildered, gesticulating that you have to either speak or hand them the phone. At some point he asks you your name and you tell him, because it’s the only one of his questions that feels safe. When you hang up you tell your parents that you can’t remember the caller’s name and didn’t understand what he wanted, because telling the truth would be too embarrassing and you’re scared that somehow this whole situation is your fault. You get in trouble, because what if the call was important? Three decades later, you can’t really blame your parents. What choice did they have but to lean on the one person in the house who was fluent in this country’s language: their five-year-old kid.
U - Urgency
You’ve been trying to remember how your father says your name when he talks to you. You know how he says it when he talks about you, in both Kurdish and German. But you try to imagine him saying you name to you, subvocalizing over and over, and you can’t.
V - Vanity
The language you share with your parents has become a tin-can telephone. Communication takes effort, and the embarrassment of feeling judged for your imperfect German, even by your non-native-speaker parents, is enough to stop you from trying. Everything you can imagine yourself saying feels unsafe.
W - Wound
You’ve never stopped being angry about your grandmother’s prophecy, even after she died, even when it started coming true. But looking back now you wonder if she hadn’t been talking about you at all, but about her own daughter who lived in a different country far away, who had left her and was never there to take care of her, jabbing at your mother’s homesickness and regret. You’re a family of leavers. And a family of jabbers.
X - Xenoglossophobia
The fear of foreign languages is called xenoglossophobia, but what is the fear of your own language becoming foreign? You’re nowhere near the point of irretrievably losing your German, but you can tell you’re past the point of being rusty.
L1 attrition is believed to be reversible. If you visited home more often, if you started picking up the phone, if you made more of an effort to maintain your cultural ties. If you tried harder. If you tried.
Y - Yesterday
You don’t respond to your father’s message and you don’t fly home for a visit, and now the house is sold. You don’t know how much you’ll end up regretting that you didn’t go to see the house one last time. It’s too soon to tell; they only handed over the keys yesterday.
Z - Zero-sum
Sometimes you acquire native-like abilities in a second language and you realize too late that what you’ve traded in for it was your past. Sometimes you meet the favorite author of your youth and driving home you wonder if he’s a little bit embarrassed to have written a self-indulgent memoir and subtitling it A Chronicle of Early Failure. Sometimes you buy your first home, a one-story cookie-cutter number on a better street in a poor neighborhood and you live there for three years before you sell it and move to another state, and the biggest loss about the whole thing is that your parents, even after multiple invitations, didn’t come to see it even once. You tell yourself you will visit them in their new home. You know that time, too, has a tendency to evaporate when you’re not looking straight at it, and what you fear most is running out of time while you’re 5,127 miles away, when it’s been years since you last held your parents. That, more than your words back, is what you desperately want: to hold them and to be held, like a meadow breath, a last, precious egg.