What It’s Like to Lose Your First Language

Trying to understand Sinhala now feels like flexing a phantom limb

Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
.
Ghost Language
Art and words by Hasanthika Sirisena
A year and a half after my mother's death, I was driving home with my father when he suddenly spoke to me in Sinhala.
"Api...gethera...katha...karana...therenne"
"What?"
My father hadn't spoken to me in my native language since I was six years old, and I always thought he was disappointed in me or that he'd forgotten I once spoke it.
I think this was some sort of test. Maybe because I was surprised, or maybe because I was also embarrassed, it took me too long to understand what he was saying.
When I was six, my English teacher asked my parents to stop speaking to me in my first language. 
[Picture of Hasanthika as a six-year-old]
Teacher, offscreen:"Well, Mrs. Sirisena, she's very quiet in class."
The writer A.M. Dell'oso in her story "English as a Sekon Langwidge" writes about what it was like at the time: "The assimilation... was a savage process which forced us to prove between the brutalities of the useful and the useless." Useful: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Russian (until 1990), Mandarin Chinese. Useless: Almost all of the 6,492 other languages spoken in the world.
My mother still sometimes spoke to me in Sinhala. Even though I understood I wouldn't speak it. This hurt her most when strangers asked why she hadn't taught me.
Hasanthika's mother, offscreen: "Oyaa thawma laesthi naethe?" 
Hasanthika, as a preteen: "I'm ready!"
[Next panel]
A woman with long dark hair: "She speaks only one language?"
A man in an orange robe: "It is her mother tongue?"
A man in a polo shirt: "My kids speak three languages fluently."
After my mother's death, I streamed Sinhala movies to hear the language though I didn't understand what they were saying.
Sometimes I dream in Sinhala, but I don't know if what people are saying really makes sense. When I focus, I can hear the sound of the words in my head, but I stumble when I try to speak. It's strangely painful like a phantom limb.
Scientists say there is a process to how you lose a language. It's called first language attrition. First you lose the words. Then you lose the grammar. Last, you lose the sound. But scientists don't believe the language is completely lost.
A process like hypnosis, for example, might be used to help recall.

Stop! I don't want my first language back.
W.S. Merwin has a poem called "Losing a Language." It's not about losing your first language. It's an older artist talking to a younger artist. It's a curmudgeonly poem, but I understand it. I understand the anger and the disappointment Merwin feels. "Many of the things the words were about / no longer exist" "The children will not repeat / the phrases their parents speak"
My remaining family and my friends don't speak Sinhala. Learning it now will only remind me that I cannot speak it to my mother and that my father, who had a stroke four years ago, cannot comprehend what I am saying. The language belongs now to a person I might have been.
And, when my father passes, I'll have lost the last reason to remember.
[Portraits of Hasanthika as a baby with her parents, labeled Amma (mother) and Thatha (father)]

More Like This

The Day She Met Dad, and Other Memories I Store for My Mother

“Labor Date, 1958,” a comic by G. H. Yamauchi

Jan 7 - G. H. Yamauchi

The Secret Origins of Amy March (Which Might Make You Hate Her a Little Less)

The much-reviled youngest sister from “Little Women” is more sympathetic when you know about the woman she’s based on

Aug 10 - kategavino

14 Diverse Graphic Novels About Coming of Age

A broad range of perspectives on the drama of becoming an adult

Mar 16 - Jo Lou
Thank You!