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From the Editor

Return of the Pensative Daughter: Survival English

Reprinted from the Spring 2011 MLA Newsletter

What happens when we lose a language? I don’t mean in the sense of forgetting a heritage language or never learning it well. My mother lost her mother tongue that way: a child in arms when she passed through Ellis Island in the 1920s, she spoke Sicilian when she was little, then learned English like a native, gradually ceding her grasp of the language that bound her to her parents. Even in her last years, despite dementia, she could remember some phrases in Sicilian, most of them related to her mother’s cooking or to her father’s colorful blasphemies. My route was overland: I lost partial command of my native language when I acquired Spanish at age sixteen during a year in Guatemala. So complete was my transformation from gringa to chapina that, on returning to the United States, I found I could no longer speak English—or English only.

Reverse culture shock is a well-documented phenomenon that happens to those who, having made the long and difficult adaptation to a new culture and language, subsequently find themselves going through the unexpected repetition of that adjustment process when they return to their place of origin. The academic community has paid attention to the experience with the goal of helping students readjust to campus life (see Gaw). One of the most difficult aspects of my return had to do with first-language attrition (or inhibition): “After immersion in a foreign language, speakers often have difficulty retrieving native-language words” (Levy, McVeigh, Marful, and Anderson 29). Further, reducing the cognitive accessibility of the native language serves second language acquisition well by blocking interference. So there I was, all blocked, reduced, and inhibited. I remember saying to my mother that I was in a pensative mood. “Pensive,” she corrected me. I would say I didn’t feel like doing something by noting, “I don’t have ganas.” My colleagues at the MLA are used to my speaking this way even today. My cognitive process has me reaching for whatever pops into my head first when I’m trying to express myself, and if it’s the wrong language, I do a quick mental translation. There are times when I cannot make the switch from the Spanish I retrieved to the English I might need. I think, dream, and live bilingually, and I’m grateful for it and for the career it has facilitated.

And yet my bilingualism kept me from fitting in when I returned from Guatemala. With the exception of the French Canadian student in my French class and the Mexican American in my Spanish class, there were not many peers who understood my in-betweenness. The high school Spanish curriculum wasn’t designed for advanced learners. My Spanish language ability was most certainly at the superior level, but I had to wait until I got to college to be exposed to course work beyond the introductory phase.

So how well are we meeting the needs of students who arrive on campus knowing second languages, possessing heritage abilities, or returning from study abroad? As some universities reduce or eliminate their advanced offerings in the most commonly taught languages after Spanish, such as French, German, Italian, or Russian, I am left to wonder what “pensative” students who return from a semester in Italy (the second most popular destination after England) or France (the fourth most popular) should do on those campuses. How will they ward off second-language attrition, which linguists tell us begins to happen within weeks after stopping language immersion or study? How will they attain the advanced learning that will make them translingual experts, lifetime practitioners of language, and teachers of future generations? Every time a college or university closes off an opportunity for advanced learning, another link in the language pipeline is broken. Students who learn one language well have been shown to possess the aptitude to learn other languages, even those classified as difficult for native English speakers, such as Arabic or Chinese. I can’t imagine what my reimmersion into American education and society would have been like had I not known that advanced language, literary, historical, and cultural study lay on my horizon.

In the years following my return from Guatemala I could pass as a native of that country. (So much for the theory that total second language acquisition is nearly impossible after adolescence.) Eventually, however, after a semester abroad in Spain and visits to that country just about every year since, I changed my accent, vocabulary, and cultural framework to be aligned with Guatemala’s Madre Patria, and now I am often taken for an española. I have not been in Guatemala since the early 1970s, but I was swiftly transported back in my imagination last year when I read Guatemalan American Francisco Goldman’s novel The Long Night of White Chickens (written in English). The use of vos (in Spain one would use ) and the repetition of the interjection pues, which Goldman felt compelled to use despite writing in English, sounded so familiar to me. Pues, sí. Because of my translingual and transcultural competencies, developed over a lifetime, and my literary education—also representing decades of study and pleasure—I feel most useful when I work, on behalf of MLA members, to promote language study at all educational levels.

The most recent MLA language study shows clearly that in US institutions of higher education, interest in languages as measured in absolute course enrollment numbers continues to grow: we saw an increase of 6.6% in the period from 2006 to 2009 (Furman, Goldberg, and Lusin). Spanish, French, and German continue to be the most commonly studied languages, but there was around a 20% increase in enrollments in less commonly taught languages, and between 1998 and 2009 enrollments in Arabic have increased by 537.3%. In some quarters, these findings are being manipulated to undergird a shopworn criticism that Americans are learning the wrong languages, as if studying the ones deemed key to national security needs of the moment could solve the country’s overall language deficiencies (see Haass; Berman’s response to Haass; and McWhorter, with Berman’s reply). When it comes to learning, there are no wrong languages (not even my survival English, replete with code-switching and syntactical and lexical interference). Acquiring languages and analyzing their linguistic structure and literary and cultural traditions are pursuits that not only enrich our lives as individuals but also make us more capable members of society. To lose sight of this truth would be the greatest act of language attrition imaginable.

Rosemary G. Feal signature


This is the third in a series of columns on “survival” language. The earlier two columns—“Survival Spanish” (Summer 2007) and “‘Tan Cerca de Dios’: Survival Poqomchi” (Spring 2008)—can be found in the MLA Newsletter archive (

Works Cited

Berman, Russell. “Foreign Language for Foreign Policy?” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 23 Nov. 2010. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

Furman, Nelly, David Goldberg, and Natalia Lusin. Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009. Modern Language Association. MLA, Dec. 2010. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

Gaw, Kevin F. “Reverse Culture Shock in Students Returning from Overseas.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 24.1 (2000): 83–104. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

Haass, Richard. “Language as a Gateway to Global Communities.” American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Hynes Convention Center, Boston. 19 Nov. 2010. Address.

Levy, Benjamin J., Nathan D. McVeigh, Alejandra Marful, and Michael C. Anderson. “Inhibiting Your Native Language: The Role of Retrieval-Induced Forgetting during Second-Language Acquisition.” Psychological Science 18.1 (2007): 29–34. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

McWhorter, John. “Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be about in 2010?” New Republic. New Republic, 13 Dec. 2010. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.
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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.