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persistence of use of L1 thru successive generations

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I'm hoping you fine folks can help me. I'm working on developing a character for one of my screenplays, and as part of his background I need to know how well he would speak his great-grandparents' native Swedish. Here's the scenario:

Ulf Gustavsson, born in Sweden, arrives in America at the age of 25 in 1912 (he survived the Titanic disaster, but his young wife did not). Three years later he marries Thorbjorg Axelsson, also born in Sweden. Ulf and Thorbjorg met and live in a Swedish enclave of Boston. In 1917, when they have their son Torsten, they are still sharing living quarters with Ulf's brother. It isn't until Torsten is seven years old that his parents finally get their own home, across the street from Torsten's uncle.

In 1936, Torsten marries Viveca. Both of Viveca's parents are full-blooded Swedes born in Sweden. Torsten and Viveca rent a small apartment that's near both sets of parents, and, in 1945, when Torsten returns from World War II, he uses the G.I. Bill to purchase a house in the Boston neighborhood that has remained predominantly Swedish all this time. In 1946 they have their daughter Marie, and in 1948 they have their son James. Both Torsten's parents and Viveca's parents are very much alive during Marie and James's childhoods and very much involved in their grandchildren's lives.

Because James attends Suffolk University in Boston, which has no residence halls, he lives at home with his parents. In 1968 he meets Betsy (from Anglo-Irish stock) from nearby Simmons College, and marries her in 1971. He and Betsy have their daughter Caroline in 1972 and their son Charlie in 1974. The four of them don't move out of James's parents' house, though, until 1975.

As involved as Torsten's parents and Viveca's parents were involved in Marie and James's lives and upbringing, James's and Betsy's parents are involved in Caroline and Charlie's young lives. Even Thorbjorg, their great-grandmother, is going strong (she lives until 1992 -- Ulf passed away of lung cancer in 1967). Thorbjorg is quite a presence in their lives.

James does move his family away from Boston to Providence in 1982, because he's been offered a full partnership in a law firm in the Rhode Island capital, but the family members remain in touch and close, via phone calls and frequent visits.

Whew! Thanks for listening to all that.

Now, my question therefore is thus:

What would be the level of facility in the use of Swedish in each of the generations successive to Ulf and Thorbjorg (for whom, after all, Swedish is their native tongue -- their facility in the language is obvious)?

For example, in 1973 James has a chance to study abroad for a semester at Lund University in Sweden. He spends his entire time there speaking like a native. Is this realistic?

I look forward to your reply. I welcome and encourage any and all to do so.
Mr. Kerry William Parsons

It really depends. You could make the argument that he could speak like a native based on extensive exposure to Swedish during his developmental years. Proficiency in a language depends on a huge number of factors, but the bottom line is if you're not exposed to a language as a child then you won't have knowledge of it.

Obviously there's quite a bit of room in that continuum; on the one hand a child could be exposed to a language in a fairly basic sense, like hearing his parents speak it on a somewhat regular basis. If that was the only input the child has in that language then the child will likely not have a very good command of the language, he or she may have a fairly basic understanding of the language but not be able to produce it fluently with a developed vocabulary. If the child communicates with his or her parents on a regular basis in one language but operates in the social/public sphere in a different language, the command of the home language will usually be considered "native" but the command of the social language is typically superior (and preferred).

Even within these somewhat generic situations there can be a huge degree of variation. For example, a child who communicates with his or her parents in the home language on a variety of topics ranging beyond typical household subjects (such as talking about philosophy, literature, science, etc) and reading literature in the home language will typically have a much better command of it than a child who uses it solely to talk about food, familial relations, friends, and things like that. On the other hand, if that child is later in life put into a situation where sole use of the language is required (i.e. moving to a country which speaks the language), the child will generally become native or near native in a much shorter period of time than a person with no prior exposure to the language.

In conclusion, a child will have a command of the language that grows proportionally with that language's place in the child's life. The more they use the language, and the more diverse the subjects talked about in that language, the better the child will be.

If your character is exposed to and uses Swedish to some degree as a child and adolescent, they will likely have an easy time adapting to using Swedish as their primary language upon moving to Sweden later in life. It will probably not be an instantaneous transition though, and becoming "fully native" would probably take quite some time. 

Well put, I agree.

--- Quote from: ibarrere on March 07, 2014, 07:51:01 PM ---If the child communicates with his or her parents on a regular basis in one language but operates in the social/public sphere in a different language, the command of the home language will usually be considered "native" but the command of the social language is typically superior (and preferred).

--- End quote ---

I had a lot of friends in this situation, who were 'fluent' in the language they spoke at home, but with a reduced vocabulary and a non-native accent. Their parents spoke another language fluently, and preferred it to English which they weren't fluent in, but the children felt more comfortable communicating in English.  A lot of time they would speak to the child in their first language and the child would respond in English.

If it is just the grandparents that have the different language, than it won't be as influential on the grandchildren unless they are exposed to it enough.  If say the grandparents and parents communicated only in Swedesh, and they lived in the family home, then the children might grow up with a good knowledge of Swedesh.

I'm guessing though, if their only exposure to Swedesh was through their grandparents, and they didn't intensely ever use it themselves (through exposure in a wider community, and through media etc), then they would probably have a very limited use of the language, and a small accent.

Wow! Thank you both for such thorough and thoughtful feedbacks. My character is going to be much better for it. Expect many posts in the future regarding linguistic issues of my characters. Thanks again, Kerry

Now I understand much better something I saw once on an Intervention episode, namely the mother of the 40-year-old woman on whom the family was intervening spoke only Spanish, to the camera and to her children (there was no father in the picture and hadn't for a long time, one of the reasons the 40-year-old had a problem with the bottle), even though the mother appeared to understand perfectly the fluent English with which her children responded to her, which in turn indicates that they could and did understand Spanish spoken fluently.  Hence, therefore, if I'm understanding you two correctly, linguists and sociologists and so forth would consider the children's native language to be Spanish, even though their superior (and preferred) language is English.  Yes?  No?  I think I'm starting to get a hang of this stuff.


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