I recently started helping a group of Korean moms improve their conversational English. They do not take language for granted. It is a heavy cart they push with every step, every day. They all maintain a "Korean only" policy at home, to ensure that their children remain fluent in their first language. The children are already fluent in English and are succeeding academically and socially. But the question has come up: is it detrimental to the family to maintain another language in the home?
I must say that I land squarely on the side of the parents on this one. I would love to speak to a linguist about this, but for now, I am telling you here, in my own way, in my limited vocabulary my thoughts. Language is not merely a means of transferring information from one entity to another, cold and straight-forward. Language is not just a convenience. I believe language is how you see the world, filtered through your experiences and brain mechanisms and tells something about how you relate to others. Layered with cultural inferences and implications.
I grew up here and became American, but I will always be distinctive because of my appearance: American by nationality, but always Korean by heritage. Always. This country still holds whites as the "norm" and held above all others. If you are white and don't see that, I understand. Because you don't see what doesn't exist for you: you never have to justify your presence, explain your existence. I always do. In various ways: polite, not, interest, curiosity, antagonism. I can sense these thoughts, as if they were objects, my radar having become highly developed:
- You are not white (therefore normal,) what are you?
- You are not white (therefore normal,) why are you here?
- You are not white (therefore normal,) therefore you do not matter.
So. I've taken you around on a nickel tour of my brain. Where am I taking you? Here: Language is essential to my self, my identity, my pride. My heritage is not dusty old photos; it is a picture of who I am. It is not in a silver pitcher brought from the old country; it is inside of me. It is not something to wear; it is infused in my soul. It is not a curiosity about something that has passed; I live now.
It is me.
It is me.
It is me.
Another language may be "inconvenient," it may be messy and things will go wrong. Kids will be embarrassed of their parents (isn't that novel?) and people will get frustrated. But I am convinced that with strong, persistent moms like the ones I'm befriending, multi-lingualism will find a place in US culture.
Despite whatever embarrassments and awkwardness suffered in youth, I don't know a single person who regrets being bilingual. I know many though, who regret not being bilingual...even generations later. By then, the language ladder to their soul will no longer quite reach.
*Photo by TommyOshima