Language Ladder

I am fascinated by language, the interconnectedness of the mind, spirit, language, word, truth and healing. Aside from English, I have some proficiency in Korean and know bits of French and I can see how these languages expand my understanding of others. If you are like most in the US, English is your first and only language. It is the status quo, the normal, the baseline, the natural, so much so that you probably don't even think about language.

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.
And these kids will, too. They may grow up and become Americanized, as I have, but they will always, always be Korean. Can't be a Closet Korean and "come out" when you're ready.

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


AmyP said...

Well said. To what extent to you teach Boo Korean? Chae has been exposed to Spanish from about 9 mos at daycare and now school. It still surprises me when he randomly throws in a spanish word to our conversation. Now, if that continues, won't that confuse people?

Julie said...

I totally agree with you. Being bilingual is a blessing. I wish I was. I always thought what a sin it was that my mother was never taught Swedish. Her parents were fluent, one of them was born in Sweden and the other was first generation American, but they held the old mentality that "You are in America now. You will speak only English."

Also having the girls and not being able to teach them Mandarin is an upsetting thought for me. They were born in China. They look Chinese. But they really aren't Chinese. They aren't being raised by parents who know what it is like to be and look Asian. I worry some day that they will go out into the world and people will expect them to know things that you just know when you are raised in an Asian household. People won't know that their parents were white. I try to teach them and expose them to Chinese things but in the end they are just learning what we know. Parenting never is perfect is it?