Saturday, August 08, 2009

A fight to keep the language alive!

I was born in Korea, but moved to Canada with my family when I was almost 3 years old. I'm sure when my parents made the decision to immigrate they didn't foresee the ramifications of dropping a child who's never been exposed to English into such a foreign environment. I can tell you with much certainty that they didn't have the same concerns that I have as a parent today. Instead of worrying about whether the child would adapt and learn English, I find myself worrying about the opposite: whether my son will ever learn Korean.

Perhaps, it was more advantageous for me to learn Korean first. From what my parents have told me
, I had a pretty good grasp of the language at an early age. Since I didn't enter the formal school system for a few years after moving to Canada, spoken Korean was further reinforced during that time. Although I do remember watching shows like "Sesame Street" and "Electric Company", there was no where near the amount of media available when I was the age my son is now. Today, my son is bombarded with cable television, internet, DVDs, and print media. The available outlets for programming is limitless, ubiquitous, and brought to you in high definition! It's no doubt that a child would be highly affected.

I grew up in the era where English as a Second Language (ESL) classes were in their infancy and not readily available in all schools. I didn't have to be part of the groups of kids that were separated from the rest of the general school population, (makes elementary school sound like prison). I guess I was lucky because I was young and able to pick up English quickly. In Kindergarten my teacher mentioned to my parents that I was adjusting just fine and yammering away like all the rest of the kids.

Like many of my school mates who spoke other languages, I truly did lead a bilingual life where one language was spoken at home and English everywhere else. I don't remember exactly how I was able to maintain fluency in both languages, but I managed to do it. From what I hear, this is not always the case with kids in the same situation. I know many children who immigrate simply abandon their first language perhaps in the aim to fit in faster and become more successful in school.

Now my son is almost the same age as I was when we immigrated to Canada. As he grows and develops, I try to show him things that are distinctly Korean. I try my best to expose him to language, food, and cultural differences; however, at times I feel like I'm losing the battle. Like a typical toddler he is specifically finicky about trying new foods and good luck getting him to taste something he doesn't recognize.

It's a difficult and frustrating process, because as a parent you want your children to thrive, learn and develop. My wife and I put a lot of effort into trying to give him a good foundation. A little after his first birthday he began using sign language to communicate basic thoughts and wants. It was exciting to see him ask for for objects, food, milk, cookies, etc. At that time I also tried to lay the Korean foundation, but I saw myself gradually gravitating towards English, since the payoff was much greater.

Although, my son does understand some Korean words and explicitly refers to some objects/nouns in Korean only 간장 (soy sauce) , 만두 (mandu) to name a couple, I think that the English world has got such an upper hand it's overwhelming to fight against. I am the only person who he sees on a regular basis that speaks Korean to him at all. Lately when I speak Korean to him he says: "No thank you Daddy, I'm not going to say it", which breaks my heart a little. I recently took him to visit my aunt (who cannot speak English at all) and while I was doing some work at her house, he chose to hide in the closet (where I was working) instead of trying to interact with her. He was definitely overwhelmed by the fact that he couldn't understand what she was saying and vice versa. Maybe I'm worrying about it prematurely, he'll have ample opportunities to learn a second language later, but I had grandiose visions of he and I sharing a laugh together in something other than English. I guess I'll have to postpone that vision until later.


karen the californian said...

I hate it when people trawl the internet and drop their blog URLs or ads or whatnots on the comments section, but I really want to respond to what you've said. And it'll take up too much space here if I were to copy-and-paste what I wrote a few months ago on my blog, so I'll do exactly what I hate. Here's the URL for my blog entry that comments on your fight to keep the language alive.

I would appreciate hearing what you've got to say about it, either here or there.

carosgram said...

Do you have no Korean speaking family nearby? What about Korean friends? If you and your family/friends spoke to each other in Korean in front of your son, it would help him learn the language. If for some reason you don't have family or friends who speak Korean, you may want to rethink your desire to share your Korean background with your son. If it isn't a part of your daily life, how can it be part of his?

Anonymous said...

you're really fortunate you retained your language abilities . . . i, too. moved when i was about 3, but to texas. unfortunately, i lost fluency (for a number of reasons).

my kids don't speak nor understand korean, BUT the know and understand some words.

as for the food? my son is 7 and FINALLY started eating kimchi just this year. 9 yo daughter? no way . . . but pretty much any other korean food is a go!

good luck with your son and raising him bilingually. don't give up! =)

Obiwanhavanese said...

@karen the californian, I've posted the comments directly to your blog.

@carsogram, I do have some Korean speaking family nearby, but as I mentioned my son doesn't see them on a regular enough basis to make much difference. I guess the reality is that he doesn't get enough interaction in Korean. It's a good point you make.

Anonymous said...

You just have to keep trying in spite of how tough it might be and hope for the best. The kid might not like it or resist but in the end it's better for him.

I regret not being able to speak my own native language and feel "robbed" at times. Not entirely my parents' fault but they mostly spoke English to me growing up and thought simply sending me to sunday school was enough (actually it was pretty useless). The constant questions from both asians and non-asians of why I didn't speak my native language growing up really bothered me.

thisislarry said...

I think as parents of 3rd generation kids, you and I get the unenviable experience of knowing the native language but not being able to pass it on just thru osmosis.

I know mandarin enough to understand my grandma part of the time, but its simply not used anywhere in our daily family life.

Our school district offers a chinese immersion program but my wife and I, both chinese, chose not to make our chinese heritage such a big part of our identity that it would drive what language our kids would be taught in.

I'd rather have my kids spend their extra brain cycles on math, reading, music, and overachieving ;)

Amanda said...

I'm Chinese but we grew up with English as the primary language in our house. Thankfully, my husband is from a family that only speaks Mandarin. From the start, I wanted my son to be able to speak fluent Mandarin so what we've been trying to do is have my husband only speak Mandarin at home. Its hard for me to understand but at least it will immerse my son in the language. Of course, once the little guy is in bed, its English all the way.

So far, its been working well and my son is beginning to automatically speak Mandarin to his dad. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Ka_Jun said...

You should take a look at a similar discussion on Hyphen's blog.

Better to have them know it, and say they don't want to use it later, then get hit with "Why didn't you teach me?" I can take the former, the latter, not so much.

Unknown said...

I wish I had the ability to teach my daughter the ability to speak Korean. Maybe she'll be able to do it with a little help. Halmoni said she was better at pronunciation than I was.

Iris said...

I have to add in my 10 cents....
get him to learn Korean, no matter what it takes.

I'm a first generation american, and while Mandarin was my first language, I can barely speak it anymore. My parents were still in the process of "mastering" English when I was born, so all of my English input came from my daycare. However, when I reached Kindergarten, I was the only Chinese girl in my grade. (of course, this is probably a rare case.... my school as around 2% non-white. There were laws that forbid selling one's house to a non-white until around 50 years ago in my area, so there hasn't been enough time for the houses to change hands) ANYway... I had decided in my little 4/5 year old mind that Chinese simply wasn't a good thing to learn. I told my mother that I didn't want her or my father to speak to me in Mandarin, and that it was weird for them to speak it when my friends were around. Essentially, I single-handedly forced all the Chinese input out of my head... and now I find that I'm screwed.

We go to visit my relatives in China every 4 years or so, but visiting for 1 month every 4 years is no help at all. I find that I can't even hold basic conversations with my grandparents.

Flash forward around 12 years or so from my Kindergarten rejection of Mandarin. I want to major in linguistics, and focus on East Asian languages. Now, I seriously wish that my parents had continued to teach me Mandarin despite my protests.

The Sanity Inspector said...

My young kids are adamant against learning any Korean. What's more, they think much the less of their highly-educated mother, because her English isn't as good as theirs.