My kids are 100% ethnically Korean and look it. When they speak though, they sound like they are either American or German kids. They never sound like Korean kids. As I’ve mentioned before, they might eat like or want to eat like Korean kids, but they only know a small handful of words in Korean: hello, good-bye, thank you, good night, and I ate well. They understand a few basic questions: Are you hungry? Does it taste good? Do you want more? (Yes, good observation. All of these questions are food related.) But, my wish has always been for them to be able to speak and understand the language beyond a basic level. We are miles from there.
The older they get, the harder, of course, it gets for them to learn Korean. I try to take heart in knowing that I learned to speak Korean in college, and after a trip to India where her Indian tour guide spoke incredibly flawless, fluent Korean learned also as an adult, my mother has tried to reassure me that learning Korean is still attainable for my children. I think these are examples of optimism. I anticipate that my kids will lose interest in learning Korean the less natural and day-to-day it becomes in our house and in our lives.
The peaks of their Korean knowledge were really when we were living in San Diego and shortly thereafter. Even while our Korean au pair was here, little Lenny was building up his Korean vocabulary, and the girls were sparking an interest in learning the Korean alphabet. The most important learning source though has been my parents. They visited us nearly every month while we lived in San Diego before Lenny was born. (I had a miserable third pregnancy.) Stella was two at the time, and she was forming sentences, asking questions, and even figuring out how to be her sassy self in Korean. Vera wasn’t interested in speaking Korean. It almost seemed like she was forcing herself to pronounce words or phrases incorrectly, but she went to Korean school for a year, and it was still something. After spending weeks together during the Christmas holidays with my parents, Lenny started to shout words that my parents used a lot with him, for example, “A-ni-ya!” (No!) And even counting comes more quickly and effortlessly during these long stretches together. I also tried to incorporate vocab words, especially with my youngest when he was far less verbal, just to get some latent knowledge in him. All combined, it was something. As little as it was, it was better than nothing.
When I started my parenthood journey, I started thinking that there should be some sort of product developed to teach third generation kids Korean just like there is Dora to help any kid learn Spanish. I wanted to create a fun, sassy Korean American girl character and produce a series of videos, reading books and exercise books, far more substantial and effective than Dora. I’m finally doing something about this idea, breathing life into my character and finding a way to introduce her and her story to the world. I’m hoping to be able to share the good news of her birth on these blog pages some time this year.
So, why do I care if my kids speak Korean or not? I speak from personal experience in saying that I think it will play a role in their sense of identity in the present and future. I didn’t grow up speaking Korean, and I always felt kind of bad about it. It was always awkward for me to be asked if I could speak the language and have to answer no. It felt like a deficiency that I could never fix as though the ship had already sailed. It had in terms of being a native speaker, but I ended up doing something about my Korean when I got to college as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I started taking intensive Korean language classes, making friends with Korean foreign students, writing letters and diary entries in Korean and practicing as much as I could. Learning Korean was an important factor in helping me get a better grasp of my identity and start living with it more happily and comfortably.
It’s natural therefore as a mother to hope that my kids will also feel strong and secure with being Korean, bypassing some of the childhood and adolescent struggles and growing pains that I had. I think they are pretty comfortable thinking of themselves as Americans and Germans, but so long as they look Korean, I am pretty sure that they will frequently be asked if they speak Korean. Even more so here in Germany. Maybe they will feel just fine with not being able to speak Korean as many third-generation immigrant children do. But, learning Korean was an important gift I gave myself. It’s one that I’d like to give to my kids too.