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American Seoul by Helena Rho – The “Grief” of Not Knowing Your Parents’ Language

I’ve just finished reading American Seoul, a memoir by Helena Rho, a Korean American writer who emigrated from South Korea to Uganda and then to the US as a child. The book touches on many themes, from childhood trauma and family bonds to motherhood and racism. But for this blog, and for myself personally, it is her experience as a child of first-generation immigrants and her complex relationship with her heritage language and culture that I find so fascinating. In this blog post, I will explore some of these themes and how they may be relevant to parents trying to raise bilingual/ multilingual children.

One of the main narrative arcs of the book is centred around the author’s rediscovery of her Korean roots as a middle-aged woman, which also coincides with her starting a new career as a writer (she was a successful paediatrician for years) and the breakdown of her marriage.

When her family moved to Uganda, the author’s parents were told that they must prioritise helping the children become fluent in English, and to do that, they should stop speaking Korean at home. This, sadly, marked the beginning of the author’s gradual loss of her ability to speak her mother tongue. As the author herself observes in the memoir, she somehow retained a good receptive knowledge of the language, meaning that she could understand Korean when someone spoke to her in that language. Still, she pretty much lost all of her expressive language, meaning that she was no longer able to say anything in Korean except for maybe a few basic words.

Moreover, the author feels strongly that this is more than just a matter of language. It is a matter of identity, of not being able to feel that she belongs to “her own people”. As an adult, when she met other Koreans, she often felt embarrassed - even “ashamed” (in her own words) - about her inability to speak Korean. According to her, Koreans regard ethnic Koreans who don’t speak the language with “contempt” (again, in the author’s own words). In short, her inability to speak her heritage language added to that feeling of cultural isolation common to people from immigrant backgrounds.

In my book (LINK), I’ve discussed the case of Howie Dorough in some detail, whose story has strong parallels with Helena’s. Born to a Puerto Rican mother and an American father, Dorough grew up speaking only English, but as he got older, he felt a strong desire to learn Spanish and reconnect to his Latino roots. As an adult, he eventually took Spanish classes and reached a certain level of fluency, which had the added benefit of boosting his career too!

Of course, Helena and Howie D’s experiences are far from unique. Language and culture are inextricably linked. As much as we now live in a globalised world, the desire to “belong” to a culture and even a people who look like you can be overwhelmingly strong, as Helena Rho has discovered. Since this blog post is not intended to be a book review, I won’t go into much detail about how she started learning Korean, except that she started taking Korean lessons in her forties and even did a summer course in Seoul as a middle-aged woman. She also enrolled her children, who are half Korean and half white American, in a weekend language school, hoping they could retain some connection to their cultural roots.

So what are some of the lessons that bilingual/ multilingual families can learn from Helena Rho’s experience?

1. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you need to speak English at home so your children can integrate and excel at school

When Helena moved to Uganda in the early 1970s, the prevailing wisdom in English-speaking countries was that children from immigrant backgrounds should give up their heritage language in favour of English to ensure successful integration and success.

We’ve come a long way since the 1970s, and at least in the United Kingdom, where I live, the benefits of bilingualism (check out this blog post to find out more!) are now widely recognised. Educators would rarely, if ever, tell parents to give up their heritage language at home. However, the situation may be different in other parts of the world.

If you find yourself in a situation where other parents/ your child’s teachers advise you only to speak the majority language at home, please don’t give in to the pressure quickly. Why?

i) Children will always acquire the majority language of their environment.

I’m not going to present all the academic references and statistics here. Instead, let me just ask you one question: have you ever met a single person who failed to acquire the majority language of the city/ country where they grew up? I, for one, have never met even one! But I’ve met plenty of parents whose children were fluent in their parents’ language until they started school. Some of these children have lost the ability to speak their parents’ language as a result. So, in short, it’s always the home language, not the majority language, that’s at risk!

ii) All things being equal, children with an additional language at home do not do worse at school

The idea that immigrant children with an additional language at home do less well at school is NOT borne out by facts and statistics. I’ve explored this in more detail in my book, but essentially, having an additional language at home does not affect a child’s academic attainment – other socioeconomic factors play a far larger role. One study in the UK has found that “On average, EAL [English as an Additional Language] pupils catch up with their peers by age 16. At age five, only 44% of EAL pupils have achieved a good level of development compared to 54% of other pupils. By age 16, this gap has narrowed significantly with 58.3% achieving five A*- C GCSEs including English and maths compared to 60.9% of other pupils.

And the classification of EAL pupils includes all pupils who speak another language at home: “the bilingual child of a French banker is grouped together with a Somali refugee who may not speak English at all.”

From these statistics, it is safe to conclude that being bilingual does not negatively affect a child’s academic performance. The fact that many (but not all) immigrant families come from more disadvantaged backgrounds may explain the perception that having an additional language at home may hamper a child’s academic progress, but there is absolutely no reason to assume a causal link between having an additional language at home and poorer academic performance.

2. Speaking their heritage language may help your child feel more confident

One theme that came through very strongly in the book is the author’s sense of discomfort and shame of “being” and looking Korean but not being able to speak the language. She even describes it as a kind of “grief”. While not every child from an immigrant background would have the same experience, the author’s sentiment is pretty common.

I think this has something to do with the universal human desire to “belong”, to find your “tribe”. It’s probably something you take for granted if you grow up around people who look and talk like you. Still, it can be challenging for immigrants and even children of immigrants to find their cultural identity and that comforting sense of belonging we all yearn for.

According to studies, “[One’s] native language, as an integral part of the familial sphere, also has strong connections on a personal level. The degree of proficiency in one’s heritage language is intrinsically connected to self-identity. The Intercultural Development Research Association noted this connection, stating that ‘the child’s first language is critical to their identity. Maintaining this language helps the child value their culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-concept.”

In short, there’s solid evidence to show that the ability to speak your heritage language can help boost your confidence and self-esteem. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?

3. There is a difference between active and passive knowledge of a language

In her book, Helena describes how she always retained a passive knowledge of Korean from her childhood but gradually lost her ability to speak it after living most of her life in the US. But crucially, she felt like this passive knowledge (i.e. being able to understand spoken Korean) was of little use to her; what she really wanted was to be able to express herself in Korean and communicate with others who speak the language.

Readers of my book will know that I strongly advocate encouraging your child to go beyond the “passive” stage to become an “active” speaker of the target language. Of course, the benefits of having a passive knowledge of a language are still enormous – this knowledge certainly builds a strong foundation that can help the child learn to speak the language later in life. However, I’ve met many parents whose children only have a passive knowledge of the language and told me that they wished their child could speak it too. And more crucially, I’ve met just as many adults who, like Helena, only understand their parents’ language and told me that they wished their parents had taught them to speak it!

I hope you found this article interesting and useful :) Feel free to add your comments below!


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