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No Korean Spoken Here

MY son, now a year-and-a-half old, is trying hard to talk. In addition to his impressive repertoire of animal sounds, he has a vocabulary of about 20 words, all in English, which is the only language my Irish-Ukrainian husband and I, an American-born Korean, can speak. Josh had already surpassed my early liguistic accomplishments - when I was three years old, I could say four words, all in English, which was one of two languages my parents were trying to teach me. My parents wanted me to be bilingual, and spoke to me in both English and Korean until I turned three. Panicking at the thought that I would do poorly in school, they took me to a psychologist, who told them to concentrate on one language at a time. They sent me to nursery school, and I was speaking English in a few months.

I never did learn Korean, which some people, Koreans and Americans alike, find hard to believe. A few have suggested that my parents gave up too quickly. Several bilingual friends, who grew up with two languages spoken in the home, have told me it took longer for them to learn how to speak, but when they finally did, it was in both languages. If my parents had known that, they might have persevered in my language training, but they didn't have anyone to consult, other than that psychologist. They came to the States in the early 1950s; few Koreans were allowed to come here then. When I was born in 1955, I was the only Korean child in the Philadelphia area.

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My mother tried to keep up the Korean lessons once I started making progress with English, but I complained it was ``too hard.'' My father was usually at work during my waking hours, so the task of teaching an unruly three-year-old fell to her. Soon she was expecting another child, and too busy to work on my language skills. I guess it's my fault that my younger sisters and brother don't speak Korean - not wishing to repeat their experience with me, my parents spoke to them only in English.

As we grew up, they made desultory attempts to teach us Korean. One summer when I was eight or nine, they hired a Korean woman to be my language tutor, but my keen displeasure at having to study instead of play during the summer vacation was so obvious that she lasted only a few weeks. Occasionally, my father would announce that he and my mother were going to speak only in Korean from that point on. No matter how well we started out, these language sessions would always end in frustration.

``But what does it mean?'' one of us would whine.

Besides, my parents weren't willing to teach us anything useful.

``What are the curse words?'' I once asked my father.

``Koreans don't use bad language,'' he said solemnly, as my mother rolled her eyes.

By the time I reached high school, my parents seemed to have given up hope that we would learn Korean. My mother, who had become just as American as her children, no longer felt the need for us to be bilingual, although she did teach us phrases as they occurred to her. When we were watching a tennis match on TV one day, she decided we should know how to say ``sudden death.''

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``Kap-chegi choo-go-tah,'' she said dramatically. ``Suddenly - died.''

But most of the time, I studied French. I won a French language award during my senior year in high school, and was enamored of everything fran,cais. That's when my father decided to send me to summer school in Seoul.

I spent two summers there, dutifully memorizing the Korean alphabet and basic vocabulary. It didn't take me long to realize that Korean was just as hard, if not harder, than it had been when I was three years old.

At first, I was hampered by the annoying way my brain refused to yield the Korean words I was reaching for, supplying instead the French equivalent. This phase passed quickly, only to be replaced by the more general confusion of not understanding what was being said. Korean verbs tend to hide at the end of the sentence, and by the time I found them, I would inevitably forget what had gone on before. Verbs also undergo mysterious mutations, depending on whether one is addressing or talking about a revered grandfather, a school chum, a small child, or the town drunk. No, we are not equal.

That's what bothered me about studying Korean most of all. The study of language, of course, is the study of culture, and this one did not appeal to the feminist in me. So when I learned that the term for wife, ``chip sarum,'' actually meant house person, I found myself becoming terribly indignant. It didn't help to learn that wives were expected to speak to their husbands in the honorific form - verbs used to address a superior - although not all women do this.

It took some time for me to realize that learning English also has its cultural pitfalls. A Korean friend studying in the States told me she felt very disrespectful when speaking to her teachers; no matter how she addressed them - sir or ma'am, professor, Mister, or Ms. - the language just didn't seem courteous enough.

Courteous or not, English is a useful language for Koreans to know. Most of my relatives spoke English fluently, and those who didn't wanted to practice it so they could get better jobs. My cousins and their friends were especially eager to do this, and were less interested in helping me learn Korean than in refining their skills in conversational English.

There was no doubt those skills needed refinement. During a party, one of my cousin's friends was surprised to learn from an young American woman that she had nine siblings.

``Your parents did not use baby control?'' he inquired politely, and was puzzled when she laughed.

Later, I was trying to explain to the young man that many Americans might have found his question offensive, rather than humorous, when my cousin interrupted.

``You said the wrong thing - you don't talk about baby control,'' he told his friend. ``It's birthday control.''

I'm not sure if my cousins improved their English any more than I improved my Korean. When I returned home, I provided my parents with entertainment simply by uttering a few words in their native language.

``You sound just like an American missionary,'' they would tell me, once they finished laughing.

Although I tried to hold on to the little Korean I had, I soon went back to normal life, and forgot almost everything. Perhaps I just wasn't meant to speak another language. Even though I spent my junior year in Paris, I never became fluent in French. I was able to read and hear the language well, but somehow, speaking eluded me. I think I got to a point in that language where my son is now in his development: I could understand almost everything, but say practically nothing. The difference is that while I sputtered and groped for the right words, he seems to make up his own, which he pronounces with great conviction. I would be ecstatic if Josh could learn another language now, before he's old enough to decide it's too hard, but that's unlikely because my husband and his family speak only English, and we don't see my parents often enough to make it possible.

I live in an area that now has a large Korean population, but the very fact that I can't speak their language separates me from them. The people I meet own small businesses in my neighborhood; some - mostly women - say I'm lucky to speak English, and that their children are having trouble in school because they don't. Recently, a Korean language school opened nearby, and I have this vision of signing up with my son for lessons. I doubt that I'll ever have time for it, but the thought keeps tugging at me because of a recurring dream I have, one of the few I remember. In the dream, a voice is talking to me in Korean. I understand, and I answer. But when I wake up, I don't remember what was said, and I'm not sure if I answered in English or Korean.

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