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“He doesn’t speak it like it’s his language yet.”

Both during and after my time in Korea, I’ve turned this seemingly accusatory comment over in my head, often to no avail. The challenge of deciphering the comment’s assumptions paralyzed me. What did it mean to speak Korean like it was “my” language? Could I ever claim full ownership over a language beyond my native English? And the “yet” made it unclear whether mastering Korean was required of me, or whether it was inevitable that, by simply living in Korea, I would eventually be “purified” back into some primordial, Korean state.

As I began wrestling with these questions, I kept returning to memories of my fourth-grade self, who spent part of his summer as an exchange student in Seoul. His existence complicated matters deeply, because he had spoken Korean like it was his language. At a time when my English and Korean were of roughly the same level, I had no inhibitions and, as a result, never found myself lost between my “Korean” and “American” identities — I considered myself equally both. I never thought much about the uniqueness of having had fluency in a language and then eventually losing it, until I took my first Korean class upon returning to Korea as an adult. Some of my classmates called me a “native speaker,” a term I thought was reserved for those who grew up speaking a language in its native country (of which I both did and did not meet the requirements). I had also never heard the term “heritage language” until I was in Korea with other Korean speakers who were ethnically Korean but nationally something else, either being born in another country or being adopted. Furthermore, the idea of modifying my relative’s comment into He doesn’t speak it like it’s his language anymore,” was terrifying — was the legitimacy of one’s identity so subject to space and time, where I grew up and when?

Ownership of language is fraught because it appears to depend upon a kind of relativism: the degree of crossover between the country of your heritage and that of the language you speak, the amount of time you spent living in a country as opposed to other countries, and the benefits of growing up in a place versus traveling to it as an adult. I suspect that this dependence on contingencies is the reason so many of us have an instinctive gut reaction to being pointed out as non-native speakers — as much as there are aspects of language study we can control, so much of it is beyond us. As someone who looks Korean but possesses the language skills of his eight-year-old self, it was particularly frustrating to feel guilty over not only having certain advantages in acquiring a language, but also over the barriers to my language acquisition — both circumstances I could not control.

And yet, this frustration is a natural symptom of the task some of us are charged with in coming to terms with our identities. I have found that our feelings towards a language are not unlike the way we feel about our heritages. For example, in the time I have come to admire the Korean language for its beauty in repetition and unadorned simplicity (as opposed to the synonym acrobatics employed in English to circumvent using the same words), my desire to accept my Korean heritage has deepened. In contrast, my hesitation in adopting the rhythm and intonation of Korean speech, which often feel disingenuous to perform, reflects a lingering rootedness and pride in my American identity.

What can be gleaned from this is that “ownership” over a language or an identity feels relative because we have ingrained a false dichotomy, that something can be legitimate only if it either entirely does or does not belong to us. But it is not a paradox to say that just as I spoke Korean like it was “my language” in fourth-grade, I speak Korean like it is mine today. This is because there is no better distillation of the union between my fourth-grade and present selves than the way I spoke Korean at my family gathering that day. Yes, my Korean is sometimes filled with uncertainty and hesitation, but that doesn’t make my ownership of it any less true. To feel guilty about not being Korean “enough,” or to make someone feel guilty about a by-product of one’s upbringing, is to perpetuate a myth that our understanding of language and identity is still predicated on the absolutes of the past, rather than the nuanced gradations of a globalizing world.

When I arrived back in Korea over a decade after that fourth-grade summer, I sometimes found myself chasing my eight-year-old self. During each gathering with Korean friends or students, I realized that this sense of community was all temporary for me, that I could never exist in the same society they did. Yet, I wanted so badly to see as he had seen, to feel as natural and fluent as he had. Every time I reveled in an interaction where my foreignness went undetected, I longed for that summer when I didn’t have the strange feeling that I was lying. But as much as I wanted to turn back time, to reclaim an alternate reality, I had to accept that it was impossible, and that I the best I could do was study the language I had lost.

“He doesn’t speak it like it’s his language yet.” In broadening my understanding of ownership of language, I began to see more optimistically that ambiguous “yet,” which implies a state of progress. In studying Korean, I often find myself face to face with not only myself as an eight-year old, but also the twenty-two year old afraid of the vocabulary he would encounter at the bank. I am able to feel both the strength and limitations of my grammar and vocabulary across time because language, it would seem, is a way of speaking not only to others, but also to our past, present, and future selves. Korean is not my language yet. But at the same time, it is my language, just as it has always been, and always will be, my language.

What is my Language? by Eugene Lee

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