When at Home

“When at home, speak in Korean.”

That is the one rule I distinctly remember my dad repeating time after time from my early childhood days. It was a rule that I kept with my parents for sake of effective communication but broke with my siblings for the sake of convenience (and perhaps in the name of rebellion as well). Years later, I am finally beginning to understand why my dad was so persistent.

Both of my parents are immigrants. My dad is from the rural countryside, and my mom is from a quiet coastal village in South Korea. They moved to Hawaii in the early 90’s with the intention of returning to their homeland after just a year or two. Shortly after I was born, however, this new family of three completed the journey across the Pacific and settled down in Orange County, CA, right on the outskirts of a suburban K-Town.

Because my parents did not know much English and essentially all of the adults I interacted with were Korean, I adopted Korean as my official first language. My first word was shinbahl, shoe.

Going into elementary school, I was deemed an English language learner. This status required me to take yearly English proficiency exams, and it also exempted me from the foreign language condition for my college degree. The latter came as a surprise. While I can accept that the proficiency exams in my early elementary years were probably necessary, I feel slightly hesitant about claiming the free credits given to me by the university.

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Some of my workbooks from Korean school when I was in 2nd grade.


I would still say I am conversationally fluent, but I often struggle to find the vocabulary to express my thoughts when the words are on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes I stumble over my speech as I try to translate English syntax into proper Korean grammar. A few too many native speakers questioning my fluency or picking out an accent has hurt my confidence. Being in Boston for college, 3,000 miles away from home, and not speaking with my parents on a daily basis for the last two years has also put me out of practice. My reading and writing are at an intermediate level, a remnant of my efforts to improve these skills in junior high in order to fit in with my friends who were mostly immigrants themselves rather than American-born like me. These are the unfortunate consequences of not abiding by the “Korean at home” rule.

The rule is no longer in play, although my dad continues pushing us children toward fluency. Just last summer, he bought a DVD set that claims to teach the language in just ten days. He will occasionally remark, in a joking tone but with unwavering conviction, “A Korean person should know the Korean language.”

And I completely agree with him.

My brother and I  dressed in traditional hanbok outfits, with a basic Korean alphabet chart behind us.

My brother and I dressed in traditional hanbok outfits, with a basic Korean alphabet chart behind us.

While assimilation into a new society through learning its predominant language is important, knowing the language of your heritage is invaluable. Encoded in language is history and culture, passed down through the generations. It allows you to not just communicate but also connect. A native language is not just something you share in common with your conversation partner but with your ancestors as well.

Today, being a second or third-generation immigrant who does not speak his or her native language has become more or less expected. Sometimes people are surprised at how well I speak Korean, having been born in the states. Should it really be so unusual? Recently, I have been considering employing my dad’s rule with my future children. While Korean is far from being an endangered language in the modern world, I don’t want it to become extinct in my family. In the meantime, I will keep learning and practicing so I can confidently declare my mother tongue as my first and share it with others.


Esther Headshot

I am a first-generation Korean American, born in Hawaii, raised in Southern California and now studying photojournalism at Boston University. Some of my favorite things are earl gray tea, Radiolab, rainy days and Jesus. I hope to spend my life capturing moments of joy on camera and sharing stories that deserve to be heard. Pictures of my most recent adventures and projects can be found at esrophoto.com.