Being Bilingual

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With a father who’s Anglo-American and a mother who’s Korean, I grew up in a biracial household. My first word was “mummy”, making English my first-language. When we lived in Japan from when I was two to three, I also picked up on Japanese, but when we moved back to Korea, I lost it all. At the age of four, I was enrolled in an American elementary school in the pre-K programme (yes, we’re still in Korea), and that’s when English became my major language. Yet at home, when I was with my mum, she and I communicated in Korean, and I stuck with English with my dad. This was something I considered “normal”, this was something I thought many biracial children go through.

As I grew older, I met many others like me, who has an Anglo-American father and a Korean mother. I discovered that quite a few of them were not like me language-wise. I met others who spoke primarily English even with their Korean parents. Some of them understood Korean when they heard it, but they couldn’t speak any themselves. Some of them knew nothing past the few basics Korean words. This puzzled me because I’d thought Korean mothers would speak Korean to their children and vice-versa. Instead, I find out that some Korean mothers choose not to speak English to their children because of various reasons like wanting to improve their own English usage or wanting to fully integrate their child in the American society. Then they regret not speaking and teaching their children Korean when they get older, and these mothers tell my mother, “You’re so lucky your daughter speaks Korean!”

So my own experiences and observations make me wonder just how much percentage of biracial families teach their children both their primary and secondary languages. Even in my workplace, I see few of the biracial kids, and I don’t really hear them speak their second language. Perhaps they do at home, but I spoke Korean to my other Korean-American friends when we hung out, but the kids I work with don’t do that. Is it because they don’t know the language? Or they do, but they are taught to not speak a minor language amongst those who know the majority? I know a couple of children who are half-American and half-Filipino, but I never hear them speak Tagalog to each other in my workplace. But the few half-Korean or Korean-American kids we have, I speak Korean to them sometimes, and they understand me.

Another thing that comes to my mind is what some of the biracial individuals call their parents. I call my father, “Dad” or “Daddy” or other variations in between. As for my mother, unlike some of my friends who uses the Korean word for mother, my mum’s always been “Mummy” (마미 = mah-mee, more precisely XD) or “Mama”. My mum is never 엄마 (Uh-mah) or 어머니 (Uh-muh-nee). To me, she’ll always be 마미 or 마마.

If you come from a biracial family, what was it like for you language-wise? Were you taught both languages? Can you only speak your secondary language and not read or write it? I spoke Korean, but I didn’t learn how to read or write it until I was in fifth grade (around the age of 10). What was it like for you? What are some of your observations if you’re not from a biracial household, but have friends who are?


  1. I really enjoyed reading this and hearing about how you used the different languages in your life. I think it’s so fantastic that you learned both, because you’re not be taught that any one language or culture is better than another.

    Living in a small rural community, I am not able to interact with people from different backgrounds a lot. However, there is a lovely lady from the Philippines who married someone and taught her children to speak Tagalog which I thought was so great. It would have been sad to loose that language and part of their heritage.

    My dad kind of has his own language… where he mispronounces things and we call this language Sling (because he called ‘slang’ Sling by mistake). haahah.

    • HAHAHA. I love that your dad’s language is called SLING. :D One time I said, “hiffy”, which was a combination of “hissy” and “huffy” accidentally XD

      And yes, you’re right about how it’s good that households like mine taught both culture, which does show that one culture is not all better than the other. Thanks for pointing that bit out! ^^

  2. I think you must have a had a really interesting upbringing. A friend of mine spoke English to her father, but Japanese to her mother (both parents were Japanese). Her mother hadn’t learnt English, but her father wanted to learn as much English as he could. Because my friend had been brought up in England, and went to English school she was fluent in speaking both, though I don’t think she could read or write Japanese until she was 14-ish. I was always in awe of how she could transition between the two with ease!

    • Man, I’m envious of your friend XD I wish I could speak fluent Japanese. Thanks for sharing about your friend. And it’s funny that you mention the transition. Sometimes, the transition isn’t smooth for me. Sometimes I forget the Korean word for a thing, so I substitute it with an English word and vice-versa.

  3. I did not grow up in a biracial household, but my cousins’ children grew up in one (Filipino from our side and American from the other parent’s side). Their kids can understand Cebuano (another major language in the Philippines) and they code-switch from time to time. But mostly they speak English.

    I don’t know why, but I tend to notice that most Filipino-Americans I know are not taught Tagalog during their childhood. A lot of them do not have any idea about the language at all. It’s sad, actually, because the language is also part of their heritage and they could have learned it early on, but they aren’t being taught :(

    • And that is exactly what makes me wonder why they are not taught it. : / A shame, really, but every parents/families are different.

  4. Both of my parents are Chinese, but I grew up with both Chinese and English in the house. A lot of Asians I know went through the same phase I did. When I was young, I began speaking English at home, even if my parents spoke Chinese to me. I think it was mainly because English is spoken at school, and when you’re young, you don’t always realize how useful it is to be bilingual. There’s more pressure to “fit in”, which is to use the language everyone else is using. Then we grow older and regret not using Chinese more when we were young.

    Even when I hung out with Chinese friends, we spoke English. It was just easier to use the most common language. It made sure we didn’t accidentally exclude people, and there’s also the problem of Chinese having multiple dialects. (Someone who knows Mandarin may not know Cantonese.)

    My parents didn’t teach me to read/write Chinese, but I learned it in college. The problem is… if you don’t use it, you lose it! The only time I really needed it was when I visited China, and I haven’t been in 8 years.

    Now, my parents use English more because my husband is white, though they still speak Chinese to me. If we have kids, I’d want them to be able to understand Chinese, but I doubt we’d use Chinese at home since my husband doesn’t know it.

    • I wasn’t aware of Chinese having multiple dialects. Korean language doesn’t have that issue, and my Korean friends and I all hung out with people who spoke Korean, so we could communicate in both English and Korean, but primarily Korean.

      And that’s interesting you may not want to use Chinese to your children because of your husband. My dad doesn’t know Korean, but he didn’t care when my mum and I (and her Korean relatives) all spoke Korean around him. He’s comfortable enough to allow all the Korean jabbering to occur, despite not knowing the language.

  5. Ooh I can answer this question! My parents are Chinese and actually speak very poor English so I communicate with them in Cantonese. I tried learning how to write Chinese and I think I learnt up to 4th grader Chinese at one point, but I just never got the hang of it. My parents didn’t push me to keep going so I never learnt how to read and write Chinese. I wish I did though!

    My brother was born here so he’s in the same boat as me, but his spoken Cantonese is even worse. We speak to each other in English. My parents get a bit mad at us for speaking English at home because they don’t understand but it’s not our fault we weren’t taught Chinese and only got to speak it at home!

    • My mum kind of pushed me to read/write Korean, but prior to fifth grade, I was against learning it. No idea why, but I didn’t want to learn. But then in fifth grade, in my Korean culture class, we were taught the Korean alphabet, and that’s when I slowly started to learn how to read and write it.

      I think it’s interesting how your parents didn’t push you guys to speak Chinese, and then they get a bit annoyed for not speaking Chinese . . . *facepalms* Aigoos.

  6. AnneMarie on

    Great blog post! I feel this SO MUCH.

    Although I would like to point out, I view myself as Filipino American (not half Filipino or half American). Identity stuff like that is difficult because I think everyone has a different preference or viewpoint.

    In terms of language, my parents spoke to me in Tagalog growing up but they didn’t make it much of an effort to get me to respond back in Tagalog. So with me being educated by teachers who spoke English and me living in America…well, it was challenging for me to learn. So now, I can understand almost everything (aside from really old Tagalog) but I can’t speak much. I actually speak a lot more to my parents since my trip to the Philippines last summer but my grammar is awful and my parents are too old to have the patience to teach me now. It’s unfortunate, I wish I was bilingual.

    But I also realize how different of an experience this is compared to households that spoke purely English. I had an interesting discussion in a class with my professor about this and it just blew my mind to think so many Americans don’t have to deal with a biracial household. It adds another interesting dimension to the communication between family members. XP

    • Everyone definitely have a different viewpoint on stuff. Like I consider myself mentally to be half-Korean and half-American, but . . . physically, I’m full Korean LOL. So technically, I’m Korean-American, but not in my mindset most of the time.

      I found your language experience to be interesting! I wonder if I know Korean better because I heard Korean and spoke Korean back. It seems like most people who hear a language but do not speak it themselves generally tend to understand when they hear it, but will not speak it.

      Also, it’s strikes me odd that many American families don’t have to deal with biracial household . . . when America was founded by immigrants! Kind of an oxymoron in my eyes XD;

  7. I lived a couple years in Japan, too! My parents told me for awhile there, I was CONVINCED I was Japanese, lol!

    I’m half-Chinese & half-Filipino. We generally speak English at home. My dad doesn’t speak Chinese anymore, so I never learned. I took a semester of Mandarin when I was younger but that was forever ago.. so I only remember the basics.

    My mom never taught me Tagalog or Kapampangan (her dialect), but I learned both because I lived with my grandma for awhile when I was young. My mom usually talks to me in English because she’s so used to doing so, but occasionally she’ll talk to me in Filipino.. especially if there’s something she wants to say but doesn’t want anyone else around to know, haha! I don’t speak Filipino all the time but I can if I need to. However, it’s one of those things when you aren’t used to doing it often, you get a little self-conscious when you do.

  8. I didn’t know you lived in Japan as a kid! I’m pretty much the same like you and your parents. I speak Cantonese with my mom and English with my dad. It’s a bit weird because they both speak Vietnamese commonly but never bothered teaching me? But I ended up picking up Viet after hearing them for so long (Except I can’t speak the language). On the other hand, my brother only knows English and barely any other languages.

    There are a lot of Asian friends who don’t speak their language at all and only spoke English; but it’s probably a lot more common in America. If I have biracial kids, I definitely want them to learn one of the foreign languages.. Except the most they can probably learn is some broken Cantonese or the other language. I have a friend who’s half Viet and half white and she speaks full on Viet! I only speak Cantonese, I can’t write or read it. I don’t think I will ever learn at this rate *o*.

  9. Holland on

    I’m Chinese American and it’s so wild being in China and having people like taxi drivers tell you you’re not American. It’s very hard to convey the difference between race and nationality to them. Here in America I can, “Oh, yeah, I’m Chinese,” and most people understand that I mean my race. In China, they take it to mean you’re CHINESE. Even though I said I was born and raised in America, they were still, “NOPE. YOU’RE NOT AMERICAN.”

    It’s not so weird growing up bilingual in America, at least not when it comes to like white people. But Chinese people lose their shit over bilingual kids. I don’t know what’s up with that.

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