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  • Writer's pictureBryan Jun

being bilingual is awesome

I'd argue most people that say they're bilingual, at least on the Korean American side of things, aren't actually bilingual. I remember someone recently told me that being bilingual in the United States as an immigrant should actually be denoted as "bye-lingual" given how you aren't able to speak either language proficiently. Maybe LinkedIn should have an audit feature for everyone that puts "Native or Fluent" for their language outside of English (or maybe English too) - embrace yourself for some douchey and self-flattery in this post, as I'm about to talk about one of my very limited talents that I'm quite proud of.


To follow the entire premise of this website, conveniently named after yours truly to further feed my ever growing ego, I'll come out and say I personally don't feel that way. Sounding like our previous president, I have a lot of "good friends around me" that could attest that I'm surprisingly great at both English and Korean - the punchline I always tell either party I'm speaking to in the particular language is that "I'm actually better and more comfortable in the other language." Perhaps due to my clearly "Korean American who's born and raised here" looks (surprise - I'm actually not born here!), it's probably the Koreans who get shocked more about my native tongue. It's been awhile since I've reflected on my "journey" into becoming bilingual and the delicacies involved in feeling like having two tongues (and maybe even two personalities) so here's some linguistic flavor.


I think aside from having an innate talent for languages, becoming multilingual is largely dependent on timing. I immigrated right after finishing first grade in the motherland, which gave me the proper tools to at least read and write as well as speak at at least a 6 year old level. It goes without saying that I've always been a talker and reader and my parents being young and also conversation enthusiasts probably helped. On top of all this, me being an only child for close to a decade allowed me to engage in "adult" conversations with my parents, and they largely treated me more like a friend than a child. Additionally, and my one boomer comment of the day, I think it's crucial that you speak your native tongue at home if you want your kids to retain the language and to not have communication problems later on as the child gets older - this is one of those things I think is fully in the parents' court of responsibilities, especially if they don't really speak English themselves. I've seen a surprising number of immigrant parents who are far more comfortable with their own native tongue speak English at home with their kids (which I really don't understand unless it's a way for the parents to learn English). I'm confident that this leads to many inter-generational problems down the line, with a lot of "you just don't understand!" at the dinner table.


An aspect of being bilingual that I often wrongly looked down upon is cultural immersion. Beyond communicating with your parents effectively (which isn't really anyone's priority during puberty), there has to be an incentive for you to understand the other language. Getting an A in Spanish is probably not enough of an incentive structure for your dive into a foreign language. It really does help that Korea is a country and culture of mass media, coming back to my point about timing again. I don't think my Korean would be at the level that it is at without my friends Youtube and Netflix as well as the Kpop industry. It's not even so much that I was actively keeping up with my Korean skills in order to listen to Blackpink songs, but more so that in my pursuit of listening to Whistle when it first came out, Korean comprehension was a natural companion in the process.


I'm not sure if I would denote this as "timing," but various stages of my life boosted both my English and Koreans skills as a simple result of my surroundings. In parallel to constantly having my family around to speak Korean to as well as my church community, it must've helped (naturally) that most of my friends during school actually weren't Korean or Korean speakers. Language is all about context - the people that you speak in the language to and the circumstances that the languages are spoken in mold the nuances and the context that you're able to apply the varying degrees of eloquence. Prior to entering college, at least in hindsight, I think my Korean was limited to casual family conversation and my English was heavily Southern Californian (which is DOPE and DANK!)


My English flourished as I entered college, as I was surrounded by "real Americans" (I think California's an odd place that really doesn't feel like America sometimes - if you don't know what I'm talking about take a quick stroll to Irvine and you'll understand) in a Liberal Arts setting. I was constantly in situations that required me to display my thoughts in a put-together manner and walking alongside a different form of English on the daily. It's probably a bit cringe to continue down this thought path, but essentially I think this was the first time I gained exposure to "real English" and the four years of expedited practice alongside networking for banking really heightened my English "abilities."


However, the biggest jump in my bilingual-ness actually came post college, which was much to my surprise as I'm of the belief that most language related journeys occur prior to being a "real adult." Outside of the obvious of interacting with 30-40 year olds on a 12+ hours a day basis in investment banking through corporate lingo (and I genuinely thank W&L for giving me the ability to this), the biggest benefit I've gained from Chicago is interacting with Korean professionals in my native tongue. Up until now, it's probably an understatement to say that my Korean was limited to interacting with family and the occasional "suddenly only speak in Korean mode" with other Korean Americans. Both are quite limited in terms of scope, as there's always a cap to what you can talk to your parents about and unfortunately my Korean American peers often fell into the "bye-lingual" category (obviously with a couple outliers, who are even better than I am). But as I started interacting with the Korean population in Chicago, which largely consists of ex-international students working full time on visas, there was a different level of expectation that I had to (and wanted to) live up to. The dialogue was much more sophisticated and for the first time my Korean expanded beyond explaining why I didn't get straight A's this semester or playing games at a church retreat.


One recurring theme throughout this post is that I don't think I've ever actively pursued being bilingual - it's probably a generic example of timing aligning with a bit of natural talent all combined in a nice little box known as my vocal chords. From immigration to big-city immersion, I'm definitely reflecting and trying to find reasons and rhymes to a "journey" which is essentially a long winded way of saying "I can speak Korean and English because I'm a Korean living in America who has people that can speak both around me, shocker!"


Whether it be talking bad about someone right in front of them with your fellow bilingual friend or watching Parasite without subtitles, I highly urge anyone with the potential or current ability to be bilingual to not go to waste. For those unsure about my Korean (especially based on my picture) - please be sure to subscribe to my Korean Channel. 아디오스~


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Danielle Yuhan
Danielle Yuhan
Jun 16, 2021

Any tips on becoming better at Korean?

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