Relearning My Native Language

It’s my recollection and understanding that Korean was my first language; English followed shortly thereafter. I spoke Korean fluently until I was about nine. It was then I went to live with my parents so I didn’t have anyone I could speak the language with.

Now, some 25 plus years later, I’m trying to regain my native language. Anyone who says this process is easy needs to talk with me for a few minutes. It has been an incredibly slow and arduous process, helped very little along by me.

I dabbled in relearning when I was about 25 years old. I spent a month after I first got married teaching English at a summer camp on Jeju Island in Korea. It provided the rare opportunity to be exposed to and hear the language regularly. During my time there, I was able to quickly relearn Hangul, the Korean alphabet, and read, albeit at a snail’s pace.

When I returned to the states, I had little resources at my disposal to study so I didn’t pursue it further. It would be another few years before I would discover Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK). TTMIK is a company that began as a podcast in late 2009. I think I discovered it around 2012 or 2013. Since then, it has grown to include books, videos, and a subscriber service.

A major motivator in searching for resources around this time was a strong desire for my children to learn and speak Korean. My husband is fluent in Spanish, his first language, and we had high hopes of raising our children in a multilingual home. We have since learned how incredibly challenging that notion actually is. Spoiler, our children are nowhere near being multilingual but we can still dream.

In mid-2018, I finally purchased TTMIK’s first book and began my self-study. It was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I had some strange idea in my mind that, because I was bilingual for such a long portion of my early years, when I started studying it would be like a dam opened and Korean would just flood back. Another spoiler, that’s not how it works.

Language attrition is a fascinating topic to me. When I was in my graduate program, I studied about neuroplasticity. In plain form, it’s all about the mechanisms of neuropathways in the brain, how connections are made and pruned. I simply assumed that since I had these language connections, it wouldn’t be too much for my brain to mend them. But alas, I was wrong.

Since my first purchase in 2018, I have devoted varying amounts of time and energy to my self-study. Shortly after finding TTMIK, I also discovered Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean, a YouTube channel. Billy also has a website and learning resources as well. I tried to balance my studying by consuming a variety of materials for learning.

It was in early 2019 that I really focused on studying. I found a local Korean school that we had been wanting to get my eldest started in and learned they had an adult program. Through this school, I met my incredible teacher who has devoted time and energy in teaching and supporting me, not just in learning the language but other aspects of reconnecting to my culture.

My Korean language skills have grown and improved more in nearly two years than the previous 10 years combined but I’m nowhere close to where being fluent. I remind myself to have patience and to give myself grace since language (re)acquisition at my age is no easy task. It can be very disheartening and discouraging at times but there are small shining moments that get me through.

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