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First Language Attrition: Why my parents and I don't speak the same language

My brother Peter (left) and I (right) showing brotherly love.
My brother Peter (left) and I (right) showing brotherly love.
James Kim

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UPDATE: James Kim's Off-Ramp piece received a 2013 Mark Twain Award by the Associated Press Television-Radio Association for best light feature. Congratulations, James! -- John Rabe

I have always had a tough time understanding my parents. Not because we’re from different generations, or born and raised in different countries; it’s that we don’t speak the same language. Growing up, I remembered that my Korean was actually pretty good. My mom said that I “spoke Korean very well for seven years.” But afterwards, I “stopped speaking Korean and only spoke English.”



This has made my relationship with my parents difficult to cultivate. We always are easily irritated with each other because we constantly misunderstand what each of us is saying. We can hardly explain a movie’s plot line to one another, let alone express what we’re going through. The only time I talk with my parents is when I’m asking them “what’s for dinner?” I wanted to try and fix this problem by taking the first initial step; that is to figure out if my condition is common or not.

I talked to Linda Light, a Linguistics professor at Cal State Long Beach, who assured me that I wasn’t a screw up and that the condition is called First Language Attrition. Light says “there’s a tendency across all minority groups of a three-generation thing.” The first generation of immigrants speaks their native language; the second generation tends to be bilingual, while the third generation loses the native language. “But Koreans especially often lose it in the second generation, not the third.” It was a relief to find out that my ineptness towards speaking Korean was actually common in my immigrant generation. Yet, I still couldn’t help but feel guilty for not being able to communicate with my parents.

I decided that the only thing to do was to take initiative and have a one-on-one personal conversation with my parents. Of course, I brought my friend along to help translate the conversation. Going into the interview, I thought that the only thing I had to improve was my Korean language. After doing that, all our problems would be fixed. Wrong. My Dad believes that my “apathy towards Korean culture” is what caused our relationship to tear apart. My mom replied that not only should I express myself to them, but I also need to listen to how they used to live in Korea to understand them better.

My lack of Korean language wasn’t the problem; it was my attitude towards Korean culture. This whole time I thought the solution was as simple as taking some courses at a Korean language school. Instead, I learned that my whole demeanor towards my native culture needs a revision.