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Why do adoptees learn Korean?

This article is the second in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Learning the Korean language is an extremely difficult proposition for Korean adoptees. Language is an essential element constituting the identity of a person. By virtue of the nations to which adoptees were sent English, French, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, German, Norwegian, Swiss and Italian are the predominant mother tongues among them. The Korean language could have been their first language, but learning this language in adulthood is an incredible challenge. However, many adoptees desire to learn, and try very hard to master the Korean language. Why? The story of Jonas, a Korean adoptee to Germany, may yield some insight on the matter.

By Jonas Sang Shik Eberle

Jonas Sang Shik Eberle

“Language, a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The function of language includes communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.” This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica defines the meaning of language. Every Korean language teacher at the beginning of each new semester always asks the question: “Why are you studying Korean?” And many times, the answer to this question goes along the lines of: “… because I like Korean drama / history / food.” Or: “I want to be able to speak to my relatives.” As a Korean adoptee, this particular question always makes me cringe. It is an unwelcome reminder that I lost something many years ago which am only now trying to regain in my forties. I was about 4 or 5 years old when I was sent away from Korea to Germany to be adopted by my parents. This makes me one of about 200,000 adoptees that were sent abroad. Sending children abroad for adoption is a practice that ― despite Korea’s economic wealth and shrinking population ― this country is still exercising. The Korean language was never something that I wanted to learn back when I was in elementary or middle school, despite my adoptive parents’ active encouragement and support. I was probably more fortunate than other adoptees in the sense that I grew up in a big metropolitan city in Germany with a decent Korean diaspora. In fact, I had Korean friends in middle and high school. Probably part of my reluctance to learn Korean when I was younger was the ambition to adapt as completely as possible to my new surroundings in a country that is clearly very different from Korea. It was not until about 32 years later that I visited Korea for the first time as an adult and not until I was in my late thirties that I started learning Korean. The motivation for learning Korean in the beginning was born more out of the desire for smooth transactions: I like Korean food and I wanted to be able to order food at a restaurant. During my first trip to Korea, I also wanted to be able to perform basic tasks, such as buying a bus ticket, finding a hotel room to stay, etc. But getting started with learning the Korean language also allowed me to gain access to Korean culture and to my origin. However, studying Korean has its own challenges for me that are different from learning any other language. Of course, there is always the stigma that Korean is one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. But in addition to the various reasons that Korean is difficult to learn for English (or for that matter German) speakers, there is a deeper struggle inherent in it for me. This struggle is more emotional. It is the feeling that this language is something that I lost or that was taken away from me and that I will never fully regain. This is because I did not grow up with parents who spoke Korean nor did I grow up in a Korean environment. Despite all my best efforts, I will likely not be fluent enough in Korean in the same way that I am now fluent in the language of my adoptive country. And it will be noticed. When I walk around in Korea (or for that matter in a Koreatown in another country), somehow Korean people can pick me out and Koreans will recognize me as one of theirs. Which is great until it is not great anymore because of the language barrier. After all, why should I be able to speak Korean? I am German! So, when it comes to studying Korean there is always the sense that somehow, I should be able to learn it. After all I was able to speak Korean in my first five years before my adoption. But at the same time there is that sense of shame or failure and I am catching myself apologizing all the time to people for the fact that I do not speak Korean well enough. In the search for one’s origin, one of the biggest challenges that adoptees face is the language barrier. Having the ability to communicate in Korean not only is relevant in the direct search for one’s origin, in other words, being able to read adoption papers, communicate with orphanages, the police, or the general public to ask about the circumstances of being found or relinquished, but also in the search for one’s lost cultural heritage. As a transnational adoptee it is nearly impossible to access official Korean resources without Korean language skills. Translations are poor or incomplete, government programs that are even targeted to the Korean diaspora are often time only available in Korean, and even cultural events in one’s adoptive country are in Korean. Cultural nuances are oftentimes communicated through language. More profoundly it appears that without deep knowledge of the Korean language, the keys to Korean culture will not become available. So, where do I go from here? As K. Anders Ericsson wrote in his 2007 article, “The Making of an Expert,” It takes a minimum of 10 years or 10,000 hours of intense training to master a skill. I still have a long way to go, but I am confident that I will persevere.

Originally published in The Korea Times.

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