Land of English Only

I was born in a land of English speakers,
where parents believed speaking English
was the key to success.

My father was only a first-generation American English speaker.
His parents, both born and raised in Korea but living here, spoke Korean only,
sadly could never communicate with me, except through my father,
believed, too, that I should learn English only, and learn it well.
My maternal grandfather, who lived with us,
was born and raised in Oslo, Norway.
He learned English here in America, still spoke Norwegian well,
but I never learned his native language from him,
because he lived with us, and we stressed English only.

I have finally visited both Korea and Norway,
each for the first time recently, having time now I’m retired,
and what I wish most – wished even more as I walked my ancestral homelands –
is that I could speak Korean and speak Norwegian,
converse with these strangers descended from mutual progenitors
in a language native, only to them, whom for all I know
might have been near relatives.

Have you ever tried to learn a language on your own,
using tapes or CDs, known the luxury of pausing and repeating,
over and over until you’d think most people might have memorized them cold?
I have, and I am not as stupid as I might appear.
I was also not a child by then, which is when language learning is optimal.

What I did learn, then,
over all the hours of repeat and repeat,
diligently, determinedly attempting
to teach myself Korean and Norwegian,
is frustration – and loss.

If I were writing this piece with my paternal grandparents,
or my maternal grandfather, or even my father sitting here beside me,
I might be able to bang out a line or two
in Korean or Norwegian, with their kind assistance,
but they are all ghosts now, and although they very well may
sit here now watching me, they do not speak,
or if they do, I can’t understand what they are saying.

Talk story

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