I don't understand you

By Jae-Ha Kim
March 21, 2013

When I was in graduate school, my journalism teacher asked me, “Why can’t Asians pronounce r‘s and l‘s?”

Seriously? I looked at her and said in perfect English, “I really, really don’t know.”

She didn’t get it. She basically was asking an Asian who spoke perfect English, why I couldn’t speak perfect English. She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that maybe I was fluent because I was raised in the United States. But that Asians who hadn’t grown up here might have a difficult time pronouncing English words because — oh, I don’t know — they speak other languages back in their native countries.

This got me thinking about pronunciation, and how difficult it is to change how you perceive a sound. I’ve known my best friend since we were in kindergarten. At the time, I didn’t speak any English. She didn’t speak any Korean. It wasn’t long before I became fluent in English. And she was at our house enough that she heard me speaking Korean to my parents. I always found it interesting that the word she heard me say the most — umma (mom) — was one that she pronounced wrong, every single time. And it’s one that a lot of Westerners can’t seem to get right.

No matter how many times I said it, she heard, “omma.” As in, “Oh ma!” I was having this conversation recently with a Caucasian friend and she said, “But that’s how it’s pronounced. Omma.” When I corrected her, she said that I was wrong and that I must be hearing it incorrectly.

I will be the first one to admit that my Korean is rudimentary. But, I know how to pronounce mother in Korean.

Which leads me to my mother. My father is from Seoul, but my mother is from a rural area. I never thought much about their accents because, to me, they were just speaking Korean and I couldn’t differentiate between the nuances of their speech patterns. One year, a couple of older university friends came to visit me at my parents’ home. They, too, had been born in Korea.

Always the gracious hostess, my mother welcomed them into our home, fussed over them and served us delicious snacks. Later, I found out that one of the girls had made fun of my mother’s accent, describing it derisively as “country.” If I could go back in time, I think I’d be hard pressed not to punch that girl in the throat. Say what you will about my thick, flat Midwestern accent. But do not make fun of the way my mother speaks.

My parents’ accent speaking English was another matter. Like most people who learn a new language after they hit puberty, my parents spoke English with a foreigner’s accent. My mother was always shy about speaking English, but my father was comfortable with the language and liked to chat. He had served as an interpreter during the Korean War. So I always thought it was odd that, because I had lost my Korean accent quickly and spoke “perfect” English, store clerks would answer to me, even though I was a child and it was my parents who had asked the question.

Instead of thinking, “Wow. These people have accents, because they’re smart and can speak another language,” they were probably thinking, “What? I can’t understand you. Learn to speak English.”

The thing is, my parents were speaking English. There were just a lot of people who didn’t want to listen.

©2013 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved 

Comments (5)

  1. brittinbusan says:

    People used to make fun of mom all the time as a child and I just laughed it off. Wish I had the balls back then to defend her ㅠ_ㅠ

  2. JanOwens says:

    I was transplanted to the Mid-west from central NY. I, too have a “flat” accent at times – especially with certain words. Most people don’t notice until I say “frog”, “hog” and some other words with that flat sound. I’ve been in MO for 40+ years, but having been on the receiving end of poking fun at how I accent certain words, I tend to notice when others are not original mid-westerns. With those from other countries, I try to listen more intently and concentrate on what they are saying so they don’t have to repeat. I admire those who come to this country and learn English well enough to carry on conversation. English is a hard language for the natives to learn! I can only imagine what it would be like to have to start learning it at the beginning as an adult. Kudos to your parents for making the effort!

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