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A Non-Native Speaker Tells What It's Like

Jennifer Enge-Shockley is 46 years old, and a wife and a mom. She has lived in Fort Collins, CO for 2 years and previously lived in Buffalo, NY for 13 years. Her formative years were in Wisconsin. She grew up on a dairy farm just outside of the small town of Sauk Prairie.  Her parents had 4 kids of their own, then wanted to adopt. Jennifer has two younger sisters who are from also South Korea. She received her BA at UW-Madison, Post-Bac at UW-Milwaukee to teach English-as-a-Second Language, and M.Ed. at University of Buffalo in NY. She talks about what her non-native language experience was like below.

How old were you when you moved to the United States? Can you describe what it was like?

I came to the US in November of 1984. I was 11 when I came but turned 12 two weeks after I arrived.   I flew from Korea by myself with other adopted babies. I don’t remember the flight to the US but I do know that I was not afraid.  I’d had a pretty tough life in Korea, and so I knew I was flying toward something better. When I met my parents for the first time, I bowed to my dad.  They loved the fact that I bowed to show respect. I had my first orange soda which I loved. I flew into Chicago O’Hare airport and got in a VW van with 3 sisters, an older sister’s boyfriend, and my parents and drove in the dark for 3 hours until arrived at the farm.

 I woke up on Monday morning to dead silence. My two younger sisters went to school, and it was just my parents in the house with me. This was scary to me because in Korea, I grew up in cities with lots of noise and was always near someone. I lived with my mom’s sisters and their families from age 6 to age 11 in one room homes.  My new parents' home was so large! I think I got lost a couple of times before getting the hang of having so many rooms. I slept in a bed for the first time as well. Soon after arriving I started to have lots of nightmares and started feeling anger at being given up by my biological family and fear of not being accepted by my new family.

What were some challenges you faced at home?

At first, day to day communication was very difficult.  I did not like the food my parents gave me. In fact, the first time I had cereal, I vomited.  In my mind, it was weird to have a snack in a bowl with milk for breakfast. I was used to eating rice three meals a day with assorted vegetables and soup.  I know I became moody and would swear at my sisters for trying to have me eat their food because I didn’t know how to say I didn’t like their food. But, I love food, so it wasn’t too long before I became comfortable with the way my family ate.  That was one of the first obstacles I had to overcome.

What challenges did you face at school?

At first, school was pretty easy for me.  I was supposed to be in 6th grade but my parents and the school decided I should have at least a whole year at elementary school before moving onto middle school.  I was really good at math. The math education I received in Korea had transferred over well.   My everyday language improved pretty quickly and I really enjoyed being in school.

School became extremely difficult when I entered middle school. I no longer had any language support and there was a whole new set of subject language to learn. Learning Algebra meant learning a whole different kind of new language of which I had absolutely no comprehension. Trying to convey to you what it was like to go to school is kind of overwhelming. Each subject lent its own mountains of obstacles for me to overcome. Jim Cummins, a language theorist said that a language learner can acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in 2-3 years but Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) takes 5-7 years to acquire if the language learner has had academic experience in their native language, in order to succeed in school.  Raising a child of my own, I see that he’s constantly learning new academic language and those new academic languages are reinforced every day until those languages become part of his long-term memory. And, here I was learning school languages that kids learn throughout their early childhood. I felt very stupid amongst my friends. Studying at the university was also very difficult. I needed to read materials over and over in order to comprehend my assignments. 

Can you remember any specific incidents dealing with a language barrier from when you were younger?

Not too many months after I arrived from Korea and was going to school, I got in trouble at school.  I was waiting in a line to get on the bus to go home and the kid next to me told me to pull down the lever that was next to me on the wall.  I didn’t really understand what he was saying but I certainly understood the gesture for pulling down. So, I pulled the lever and unbeknownst to me the fire alarm went off.  The principal had to call the fire department and explain what happened and then drove me to my house. Everyone else had gone home. I just remember being shocked by the noise of the fire alarm and being scared that I would get in huge trouble with the school and my parents.

How did those challenges affect you emotionally?

Emotionally, I always felt intellectually inferior to my friends because I wanted to have better grades like my friends.  I did not want to share my results of tests and projects when my friends would share their experiences. My self-esteem and self-worth were lower than they really should have been.  It wasn’t until I got my higher education degrees that I realized what I experienced in my earlier education would have been difficult for most new language learners.

Did those challenges ever make you shy away from doing things?

Yes!  In high school, I was in a show choir which I loved.  However, I was too embarrassed by my accent, difficulty of remembering lyrics, and Asian features to try out for solo parts or doing anything that would draw attention to myself.  

As an adult, I sometimes have a hard time in a new social setting from my learned behavior of shying away from situations where I have to carry on a conversation and being embarrassed by my still existing grammar mistakes.  I like to think of myself as being somewhat funny and charming but only to those who really know me.

Do you have any advice for non-native language speakers?

I would say to non-native speakers that they will overcome the obstacle of learning a new language and that they shouldn’t let the language challenges hinder them from doing the things that are their dreams.  I would also say that they may be a target of some ignorant comments or even hate but not to let these negative comments or thoughts derail their goals. I’ve had people call me racist names or make ignorant comments and those negative words hurt but have not let that change who I was or am.

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