Monday, January 08, 2007

Off the Boat, but not Landed

Dear Korean,

I went to college in New York and had hung out with 1 1/2 generation immigrants from all over Asia. In my experience Koreans tend to be the slowest to assimilate and to learn English, compared to other East Asians. I'm talking about people who came when they're less than 10 years old who still spoke English in incomplete sentences with a heavy accent. Is that something you have noticed too? If so, what do you think is the reason for that?


Fellow AA

Dear Fellow AA,

“Compared to other East Asians”? That’s a bit misleading, isn’t it? There are only three East Asians – Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese. Japanese people stopped immigrating en masse long time ago, so there are no Japanese FOBs. (“Fresh off the boat,” Asian equivalent to “wab”) So you’re basically comparing Koreans and Chinese. And the Korean did not really notice the difference between those two. (or three, if you want to get technical and separate Mainlanders and Taiwanese.) There are always some group of FOBs among Koreans or Chinese that are always slow to assimilate, no matter how early in their lives they move to the U.S.

The Korean cannot speak for the Chinese folks with any sort of authority, but as far as Koreans go, there are several reasons why this happens. First, these are usually the people who immigrate later than age 8, when the “language instinct window” closes and language learning has to be forced, not automatic. And there are enough Koreans in the U.S. (particularly in big cities) to live a life pretty comfortably without speaking any English, provided that the person has no ambition to make anything out of himself in the American society.

Second, a significant number of Koreans who move to U.S. are precisely of that sort. Many, many Korean students (as young as second graders) come to U.S. because their parents fear that they won’t make it in the brutal educational system in Korea. (And it is brutal indeed, but that’s another story.) But the inevitable truth is that some of those Koreans are too dumb to make it in any educational system, especially the system that runs in a different language. If these kids stayed in Korea, they would be the types who huddle in the back of the class, doing just enough to get by in school, and smoking, drinking, and partying out of school. It’s not all that different from American kids who do the same, because dumbness is evenly distributed across countries, cultures, and languages. It’s just that dumbness manifests itself in a different form—not learning English—for those dumb kids who are stuck in a different culture and language, since, as the Korean said previously about learning language, assimilation is not a walk in the park.

-CORRECTION- The Korean is currently reading The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, which is a fascinating book. According to the Language Instinct, an average American six-year-old commands 13,000 words (or to be precise, listemes, the term include idioms like “cutting the cheese” whose meaning has nothing to do with “cut” or “cheese”,), and an average American high school graduate knows roughly 45,000 words. My previous entry said 6,000 words to carry a conversation, and 10,000 words to read newspapers. The Korean got the numbers out of memory, which was wrong. The Korean stands corrected.

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