Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ask A Korean! News: Sorrow and Outrage over Trinity River Accident

Welcome back readers, the Korean is now fully moved into his new place, and the Internet connection is up and running. While the Internet was gone, the Korean was working on a few drafts and they are almost ready to go. But this piece of news had to be reported first.

Yesterday, near Dallas, TX, a Korean couple accidentally drove their car into Trinity River and drowned. The following is from Dallas Star-Telegram:

Officials have confirmed that a missing couple from Garland are the people whose bodies were found Wednesday morning in a car submerged in the Trinity River in southeast Dallas.

Young Kim, 60, and his 57-year-old wife, Sook Yun Kim, were identified Wednesday afternoon by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office.


The 2006 Hyundai Sonata they drove was found submerged in water near a boat ramp below the Loop 12 bridge that spans the Trinity River, just south of Sleepy Hollow Country Club.

The area is about a half-mile east of the loop's intersection with I-45. Their destination on Sunnyvale Street was on the west side of Interstate 45, about two miles west of where the car was found.

"There are no obvious signs of foul play," said Senior Cpl. Donna Hernandez, police spokeswoman. "But there is a possibility that the time they were driving through the area could have been the same time that there were storms Monday afternoon.

"Possibly they were simply swept away. We just don't know right now."

Hernandez said investigators have confirmed that a cell phone belonging to the couple was used to make several 911 calls.

Emergency operators did not fully understand the calls, said Paul Lara, spokesman for Dallas Fire-Rescue.

The full story is here.

One preliminary thing - It annoys the hell out of the Korean when mainstream media mangles Korean names. The deceased husband's name is Young-Hwan Kim. There are very few one-syllable Korean first names. It's true that often Korean people only go by one of their syllables because it would be so hard for white people learn TWO unfamiliar sounds put together; but at least a newspaper article about a person could report the person's full name.

What is outrageous to the Korean is the last part of the quoted article. Basically, the Kims called 911 several times, and the 911 operators hung up on them several times, because the Kims did not speak English. Local Korean newspapers are reporting that the Kims called 911 at least 3 times, and after the calls were hung up, they called their friend trying to get him to call 911 and explain in English, and told him, "The water is coming in, please help us."

My goodness.

Yet the Korean is certain that there will always be some idiots who would think or write some trash like this. The best part is the following:

"Call me hard-hearted, but if you come to MY nation and spend over 20 years of YOUR life here (the Korean's note: it is true that the Kims lived in U.S. for 20 years), making money, enjoying the fruits of this land and ALL it has to offer and you don’t have the motivation to learn to speak English, or you don’t entertain the idea that after all that time you SHOULD become an American, to hell with you, I don’t care WHAT happens to you, you’re nothing but a leech on MY nation."

There are so many things the Korean would love to tear apart in the above the sentence, but allow me to just deal with one nagging question that gets asked to the Korean all the time: How can immigrants live in America for decades and never learn English?

The Korean went over this once, but now he sees that this question has to be answered more emphatically. LANGUAGE LEARNING PAST AGE 8 IS REALLY FUCKING HARD. IN FACT, AFTER AGE 30, IT'S VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Learning a language is nothing like learning how to ride a bicycle. Learning to ride a bicycle is about learning to manipulate body parts in a certain way. But remember, you already know how to move those body parts, you just have to move them in a certain way. Language ability is a specific brain function, whose window is only open approximately between age 1 through 6. Learning a language is more like learning how to move your limbs. If you were strapped to a bed since birth and never learned how to move your limbs for 30 years, it would not matter that it has been 20 years since you have been unstrapped - you would never move your limbs as naturally as normal people for the rest of your life.

We always underestimate how difficult language learning is because we all know at least one language, and we are all experts in it. But here is a question: How many words do you think does an average six-year-old child knows? One thousand? Five thousand? Answer: 13,000 words. Think about that. It takes about six words a day every day of that child's life to learn 13,000 words. This cannot be done through a conscious memorization process. The first-language acquisition process is instinctive.

Think also about learning a language after that language instinct window closes. You have to learn 13,000 words in order to speak as well as a SIX YEAR OLD. A freakin' six year old! Can you even think of anything other than general vocabularies that you know 13,000 of? Can you name 13,000 different people? 13,000 different types of animals and plants?

Now imagine you are an immigrant in late 30s ~ early 40s, right about the time the unfortunately deceased Kims immigrated. You have a job and a family to take care of. Chances are your job is very tiring because hey, if it were easy, white people would be doing it instead. You get out very early for your job, and get back home very late. You are tired as a dog. Would you want to learn at least 50 words a month so that in 20 years, you can speak as well as a slightly slow 6 year old?

Didn't think so.

Two short points before we close up here:

1. The Korean's guess is that the Kims actually knew enough English to work. If they were in a calm situation, they would have been able to communicate what was going on. But they were minutes away from death, water rushing into their car. The Korean has had a chance to listen to many taped 911 calls -- they are barely intelligible, even in English. The Korean himself starts losing English when he's drunk! Minutes away from his death, the words out of the Korean's mouth would not be English either.

Which makes one wonder: Don't 911 operators deal with people minutes away from death all the time? This was not some hick town we are speaking of -- this is Dallas for God's sake, with plenty of immigrants. (Google Earth shows that the Kims were not even that far off of downtown Dallas.) And whoever said 911's job is to save only the lives of English/Spanish speakers? What if a foreign tourist were in an accident in Dallas -- are they condemned to die? Shouldn't they have at least one person who can speak different languages, so that they can save people from death?

2. What is amazing is that the Kims called 911 several times. We all know 911 dispatchers can track locations of phone calls. So if the dispatcher hears some unintelligible yet hysterical phone call from the same phone number and the same location several times in the middle of a storm, shouldn't the dispatcher send someone to that location no matter what may have been said over the phone?

The Korean can only hope that the surviving family would sue the hell out of Dallas Fire Department. The fact that members of one of the largest immigrant groups in America, in one of the largest cities in America, could die because the emergency response would hang up on their desperate pleas for their lives, is simply unacceptable.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I don't agree with what you say about learning a new language. At 16, I learned to speak Spanish fluently. I'm 31 now and I'm learning Korean. While it's a challange, it's not anywhere near "virtually impossible". As a matter of comparison, my 32 yr-old fiance is learning Korean, too, and he's not struggling, either. Granted, we aren't ready to go to Korea alone, but his (Korean) mother understands us. If we pronounce something wrong, she corrects us and those intances are getting to be fewer and farther between.

    That doesn't mean I agree with rum-dum rednecks that think everyone has to speak english. Considering that anyone I've met with this opinion can't speak "their" native english very well (let alone that they've never bothered learning another language), I can only think of them as inbred morons who are most likely repeating something they heard someone else say. They can't really think for themselves, you know.

  2. Thanks for agreeing with my general point, but I still maintain that second language fluency is virtually impossible to achieve past age 30.

    First, I don't think we agree on what "fluency" is. Often, people mistake being "fluent" as "not having trouble getting around," e.g. being able to buy things at a supermarket and have a short chat. That's incorrect. In order to achieve that level, you only have to know the most basic grammatical structure and about 500 words. You'll be surprised at how few words you actually need to have a short conversation. The Korean had a 3 hour chat on a train in Europe with a couple of Czech folks, who spoke no English or Spanish (and definitely no Korean). All I had was a tourist word book that carried about 30 words. Still more than enough to talk for 3 hours, with a help of a few charades. Too far fetched of an example? The Korean also learned exactly one semester of Mandarin Chinese, and easily had a 2 hour dinner conversation with a guest at a banquet who spoke little English.

    But if the conversation gets even a little bit nuanced or abstract, I bet you and your husband (and myself, with Chinese) would go nowhere using only Korean. Your mother-in-law understands you because she is used to listening to hybrid English/Korean that many second generation Koreans use. But fluency in Korean? I sincerely doubt it. (Your Spanish ability is something else, since it's learned during your teens.)

    Like the post says, a six-year-old knows 13,000 words. 500 words might be enough for every day purposes, but that's nowhere close to fluency. How can you call anyone fluent if that person has 1/25th of a language capability of a six-year-old? "Fluency", as linguists define it, is the ability to speak at the level of an average 12-year-old or so. At this point, a child has acquired around 35,000 words. For second-language learners, this level is usually achieved after about 4 years of intensive language learning. (i.e. spending at least 2 hours a day, every day, learning and practicing the language.) Unless you REALLY apply yourself, it's not likely that you will achieve fluency in Korean starting in your 30s, especially if you have a job and a family to take care of.

    That said, I was trying to emphatic in the post, and that particular sentence came out a little strong. The technically correct sentence would be: It is virtually impossible to achieve fluency in a foreign language past age 30. But read in the context of the post, the sentence is not all that over-the-top.

    The bigger point that I really wanted to make was the fact that first language acquisition and second language acquisition are fundamentally different things. Learning the first language is literally like learning to breathe. Since everyone learns the first language so effortlessly, everyone expects immigrants to pick up the second language in several years. This gives fodder for morons everywhere. (And they are not even rednecks either! They live in Dallas for God's sake.)

  3. I agree with your comments on second language fluency, but a discussion on this completely takes attention away from the fact that the operators at the Dallas Fire Department screwed up big time. They should have made some sort of effort to dispatch a squad after three calls from the same phone. Of course, understanding what the Kims were saying would have helped, but that's besides the point. Clearly, it can't be a prank call if it's from the same phone three times, in addition to the fact that the man on the other side was clearly in a state of panic. I wonder what that operator did after he hung up the third call; look back at his buddies and say "fucking teenagers."

  4. While I agree that it's next to impossible to learn to speak a new language perfectly I think you're beating a straw man here.

    You don't need to speak perfect English to call 911. A simple sentence like "help me. I drove into the river and can't open the door" will suffice. The caller likely spoke no English at all and that's why their calls were hung up. The original poster has a valid point in that new immigrants who's lived in their host country for more than twenty years should have learned enough of its language to call 911.

    How would you feel if the situation was reversed? What if a bunch of people started to emigrate to Korea from China, Vietnam, Iran or wherever to work and they refused to learn any Korean and expressed no interest in assimilating into Korean society, hmm?

  5. 1. Even the most basic sentence is impossible to form when you are facing death. If you are panicking, you can't even say your own name right, much less another language. Chances are, the Kims were trying their best to speak English to the operator, but the operator just hung up on them. Multiple times. If that doesn't bother you, I don't know what will.

    2. What "reversing the situation"?? The Korean lives in America, thank you very much. But sure, suppose if many people immigrate to Korea to work. I would be just as upset if they died because a rescue worker REFUSED TO HELP THEM. These people are supposed to be in the job in order to save a human life for God's sake.

    And what's with the obsession with assimilation anyway? Why do we get upset at people who don't assimilate? If they continue to live in America, their children will automatically assimilate no matter how hard they try not to. What's the hurry?

  6. I'm very much with you on this issue.

    It's ridiculous, regardless of the English speaking ability of our victims, that the 911 operator didn't even bother to fathom what was going on beyond that phone.

    My dad, who is a government officer in Korea, scored a near perfect score in TOEFL in his 30s. Now, 5 years after he left Canada, his English is a mess.

    It pisses me off, too, to hear my friends complain about immigrants not learning English.

    Granted, there are 14~18 year old Korean kids at my school who do not bother to mingle with anyone else but other Korean visa students. Those kids are just morons.

    But in regards to older immigrants...I think it's pretty much impossible for them to learn English and support their family at the same time.

    E.g. my mom. LOL.

  7. I posted a comment about this story at TMH when it first broke. The Korean press reported that the dispatcher had hung up on the man because that is what the man told an acquaintance he phoned afterwards. The dispatcher, however, stated that the phone got cut off. Dallas, like any major city, has a large non-English speaking population that any emergency services would be prepared to deal with. Without corroborating evidence, I would give the dispatcher the benefit of the doubt. A friend of mine applied to become a dispatcher, and the entrance exam included a simulation of emergency calls, including those from non-English speakers.

  8. If you as any linguistic specialist they will all tell you that English is the hardest language to learn.

    I personally know many Americans' who don't speak proper English.

  9. One more thing. English is not America's official language. It may be its' unofficial language but there is no legislation in place that holds "English" as this nations official language.

  10. It's been a while since I first read this post, but feel like I'll respond today.

    Perhaps it's an us-versus-them that's just a naturally built-in mechanism in our behavior, and our civility is a measure of how well we can keep that in check.

    In the US, we're taught that we're a land of immigrants (though some Americans are far removed from their own family's immigrant experience), and we're taught that it's wrong to be critical of foreigners, so English speaking — that great measure of assimilation – is used as a proxy for the xenophobia that can't be expressed directly.

    And certainly some people internalize this more than others. People shopping in department stores get knee-jerk angry when they hear someone speaking some other language, and that isn't so unusual, but the 911 operators should be trained to overcome that. If not, that's criminal negligence. There's no excuse for this kind of thing.

  11. I know I'm coming in on this very late, but I only just started reading the blog. I would like to defend the Koreans by offering an anecdotal story of a much less dire situation my sister and her fiance experienced when he proposed to her.

    He has lived in the US since he was about 5 years old (emigrating from Mexico), but Spanish is still his first language. He attends Spanish Mass with his family and my sister, and decided to propose to her at Mass. He says that he planned to propose in English to make absolutely certain my sister would be able to understand everything he said (since English is her 1st language, and her Spanish certainly is not fluent). However, when he got up there in front of the entire congregation and started proposing to my sister, it all came out in Spanish. He says he was thinking "Why am I not speaking English?!" but the adrenaline and nerves from the proposal simply messed with his brain, and he spoke in the language most familiar to him.

    Now imagine a man who spoke Korean as a 1st language for 30 years before presumably starting to learn English. He is in a life-threatening situation, adrenaline is pumping. His brain doesn't have time to translate from Korean to English. If a Mexican can't even get his mouth to speak English at something as non-life-threatening at a proposal, what makes one think a Korean could possibly get his mouth to speak English when he is afraid he and his wife are about to drown?! Get a grip people.

    I must say, even though this happened 5 years ago, this entire story makes me sad and angry. Sad that two people drowned and had to suffer through that, and angry at the poor service of the Emergency Operators and the callous response of imbeciles who are unwilling to empathize with the death of these two people simply because they did not speak English. How absolutely idiotic.


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