English Literacy

My Experience with English Literacy: The Influence and Impact of the "Traditional" American Family

Coming form South Korea, becoming fully literate and fluent in English has not been easy for me. To some degree, this has to do simply with the sounds and the mechanics of the language -- learning new ways to move my mouth to produce sounds that do not exist in Korean, and learning new rules for putting sentences and thoughts together in a way that can be very different from Korean, presented many challenges along my road to English literacy. Instruction and practice, of course, helped me to eventually overcome most of these difficulties, to the point that I can be more confident in my use of English and literacy and communicative powers in the language. But the issues of mechanics and the alien nature of many of the aspects of the language itself were not the sole reasons for my struggle with becoming literate in English -- there are other reasons, as well.

Specifically, there were several distinct cultural barriers that made my approach to English more difficult. It is not something one thinks of before they are explicitly and directly confronted with it, but there are certain concepts that are virtually unthinkable in every culture due to that culture's language -- or at least that culture's perception and use of that language. This can make learning a language very difficult in certain contexts, and in regards to certain concepts. It is not that foreign concepts simply cannot be understood, but rather that it takes an extra conscious effort to change the complete framework or way in which one thinks about something in order to incorporate certain ideas that are antithetical to one's own linguistic belief system. For me, the American family was such a concept.

Coming to understand the American family and the wide array of formations, roles, and responsibilities it has provided a large barrier to my understanding of English, though my struggles to understand the family also ultimately led me to a greater appreciation of the language and the way it operates. Both the American family and the English language have a great deal of fluidity and flexibility, and can be both highly formalized and rule-bound or completely casual and non-consequential. This is very different than my experiences with both language and family growing up in South Korea, and was not something I easily adjusted to. There is a great deal of evidence, however, that I am not alone in this struggle, nor in identifying the very different ways in which families operate as a major obstacle to both my linguistic and my cultural literacy in English.

Learning a new language, especially in the midst of a new culture, is at least somewhat a matter of assimilation -- of growing to become somewhat like the new culture. This is a necessity for understanding the cultural import of the language, as explained above. In such these scenarios of cultural assimilation, "distinctive ethnic traits such as old cultural ways, native languages, or ethnic enclaves are sources of disadvantages that negatively affect assimilation (Zhou 1997). The much more rigid notions of family that I grew up with and still hold as my primary understanding of the concept of "family," that is, made it harder for me to truly assimilate into American culture, and to come to understand the English language in the terms and from the perspective of that culture, which is necessarily the truest possible understanding of that language.

This difficulty that different understandings of family can have on difficulties with assimilation and even with the learning of language is even well illustrated in English fiction. In the story "Four Directions" from Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, the protagonist keeps trying to find a way to let her mother know that he will be marrying her live-in boyfriend. She brings her mother over to the her apartment, where Rich's presence is obvious from all of his stuff, but her mother only comments, "You are busy. You want to live like mess what can I say?" (Tan 125). The mother's concept of family will not allow her to acknowledge her daughter's familial situation, and when she lashes out it is in the broken English of an immigrant, despite the fact that he mother has lived in the United States for decades. Her unwillingness to assimilate and the difficulties she has accepting her daughter's American concept of family are matched by her continued lack of fluency in English.

The American family structure is very weak compared to the Korean ideal of the family, just as its fluidity is incompatible with the mother's stricter concepts of family in Tan's story. The American family has even reached the point where American commentators have called on the need for a new "family-based' social contract," where family units are more tightly bound both socially and economically (Wetzstein). The essential problem is the lack of intergenerational support, particularly of the younger generation for its parents, which leads to an increase in poverty and other social problems (Wetzstein). Stronger family ties would prevent these situations from developing; ther very idea of a family that is not completely socially and economically intertwined is completely alien to me.

This has made the family a difficult subject for me to understand in American life, and at first presented a barrier to my understanding of the English language. When words and concepts varied so much between my own experience and the new usages I was being exposed to, this can hardly be surprising. An examination of the different ways in which families and children have been viewed over the ages makes it very clear how profoundly dissimilar different culture's perceptions of family relations can be. The fact that Romans could effectively make someone a part of their family through economic ties seems abhorrent to both the American and the Korean sensibilities regarding families, yet it was a common and unremarkable practice among the great empire builders of Western civilization (which reveals a great deal about how family and culture are united (Graf 27-8).

Literacy and language use are just as intimately tied to culture as family is, and so there is an intimate if indirect link between family and literacy, as well. The Roman practice of adoption led to, as far as modern scholarship can tell, a bond of family as strong as any brought by a blood relationship. In the American family, there seems to be an opposite force at work, where even blood relatives might not be accorded the same positions of privilege and honor as friends might, and are even cut out of people's lives either purposeful or by a growing distance. It is not that these things don't happen in Korea, but they are less frequent and they are much more powerful and dramatic episodes than they are in American culture. The ease with which an American family can change or fall apart seems to be mirrored in the way its words can change meaning; both make for difficult cultural navigation.

President Obama and his family have been hailed in the press as the new symbol of the American family; they are intact and strong, both with professional jobs and high educations and daughters who are young enough to be unequivocally moral and innocent in all that they do (New York Daily News). Strangely, this is actually closer to the Korean ideal f the family, as well, especially with the strong patriarchal figure and the sense of support that the entire family provides to each other. This is a family that seems completely knit together, and the actions of the one will surely have an effect on the rest. This is in large part due to the family's prominence in…