Conversations with Real Live Biliguals: Ms. Donna Ko

This is me and ma GIRL Donna Ko aka Korean Rapunzel (check out her hair!!). She is a bilingual BFF of mine from high school (go Tigers) who came to America from a small rural town in Korea at the age of 9. She first ended up in an ESL class in Newark, New Jersey where her teacher, most likely ashamed for butchering her Korean name, “Donghyung”, decided to Americanize it to Donna and voilà. Awesome: Donna’s dad is called Robin, guess why.

My friends and I always got a kick out of it when Donna’s parents would call her on her cell, because she would answer the phone like “uhhh!” and then speak rapid fire Korean and throw in random English words like “mall” and “Starbucks” and “Alice”. Donna says she now speaks Korean with an accent, but she sounds perfect to me!

What’s your name (accents, characters and all)

(고동형) ko donghyung (ko is the last name; koreans say the last name first then the first name, which is donghyung)

Where were you born? 

Seoul, South Korea

What languages do you speak? What’s your mother tongue? 

I speak Korean as my mother tongue and learned English in the States

When/how did you learn to speak English ? Was it a hard and painful process? 

I learned English when I moved to NY at the age of 9 from Korea. It was an extremely difficult and frustrating process! I never actually learned english properly; I learned from purely hearing people speak. Hence, I am always learning and correcting my grammar even at this age (22, soon to be 23). I never passed my ESL class! Haha i think it took me about 3 years until I was able to communicate at some level but since I came here without knowing any English, it was very hard. Nowadays, learning English is one of the top priorities in Korea so kids at being taught English even at a very young age. I came from a rural poor town so we didn’t have the privilege of learning English.

What language do you think in? Dream in? 

I think and dream in English

What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in? 

Definitely hands down English. I am forgetting Korean more and more everyday because I came at an age where it was early enough for me to learn English relatively quickly but on the down side, because I’m not speaking Korean everyday, I am almost replacing my Korean language with English.

Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what? 

Yes- there’s a word to describe someone who is very… corny but the word in Korean kind of translate directly into English to mean “Greasy”. sometimes that word can be used to describe food that is not interesting/bland/oily or greasy but it can be used to describe a person’s personality too. I just can’t seem to find a word in English that fully exemplifies that word.

Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings? 

My parents do not speak English- I speak Korean with them. I speak English with my brother because he was born in the States.

Do you feel different when you speak your mother tongue?

Yes, I feel like a 9 year old communicating to anyone in Korean. I never learned to speak Korean in an eloquent manner since I moved to NY at that age. Also, I am getting really rusty at speaking Korean so I feel almost embarrassed and awkward to speak Korean

Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends?

Yes, although i probably speak the best korean out of most of my friends hahaha

Do you think people who speak your mother tongue natively can see that you’ve spent a long time outside of that country? Do you think you sound foreign in your mother tongue now? 

YES. I have actually heard that i have an accent when I speak Korean! I guess I’ve really displaced my Korean speaking skills with my English speaking skills. Although I do have a slight accent when I speak English, I am so far from confident sometimes when I speak Korean  and my choice of vocab sometimes isn’t the best so I think Koreans who speak Korean fluently can tell that I have been very “americanized”

Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? (Donna, anything but no rang cha go shi puh, i need a new Korean expression to use on people). What does this mean and why did u choose it?

hahahah! im so impressed you still remember that! “yul shim hee sal jah”  (열심히 살자) translates into “let’s live faithfully/to the fullest/hard” but that hard in the context of “working hard” or something. so i think if you can find a better word that describes the ‘hard’, that would be the best word. but ‘lets live hard’ sounds funny haha so i chose the other ones. this is a saying my mom always says to me when things are tough in life or we are having a bad day/week, etc. it’s such an encouraging saying and just the two of us share it. sometimes my dad says it too, but it just holds a lot of meaning for our family. its such a simple statement but i get a lot of strength from hearing this because it makes me feel like we can do anything in life, regardless of any hurdles and obstacles we face.

A naughty, naughty word please. 

Oh god.. sadly, i dont know any naughty words !!! i was too young to learn any when i was 9… i can only tell you curses and private part names lol!

A sexy word please. 

likewise… 9 year olds do not know sexy words, especially growing up in a rural farm land. haha. i am pathetic.

“Alice is awesome and I love her and miss her!” 

앨리스는 대단하다 난 그녀를 사랑하고 그녀를 그리워

(i straight up google translated that because i can’t type korean on my computer ahaha and it does a better job at it than i can!)

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Conversations with Real Live Biliguals: Ms. Donna Ko

  1. Louise Egan says:

    Nice interview, Donna! As for your grammar, public school in Larchmont/Mmk didn’t teach it to Alice (or anyone else) either — drove me nuts. I taught a L’mont-Mmk Continuing Ed course in grammar & writing to native speakers of English – lawyers, accountants, insurance writers, etc – who never learned grammar either. Next time you’re in NYC & want a little dose of grammar (on the house, of course!), let me know & we can meet up.

  2. Dinkske says:

    I speak French, Flemish, English, basic German, basic Japanese yet I think abstract thoughts in no language at all.. The only moment I use language without speaking is when I form sentences in my mind just before writing something down. I can also program in a myriad of languages ranging from 8080 assembly to lua with C and mc60k in between.

    Why is “in what language do you think” an obvious question ? .. This isn’t the first time I hear this question either.

  3. Pingback: Cutest card from Korea | Language and other musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s