Why I Study Bilingualism.

If you look up the word “mutt” in Merriam-Webster, you’ll find two definitions:

1. a stupid or insignificant person
2. a mongrel (or, mixed-breed) dog

I was ok with being called a “mutt” for a long time not recognizing the association between being mixed and being stupid or insignificant. And I honestly believe many people use this word for people of mixed-race with the second definition in mind. I also know that we all move through the world with biases we’ve been socialized to believe. This is why I study code-switching specifically and bilingualism more broadly.

When I was growing up, teachers would say that raising children with multiple languages would be too confusing, even potentially delay their academic progress compared to their monolingual peers. My mom didn’t care. She put me in a hangul hakkyo, a Korean-language school. I was taught how to read and write in the language of home, similar to how I was taught in the language of school. 한국 사람 이면 한국말 배워야 해요. (=If you’re Korean, you must learn Korean.) What’s unfortunate about this process—which in turn led me to dive deep into Korean music, movies, and culture—is that this didn’t really exist for another language I grew up speaking.

Black English: the language of my dad, his parents, and his parents’ parents. But for me, being Black in the South wasn’t like a Spike Lee joint. Growing up, I went to church on Sundays in white, lace-trimmed socks and a pair of patent Mary Janes. I learned to drive manual in an empty parking lot, where my dad told me three things I should do if I ever got pulled over by a cop: (1) keep your hands at 10 and 2, (2) listen carefully to what you’re being told, and (3) only speak when spoken to. Then there were the annual family reunions, the pot of chitlin’s on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the hair braiding sessions…

My parents, in Korea, while they were still dating.

It’s amazing how certain memories will stick with you forever. Like this one memory from when I was in high school, I overhead my mom talking with some White woman. This White woman went on to say something like, “It’s a shame she’s mixed. How is she gonna marry when she gets older?” I knew that the she was me in that conversation. And from then on, I couldn’t help but notice every time someone, anyone, would swish my racial identities in their mouth with a slight twinge of distaste. “So what do you like to eat?” “Fried chicken and kimchi. Sometimes together.” “Do you speak Korean?” “Yes.” “But you’re Black?” “Yes, and Korean. So what.” I could see how hard it was for them to reconcile two, disparate racial identities into a single individual.

I still see how hard it is for people trying to reconcile how one individual can embody multiple races, multiple languages. I was taking a class on second language acquisition when I was an undergraduate student, and that’s when I learned about different models about how multiple languages can be learned. None of them resonated with me. I grew up learning more than one language. I started to look at what bilingualism researchers had to say long after I had already graduated from Georgia. Not only did people start arguing that children didn’t grow up confused when learning multiple languages, but that bilinguals had this cognitive advantage.

I went from being considered confused to gifted. I didn’t think of myself as particularly “advantaged”, however. I struggled finding a steady job after college. I had to work my way up. I was hardly the top performer at anything, though I would do well enough to make money and keep my job. Where was this “advantage” in my brain? More importantly, when would I tap into this “advantage” if it existed at all? I appreciated the changing shift in people’s attitudes towards me and other bilinguals like me, but what’s my truth? And do these hypotheses help to explain my truth?

This is when I applied to PhD programs looking to further investigate my truth.

And so far, I’ve learned that I’m no “mutt.”

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