While I was crossing the Pacific 41 years ago on my way to this country as an immigrant, I had many American dreams in my mind — of wealth, fame, successful and prosperous children, and so on. But there was one thing that I had never dreamed of, or worried about, and that was the language.
Of course, I knew I would encounter some communication problems at the beginning of my new life, because my English proficiency was limited to what I had learned in English classes from middle school through college. But I thought this problem would be spontaneously solved as I continued to live in this country, just as I had learned the Japanese language rather passively while we were under Japanese occupation.
But as soon as I arrived, I became involved in a busy schedule of retraining in my professional field, a surgical specialty of medicine, and then a busier private practice. So I did not have much time to pay attention to other fields. Occasional difficulties during conversations with patients disappeared rather smoothly.
As I was more settled and started to pay attention to other fields — such as community affairs, newspapers, magazines and literary works written in English — I became aware of the fact that my English proficiency was not satisfactory. I started to learn English again, this time teaching myself, tackling the dictionary whenever I encountered unfamiliar vocabulary. But with very limited time to spare for this and my ever-advancing age, the progress was very slow.
After I retired from my practice a few years ago, I immediately registered at the local community college and started with English 101. To sit among the students whose average age was 18 or 19 — this septuagenarian had to summon up a big gumption.
My progress is still slow, though. I attribute this to two factors. One of them is age: I realized that a language has to be acquired during one's young age. The other is the fact that my native language, Korean, shares not a single iota of etymology with English — unlike the shared roots among European languages.
All these difficulties notwithstanding, I am resolved to continue my endeavor. To master the language of my new country is my new American dream that I had never dreamed of before.
The AARP Bulletin's What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Young C. Shin is a reader from Aberdeen, Md.