Making sense of life in two languages

telephone unmarked WMAlice and I have been staying in Korea for the last month or so, trying to soak up as much Korean language from Han’s family as we can before Alice turns two.

She is absolutely thirsty for words at the moment, and her ability to express her needs and personality is improving every day. For me there is a great sense of relief that all the effort I have put in to her language development, particularly over the past 12 months, has really paid off. Obviously there are similarly aged children here who are more advanced speakers than her, but there are also children who are speaking less, so I dare say her Korean language development is at least average or better, which is a great achievement for both of us.

A few weeks ago Alice started saying “할로” (or ‘Hello,’ I have typed it in 한글 because that is exactly how it sounds when she says it.) I’m guessing the reason she started saying it in the middle of our Korean trip is that “Hello” must stand out a lot more when she hears it here, which is less often than back home (Although I must say A LOT of Koreans try to speak English to Alice, and she usually responds with a blank look. But if they speak Korean to her, she has learnt some new tricks, like holding up 3 fingers in response to “몇살?” because 3 is her Korean age)

In Australia, Alice hears a mix of Korean and English across the various situations of her daily life. She hears English in shops and playgrounds, from my mum and sister. She hears Korean and English when Han and I are talking to each other, Korean when we speak to her directly, Korean from Han’s parents via skype; at Korean playgroup, from local Korean community, in songs, television and story books.

In Korea, Alice has heard Korean everywhere, with the exception of when we’ve met friends of mine who speak with me in English (Australians,) when we skype with my mum and the aforementioned random English that strangers approach her with.

Alice has been very interested in mobile phones and phone calls for a long time now. We bought a toy mobile phone for her on our last trip to Korea which was May of 2014 and it has always been a favourite. When she doesn’t have a real or toy phone to play with, she also improvises with her hand, pressing ‘buttons’ in her palm, and even holding it in front of her face with her other hand and counting down to take a photo “~!” (she imitates exactly the way we sound when we take photos)

Lately she has been doing something I have found particularly interesting. She’s started roleplaying longer phone conversations, and using them as a means to explore life as a bilingual person, some of the calls being in English, and some in Korean.

Since we haven’t intentionally taught her English at all, her English phone conversations go something like this:

“Hallo? Howyougoing?

Yeah? Yeah? Wee-wee? Yeah? Okay.


I think ‘wee-wee’ is an attempt at ‘really’ and the rest are expressions she hears frequently when I am on the phone, I guess..

Her Korean ‘conversations’ tend to go on a little longer, with a lot of babbly babyspeak sentences mixed in and sometimes expressive hand guestures with her other hand. The main content goes like this:


네 네 네~ ~ ~


끄’ might be an attempt at , or 끊어, I suppose.

She’ll also use the name of a family member she’s pretending to speak to.

Sometimes she will make a number of these ‘calls’ in a row, so I ask her who she’s calling, and she will tell me a family member each time, and the language used in the following call will correspond correctly to the language that person usually speaks to her.

I suppose this type of play indicates that Alice now has a real sense of English and Korean being different and distinct, and each language being a part of the major relationships in her life. She also seems to have a clear understanding of who uses which language. I guess she is now trying on the concept of also becoming an English speaker and imagining what that will be like. It seems that she might be ready and interested in beginning to take on more English language. I guess that means I will need to work just as hard for the next 12 months..

  • Christina

    Wow! I love reading about how Alice’s Korean is progressing. My hubby is Korean and I hope one day to teach our kids both languages! I’m wondering, how did you learn Korean so well? I’m finding it really difficult studying on my own!

  • Cate Han

    I always check your blog for updates, and I’m so happy to see this one. It’s really incredible how quickly children are able to absorb and use new information, and I am especially fascinated to read about how Alice is responding to the presence of both English and Korean in her world. I really admire how much work and effort you are putting into her development and look forward to reading more of your future updates. Best~

  • Hope Choi

    I am very happy to have found this blog. M own son is 3 months old and I have been using my extremely limited Korean to try and converse with him. Seeing your post on animal sounds and easy phrases helped motivate me to learn more. I had been doing the peekaboo with him, regardless a little bit differently, but it was surprising to see it on your list. I love feeling like there is hope for him to learn. His father is not here and he speaks Korean fluently so I am picking up the slack. We live in a very non Korean friendly are with no access to learning materials or interaction.

    I get excited to see your daughter explore her bilingualism seeing as that is exactly what I hope to achieve as well. I really really enjoy your blog, as I am learning so is he!

  • Linda Dunsmore

    What an interesting development! I love reading about Alice’s progress! It’s astonishing that she can distinguish the two and learns more and more! I can’t wait to have my own bilingual, bicultural child to try out the same :) love your blog xoxo i’m moving to Korea soon so maybe we can meet up when you’re around :)