When you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to be bullied

penI shared the following with parents and staff who attended a Literacy Information Evening held at a downtown Toronto high school. 

My family and I immigrated to Canada in 1975. I was seven years old. Because I didn’t speak any English and our family was very poor, my brothers and I were bullied very badly in school. A little boy who lived in my neighbourhood used to enjoy taunting me more than anyone. One day after he had hit me with a wrench, he accused me of starting the fight. Because I spoke so little English, I couldn’t defend myself. Worse, I had no idea what the adults who separated us were yelling at me, but I understood by their tone and body language that they thought I was at fault. I learned very early in life how important language was and the power it possessed. Later, I learned how important choosing the right words were for creating understanding. One of the things I used to hate doing most as a child was translating for my parents. Unlike myself, who had the opportunity to develop my language skills in school, my parents’ English remained poor. I remember being in a hospital emergency room and having to translate for my mother, describing the pain she felt in her stomach. I hated seeing my mother, who was a teacher back in Korea, so vulnerable and unable to help herself. All my combined experiences shaped my determination to learn English, a language I have since fallen in love with and come to appreciate for its endless beauty.

I wrote my book largely to share my family’s immigrant story with my daughter who has no idea just how difficult things were for me and my parents when we first came to Canada. Writing has been a wonderful way for me to work through personal pain and challenges. Writing the book has given me many personal insights and helped me appreciate all the hard work and sacrifices my parents made. As a teacher, I encourage my students to write – about their feelings, their hopes and dreams, as well as to explore their thoughts. Research has shown that writing is an excellent way to deal with some forms of depression and anxiety, and certainly something I encourage my students to do as a guidance counsellor. Also, we’re constantly telling our children to read but it’s important they know why. Yes, reading exposes us to new ideas and promotes creative and critical thinking, but it also makes us better writers. We build vocabulary which makes us better communicators and without consciously trying, we often start writing in the same styles as what we read. This is called modelling, and why it is important that we read content that is well written whether it is fiction or nonfiction like newspapers and magazines.

Reading actually makes us smarter. As parents and guardians, we can help our children by showing them that we read. It doesn’t have to be in English and it doesn’t have to be for long periods of time. As a child, seeing my mother read despite having so little time for herself taught me how much she valued it.  I’m grateful to her for that. It’s something I want to pass along to my daughter and to my students.

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