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Thu, Sep 23, 2010
Korea Herald/ANN
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Which mother tongue should you teach your child?
by Claire Lee

Korea - There are certain first moments that are magical for mothers: The birth of their first child, when their child makes first eye-contact, their child’s first steps, and the first time their child says the word “mother.”

For Tsagaan Ankhtuya from Mongolia, that last magical moment took four years.

“I forced myself to speak Korean to my son for the first three years of his life,” said Ankhtuya, who left her home country to marry a Korean taxi driver eight years ago. “People told me if I spoke Mongolian to my child, he would fail to speak any languages at all so I at least wanted him to speak Korean properly.”

Ankhtuya realized what she had been told was totally wrong when she first visited a multicultural library called Modoo, meaning “all-together,” in Imun-dong, Seoul. Unlike many other Korean-immersion multicultural institutions, the library staff encouraged her to speak her own language to her child. It is still emotional for Ankhtuya to recall the moment when her son first called her “aeja,” “mother” in Mongolian when he was 4.

“I felt this must be it,” she said. “This is how it’s supposed to feel when your child calls you mother. I never got such a feeling when he called me ‘eomma’ ‘mother’ in Korean the whole time. It just wasn’t the same.”

Opened in 2008, the library Modoo is small in size but unique in style. It is one of the very few multicultural institutions in Korea that offer a cross-cultural learning environment involving migrant mothers’ mother tongues and cultures.
Tsagaan Ankhtuya (far right), a migrant mother from Mongolia, poses with other immigrant mothers at a multicultural library Modoo in Imun-dong, Seoul (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)

Filled with books from Mongolia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, China and even Iran, the library offers both resources and reading education for migrant mothers and their children who are unfamiliar with Korean culture and language.

But they don’t just learn Korean language at Modoo. Parents read stories from their home countries to their children in their mother tongue books they had read as children.

Sung Ji-yeon, one of the officials at the library, said learning about their mother’s native culture and language is very important for children of multicultural families in Korea.

“It tells them it is more than okay to be different,” said Sung, “and be proud of who they are, and who their mothers are.”

According to Sung, many mothers who come to the library have not spoken a word to their newborn child until they entered kindergarten.

“Most of them don’t speak Korean very well and are forced not to speak their native language to their child by those around them,” Sung said. “So they end up not speaking at all. And not having enough verbal communication with their mother as a newborn can severely damage a child’s intellectual and psychological development.

“Most of these women marry Korean men of low-income households. Many family members on their husbands’ side don’t know much about what to do. They just assume that if a child learns a foreign language as a baby, they won’t be able to learn any languages later on, and force such an idea to the migrant mothers.

“But it’s scientifically proven that young children are capable of learning multiple languages at the same time; having a bilingual environment only betters their linguistic development and cultural understanding.”
The National Folk Museum of Korea’s new multicultural learning resource, Cultural Discovery Boxes, which contain audio-visual materials and cultural bjects from Vietnam and Mongolia (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)

Hence every mother who visits Modoo for the first time is encouraged to make a special statement, called the “mother tongue nurture declaration.” It is designed to remove the undeserved sense of guilt women have about their inability to speak Korean, and to encourage them to proudly start speaking their mother tongue to their children.

For many women, it’s a very emotional moment.

“I am the mother,” the declaration says. “The words come out of my heart, for my lovely child has my soul and duty toward him ... so when the time my child has to walk alone on the road of his life, these words can be a guide for his mind and soul.”

Established by a non-profit organization Purun Citizen Community, Modoo has managed to collect 1,000 books from more than seven countries. But for cultural education sessions, it’s always good to have resources such as costumes and traditional artifacts.

Last month, the National Folk Museum of Korea introduced two special “Culture Discovery Boxes” about Mongolia and Vietnam, two of the many Asian countries where a high number of women marry Korean men. The cultural resources are exclusively researched and designed for multicultural education, especially for children of foreign-born migrant mothers.

“Up until now, multicultural education in Korea has been extremely Korea-oriented,” said Jang Jang-sik, senior curator the museum, who has visited Mongolia numerous times to collect cultural items.

“The kids would only read and write in Korean, and only learn about Korean culture. Now that has to be changed. Multicultural education must be cross-cultural and develop mutual understanding. Both Korean children and multicultural children need to learn about other cultures, where their mothers or their friends’ mothers are from.”

Supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, the boxes contain audio-visual materials, as well as cultural objects ranging from an elementary school report card in Vietnam to traditional silver plates from Mongolia. Each drawer of the boxes will have traditional costumes, musical instruments, puppets, maps and reading material. Participating children will be able to touch, observe, imagine, listen and “try on” the culture and stories of almost every nook and cranny in Vietnam and Mongolia.

While the two big boxes will always remain in the museum for visiting children and teachers, 14 boxes of smaller size, categorized by different themes such as history, food, culture and music, will be available for free rental to any multicultural institution in the country.

“There are so many tragedies and problems with regards to migrant women and mothers in Korea,” said Jang. “We hope this project can ease and heal such conflicts.”

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, over 150,000 immigrants currently live in Korea, married Korean men. More than 45 percent of them have experienced domestic violence within the past year. In July, a 20-year-old Vietnamese woman was killed by her husband only eight days after arriving in Korea. Last week, another married immigrant from Mongolia was stabbed to death by the husband of her friend.

By Claire Lee ([email protected])

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