There’s an urban legend perptrated by my mother and it goes something like this:
Twenty years ago (almost to the week, now that I think about it. uncanny.) a four-year-old Colleen set off for her very first half-day of kindergarten, complete with neon-yellow kool-aid backpack. I’d been looking forward to school my entire life–at least since I realized that my older siblings were capable of recognizing words and letters ANY TIME THEY WANTED TO–therefore my mother did not anticipate any reluctance or anything that did not resemble the wild transports of a four (five?) year old getting what she wants. Imagine, then, her surprise, when the bus deposited Colleen back on her doorstep, flushed and not a little disgruntled.
Quoth she: “How was school?”
Quoth Young Colleen [emphatically]: “NOT very good.”
Quoth she: “Really? Why not?”
Quoth Y.C.: “Because you said when I went to school Miss Royce would teach me how to read! and I was there ALL MORNING and I STILL CAN’T READ.”
My outrage knew no bounds.
Of course I did learn how to read and that one skill more than any other, I think, has defined my life. I love to read and always have, and (the other trait you might have pulled from that anecdote) I also like to be able to pick things up quickly. I don’t like being incapable. I don’t like not knowing.
But now I am in Korea. And guess what? I cannot read Korean. I cannot speak Korean. I cannot understand spoken Korean, and I cannot write Korean. And I want to. Not because I feel any special draw towards learning this language–but because for the first time since I was four years old I literally cannot read. I am illiterate, and I don’t even have the comfort of a neon-yellow Kool-aid backpack (which, sadly, grew some sort of fungus as a result of an untidy Y.C. who did not clean out her leftover school lunches thoroughly enough, for shame).
Now, blessedly, I am in a country where a high premium is placed on English (it is the reason i am here, after all) and so I will nearly always be able to find someone to at least somewhat communicate with, and I am with people who are not illiterate. So it’s not as though I were in the same plight as someone who actually is illiterate. But I know that these signs, these symbols, everywhere i look, they all have meaning, and it just makes me twitch to know that they have meaning and to also know that that meaning is essentially untouchable. I can’t understand it, even if I wanted to. I don’t even know the alphabet. I have never really known what it was like to be so cut off from participating in communication this way.
The solution is to begin at the beginning and learn the alphabet, every letter of it. Learn the grammar rules with the built-in social hierarchy and learn as much vocab as I can. While at the same time trying to teach younger children not to use the language I need to learn, their illiterate teacher.