Two months after my second child was born, our family moved to Korea, where we lived for almost four years. During that time, I switched back and forth from Korean to English. Because my in-laws didn't speak English, I learned to speak Korean in their presence--no matter who I was talking to. I learned pretty early that when you speak a different language in front of someone else, they feel left out at best and paranoid at worst. People have a tendency to think that you're talking about them when you switch to a language other than the one that they speak. In addition, I found it was easier on the kids if I spoke to them in Korean in front of their grandparents. I learned that lesson after many incidents in which I issued one command, like, "Go brush your teeth," and my mother-in-law simultaneously issued another, like "Anja go meokeo," ("Sit down and eat"). My poor soon would just look at both of us. I felt so bad for him in those no-win situations that I switched to Korean in front of my in-laws whenever I could.
It was apparent to everyone that my oldest son understood both languages, even if he preferred not to talk in public. But my youngest son was a different story. Although he had originally begun speaking both English and Korean, he quickly stopped speaking English and spoke only Korean. He would still answer my questions in English, but he would answer them in Korean, so people began saying that he couldn't speak any English.
Then we moved to our own apartment, and often there were no adults except for me around my youngest son, who happens to love cookies.
One day, he wanted a snack just before dinnertime. He walked up to me and asked, "Oma, kwaja chom cho," the informal way to say, "Mommy, can I have a cookie?"
"Aniyo" ("No"), I answered.
He paused a moment, put both little hands together in the polite gesture for asking something of an elder, and asked again, in the much more formal way, "Oma kwaja chom chuseyo," ("Mommy, may I please have a cookie?")
Again, I answered, "Aniyo" ("No"), and added, "Etdaga cheonyeok meokja" ("In a little bit, let's eat dinner").
He shuffled his feet, looked at me cunningly, rearranged his little hands, and made his cutest face.
"Mommy," he said in perfect English. "Cookie, please?"
I was too shocked to hear him speak in English to argue. He got his cookie.