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Fear, Tears And Good Faith: How One Ohio Woman Taught Herself To Speak English

Kayoko Hodges
Emma Stiefel
West Chester resident Kayoko Hodges grew up in Okinawa, Japan. After 50 years of living in the United States, she still struggles to pronounce certain words.

Native English speakers can talk all day and not think twice about the words and sounds coming out of their mouths. But what is it like to go through life when your voice alone marks you as a foreigner?

This is the challenge Kayoko Hodges, a West Chester resident, has faced for over 50 years since she moved to Ohio and began to learn English.

During our interview, Hodges showed me how hard it is for her to pronounce the English letter "L." She attempted to say "Kelly" the way I, a native speaker, would. The way Hodges pronounces the name, it sounds closer to "Kerry." The "L" and "R" sounds are hard for her to differentiate because in Japanese, her first language, the sounds are blended together.

Hodges grew up in Okinawa, Japan. She moved to America when she was in her 20s and has lived here since, immersed in English. Now, 50 years later, she's in her 70s and still has an accent.

"I don't care how many times they teach me [native English pronunciations]," Hodges says. "Even if they show me tongue movements, I still can't do it."

The only time Hodges formally studied English was at her school in Japan. She learned simple words like "sky," "beautiful" and "go," but not how to put a full sentence together. That was all she knew when she moved to the United States in the 1960s. She came here because she'd married an American man in Japan and they had a daughter, and her family moved to Trenton.

Kayoko Hodges
Credit Courtesy of Kayoko Hodges
Hodges celebrating Halloween with her family in 1971.

"That was a really scary time, especially because I had a kid," Hodges says. "Later I found out [my children] cried over how people made fun of them because I'm Japanese."

Back then, Trenton was mostly farmland, the farmers were mostly white, and not everyone was tolerant of the way Hodges spoke. There were times when she would ask for help in a store and receive nothing but strange looks and unwelcoming silence. She might repeat her question multiple times, but if the person still couldn't understand her, they'd just walk away, she says.

At other times, her children would help her communicate. Her daughter, Gina Marshall, remembers one instance. "We would go through a McDonald's drive-through but she couldn't order Chicken McNuggets," she recalls. "We would always roll down the window and order it for her."

Hodges really wanted to get better at English. The way she learned was mostly from raising her kids in Ohio. If she bought them a comic book, for example, she'd read it, too.

Her English gradually improved, but speaking was still hard for her. Her neighbors didn't always know what she was saying. They'd often ask her to repeat what she said, and after saying the same thing over and over again multiple times she says her "embarrassment and shame would come out."

Hodges was nervous about not being understood, but she's always been outgoing. So she decided, if her family could understand her, one day others could, too.

"I started to go [up] to people, even strangers," Hodges remembers. "If I was standing in traffic waiting for a green light and somebody else was nearby me, I'd just say, 'Hi, how are you?' "

Now Hodges can tell that her English has gotten better. She says she no longer has to repeat herself over and over. Her daughter has definitely noticed a change, too. She thinks her mother has reached a point where, despite her accent, she's more comfortable speaking in English than Japanese.

If Hodges' accent is noticed by her family at all today, it's usually as nothing more than the source of a joke. Marshall shared that they especially love poking fun at Hodges' handwritten Thanksgiving menus.

"We'd look at [the menu] and just crack up because her spelling is just like the way she speaks," Marshall says. "She would say 'thurkey' with a 'th,' so [her menu would say] 'thurkey and glavy.' We'd rib her a little bit and say, 'Oh, I love thurkey and glavy.' "

For her part, Hodges is happy to laugh along. Her sense of humor is as strong as her will to keep fighting and learning English. She's now sharing some of that strength with other immigrants who have made this corner of Ohio their home. If she spots someone else struggling to communicate, she'll go out of her way to encourage them.

"I go back to my past, [because] that's how I was," Hodges says. "If [the struggling person] is by herself I always go and say hi. I try to tell her - I don’t know if she understands me or not, but I still tell her - 'Hey, I was there, so just hang in there.' "

Hodges spent years struggling to find her voice in her community. Now that she has, she's using it to pass on her resilience and empathy to a new generation of immigrants yearning for understanding.