Blogroll: The Limits of Language

Submitted by Kate Newman ETA’12-13

This entry originally appeared on a Fulbright grantee’s personal blog and is published with permission here. The views expressed in these entries are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fulbright Korea or the Korea Fulbright Infusion staff.

A major component of adjusting to my new life in Hwacheon and South Korea more generally is learning how to communicate with my limited Korean. The intensive Korean classes I took at Jungwon during Orientation were equivalent to three semesters of college Korean classes and were taught by the best language professors in South Korea. Yet, Korean is a very difficult language for native English speakers so my Korean is still very limited and really mainly allows me to do everyday tasks and make some small talk. Since Korea is going to be my home for a year and the parents I am living with speak limited English I have had to devise new ways to communicate and form stronger bonds with the people around me.

During my time here I have learned how far a simple smile can take you in forming a good relationship with someone or smoothing over a cultural faux pas. I have also learned that the use of gestures and a google translate app can greatly enhance any conversation. A simple insa can inspire a shop owner to say hello to you everyday when you walk by. My time spent with my family, particularly my parents, has also demonstrated how much can be communicated with limited language. I truly feel at home and comfortable in my house despite the language barrier between my parents and I. I also feel like I have an understanding of who they are as individuals and a family and I believe they have come to understand my values and priorities. Overall, I have been amazed at how much I have been able to form relationships and find a sense of home despite not speaking the language.

And yet there are still moments when I realize that without fluency some things are simply unable to be related. The other morning I was eating breakfast with my mom, dad and younger brother as always when my dad asked me something in Korean. My brother turned to me to ask my father’s question. He then asked me “Did you see terror on 9/11?” I was a little taken aback by the question giving the nature of the question and the timing, 9/11 was still a week away. As I tried to formulate an answer I was awoken to the futility of the conversation. The correct answer to his question was “Yes, I saw terror” and yet I wasn’t quite satisfied to describe what had happened to me, my family, and so many countless other people as ‘seeing terror’. That phrase seemed to dramatically reduce the complexity and magnitude of the events of 9/11 and yet due to my brothers limited English it was the only way he could phrase the question. I was frustrated that I felt like I had to reduce such a pivotal and monumental event in my life to a simple yes or no and that any details I offered would not express my true feelings. My brother’s English simply isn’t strong enough to understand the nuances that are involved in expressing my emotions, thoughts, and feelings about the events. Additionally, I realized his cultural knowledge and age also would have prevented him from understanding my true thoughts and feelings even if his English was more fluent. Even language isn’t sufficient. I’m not really sure what to make of my realization or how it really impacts my time here. I think one of the most frustrating aspects of this awakening to the limits of my language was my own reaction to it. I was upset that I felt like I had to simplify my thoughts and feelings. I felt like I was betraying many people I cared for by diminishing the significance of the events of 9/11. Yet, I had no reason to feel that way since my brother phrased his question in the only way his knowledge of English allowed him to. To a certain extent I feel like it is close-minded to be upset by a well-intentioned question and yet I was.

I feel like this post is a little disjointed but I think it’s the best I can do for the moment because I am still making sense of my own beliefs about the relationships between language, culture, and communication.

“The Limits of Language” was originally posted on Kate Newman’s blog “Kate’s in Korea” on September 13, 2012.