Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Language (No Pictures, I Know, but One of My More Reflective Posts)

There’s a huge difference between learning a new language and relearning a language you’re already supposed to know. With Japanese, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come, but with Korean, I only think of how far I have to go. The little Korean that I do know I mostly taught myself in middle school, after years of being sick and tired of hearing the accusations of my parents for forgetting such an integral part of my identity. Taking the textbook method, I did manage to learn how to read and write and get through some basic grammar, but speaking, the most noticeable element of a language, still remains my weakest point. I always wanted to burn all my Korean books at the end of it all because I knew it would never again be natural for me to speak Korean without thinking of each word beforehand and breaking down each sentence into their grammatical components (and for everyone who knows how convoluted Japanese grammar is, I actually think it’s pretty logical when compared to Korean grammar).

High school was pretty busy and I was tired of studying a language that seemed impossible to master, so my Korean studies stopped (unfortunately resulting in a loss of vocab as well). The summer before Yale though, I think my Korean might have peaked. Learning from my past mistakes when I only relied on the textbook, I instead watched a ton of Korean dramas and in lieu of studying individual words, I wrote down entire PHRASES that I thought would be useful. I think this is especially helpful when you’re a heritage learner, since you probably hear them in the home every now and then and can catch onto the context quickly. Since then, however, my commitment to Korean has slid with the craziness of Yale, and I tell myself I should probably take 이선생님’s class sometime soon since I don’t seem to have the discipline to study on my own. Other times, I cringe when I think about structured learning from a textbook again.

I also sometimes question if I really need Korean to be content with who I am. Obviously, learning the language will not make me any more Korean than my American friends who learn it, enjoy it, but will never be Korean themselves. Even some of my Korean-American friends, who are fairly fluent in Korean, come back after a trip to Korea and admit that they could never truly think like members of Korean society. From my parents’ lectures as a child, I used to think that mastering Korean would be the key to integrating myself into the Korean community, but I don’t quite think it works that way anymore.

Maybe this is part of the reason why I chose to take Japanese instead of Korean my freshman year. Usually, I justify my decision by reassuring myself that it was a good time to start a new language, that I had always wanted to learn Japanese, etc. etc., but maybe in the end, I was tired of feeling the need to learn Korean in order to be accepted by other Koreans. People sometimes raise their eyebrows and ask, “Oh, you’re taking Japanese? Why not Korean? Or even Chinese?” I don’t regret my decision at all, however; I sometimes tell people, “I don’t drink coffee, but who needs coffee when you have Japanese class every morning?” I haven’t settled on a major yet, but I think Japanese will remain a significant part of my experience at Yale, whether I major in something like East Asian Studies or not.

Nevertheless, definitely someday, I plan to learn Korean, but not so much as to complete my identity; rather, to be able to talk with my grandparents and expand the group of people I can communicate with. And I would love to visit Korea sometime in the near future. I talked with Panvoka-san on the bus to the Asahi elementary school visit today, and she told me that being in a foreign country makes you realize how much you’re missing out on your own. Not necessarily that I can call Korea my “own”, but I can’t help but think about the differences between Japanese and Korean culture whenever I observe something new here. So hey, Korea, I guess I’ve moved on from the days when I wanted to completely reject you as a frustrated middle schooler. Yet in the end, I still don’t know how much of my identity I'm willing to give to you. 

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