Soomin Kim is a double-degree sophomore, studying music composition. As a native Korean speaker, she is studying multiple languages, including English, Japanese, and Spanish, and she is teaching Korean Elementary I ExCo class. Although we commonly believe that speaking many languages have additive benefits, Soomin believes it is more complicated than that.
When I was a first year, my roommate fell down from her bed once. I instantly woke up and was so worried about her, so I kept asking her if she was OK in Korean. I knew that she doesn’t understand Korean, but I just couldn’t control my language because I just woke up from a dream in Korean. This kind of discrepancy happened a lot to me since I came to the US. For example, when someone talks to me while I’m texting my friends in Korean, my language gets all mixed up and I end up speaking in a language that is neither English nor Korean. Also, when I try to translate something I just said in English into Korean, I find it really hard to make a natural and fluent sentence in Korean. In general, switching back and forth between Korean and English is just really hard.
But what’s interesting is that there are some occasions where one language works better for me than the other. Before I write music, I always do a little sketch about how I want this music to be like when it’s done. I draw in some notes, rhythms and stuffs like that but I mostly just scribble some random words that come up in my head. And I have to write them in Korean because it is the fastest and the most straightforward pathway from my thoughts to my writing. On the other hand, when I write, let’s say, a draft for my essay, I have to do that in English. I saw some people who think it is more convenient to write their essays in Korean first and then turn them into English, but I don’t like doing it that way because it feels to me like doubling the workload and it is really hard to translate something written in Korean into English because of the fundamental difference between the two languages.
In fact, I wonder if a perfect translation of any language to other language can ever exist. Language is so closely related to culture that it is often very hard to translate a certain language without explaining the culture. For instance, Korean and many of other Asian languages have honorific form of language which makes some expressions hard to be explained in the context of English. One day I was teaching my ExCo students an expression “잘부탁드립니다”, of which the direct translation is “Consider me well”. But that’s not what it means — I had to mention about Korean culture of hierarchy in order to help them understand the real meaning of the expression. Not only that, but the way each language puts emphasis on things is also different. For example, what might be called just as “감자튀김(fried potatoes)” in Korean have different names like tater tots and hash brown in English depending on their types; several shades that might be called just as “blue” in English have different names and different connotations in Korean.
I personally feel like that language is like a collection of names. We have these unnamed concepts in our head and language gives us a way to name them. And when we name them is when they become different, since the way each language names things are different due to the cultural differences. After all, what I think is the most special about language is that it makes real what have been floating around in my head. It sorts, organizes and sets boundaries to my otherwise nameless and limitless thoughts; it brings to the real world otherwise shapeless and unsubstantial concepts. Therefore, for me, being able to speak more than one language means that I can color my thoughts in different colors, dress them up with different clothes, and express them in different ways to many different groups of people. And I think it’s really cool.