I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Specifically, what it is that I want to achieve with Korean.
It’s been 6 years since I started studying Korean. Not a terribly long time, but long enough for me to have moved the goalpost several times. When I was just starting out, all I wanted was to be able to read books and watch movies without subtitles. Later, I decided that being able to have fluid, natural conversations with native speakers was what mattered the most. And then when that goal was more or less achieved, I decided that what I really wanted was to be able to communicate in a way that wasn’t just natural, but meaningful.
Surely that would be enough? What could be more fulfilling than ‘meaning’ itself?
I’ve come a long way. I remember struggling to follow Youtube videos even with the help of subtitles or spending an hour just trying to decipher one page of Harry Potter and stopping every few minutes to look something up. I remember the frustration I felt during my language exchange sessions, struggling to put together even the most basic of sentences despite being able to understand everything that my partner was saying.
These days, I can watch and read almost anything I want. I can express myself reasonably well both on paper and in spoken conversations, which for some people is the very definition of fluency. I can function just fine in the language. I can even teach people who are just starting to learn it.
But I’m still not happy with my level. I want to move the goalpost again, except this time, I’m not sure where to place it. What more do I want? And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I wanted was never really fluency, which to me is the ability to communicate with relative ease and fluidity. What I wanted – and still want – is to be able to be myself.
There’s the idea that we form a new personality with every language we learn – I don’t fully agree with this, but in any case, this isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being able to communicate in a way that feels true to who I am as a person.
You know how sometimes you want to say something in your target language but you’re not sure how to word it naturally, so to avoid sounding weird, you choose to say something else – something similar, but hopefully close enough so it wouldn’t be a lie?
Except it is a semi-lie. Or at least that’s what it feels like to me. It’s not the same sentiment or idea, only a shadow of the initial thought – a mimic, an echo. Every nuance left out, altered, or obliterated feels like a part of myself lost in translation. I know language isn’t an exact tool, so some amount of approximation is inevitable, but just how many of them must I utter before it stops being genuine expression and I start feeling like a machine just spitting out pretty, polished sentences?
As someone who loves putting words together and rearranging them like pieces of a puzzle, who sometimes values form over function, I’m surprised by how much this bothers me. But I suppose at the end of the day, we all aspire to some level of authenticity in our lives, and it just so happens that languages are a huge part of mine.
I guess that’s my new goal – to speak Korean authentically. I know it’s a lofty one (even in one’s native language), and that it’s going to take me a heck of a long time to get there. But I’m not in a rush.
What about you? What’s your goal for your target language(s)?