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)?
5 thoughts on “ What Do I Want Out of My Languages? ”
I love the way you describe this. It’s so true – for the friends that I’ve almost exclusively communicated in Korean with, it’s like certain parts of my personality have been hidden just because I haven’t gained enough experience or confidence to express them freely in Korean. My ability to express myself and my sense of humor has definitely improved over the years, but I still have a ways to go before I truly feel fully *myself* when speaking in Korean. I get so used to approximating what I actually want to say through the lens of expressions that I’m confident in (which is a skill in and of itself), that I sometimes forget that the goal is to NOT have to do that lol.
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First of all, I love this comment! ❤️ What you said reminds me of this article I read on one of my favourite Korean-related blogs, Shining Korean (https://shiningkorean.com/2018/11/08/me-in-korean/), where the author talked about how they felt different parts of their personality would come through depending on the language they were speaking, and that perhaps, ultimately, this is what fluency is or should be about – a measure of how much you feel like yourself in a language, as opposed to the ease with which one is able to discuss topics such as politics and modern literature in it.
But like you said, the approximating we do IS a skill in and of itself, and a valuable one at that, as well as a testament to the amount of time we’ve spent with the language and the massive amount of exposure we’ve had during that time. I believe Billy (from Go Billy) has mentioned something similar in a recent-ish interview with Jaerim from Korean Jream. He said that after some time we tend to develop this ability to sort of work around things we don’t know/don’t know how to say, which can be very handy.
I’ve been noticing this more and more these days after joining a Korean learning server where I would sometimes help answer questions from beginners or intermediate learners. Sometimes they would ask things that I have no idea how to say because I’ve simply never come across anyone saying them. Some of them are things I’ve never had to say myself and so it’s never even occurred to me to learn how. It’s been a humbling experience because it’s revealed to me the holes in my knowledge of the language and made me realise the downside of being really good at subconsciously dodging them – it can give a false impression of fluidity (or ‘fluency’ as some might say), both to others and myself. I think if it weren’t for this experience I would have gone on feeling more comfortable with my Korean skills than I ought to, at least for a while. After all, we do tend to stick to the same subjects and pool of expressions in our everyday life, even in our native language, so without venturing out of our comfort zone, it’s really hard to tell where our limits lie.
First of all I must say I love the way you see things. It’s different and beautiful, just really beautiful I love it. Talking about my goal, I wanted to know the language. And by knowing I mean to understand the in depth meaning. Just the way I am with my native language I usually try to find proper words to express myself and get to listen that I am a little philosophical or poetic (I don’t know why 😅). most of the times in Korean I just say the words to tell what I mean to say not what I really want to say. Some day I might be able to understand the language but it will take a very long time.
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Awww thank you, DJ! 😭 You’re too kind. It’s been a while since I last heard from you, and I hope you’re doing well.❤️
It will take a long time, indeed, but you will definitely get there! The expressing part will probably take longer, but as far as acquiring an in-depth understanding of the language, I think you’re on the right track. Keep going! Consume lots and lots of content, and eventually, you’ll form that intuitive understanding you need for going beyond the surface meaning and getting to the heart and essence of things.❤️
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I admire that you’ve stuck to this for so long, and that you can even write in Korean, which is the hardest thing to do when learning a new language. When I started learning Mandarin, all I wanted to do was to be able to read so I wouldn’t be so banana.
But these days I’ve realised that besides learning, I want to be able to teach myself things, and to be able to hone in on that discipline. Am proud to have learned some 800 characters (which honestly means recognising 300 by heart and the rest I’m almost guessing), but what’s more important is that I actually did it.
Me, who didn’t know a single word of Chinese, can now read basic Facebook statuses and WhatsApp messages.
It’s been a while since I kept that up, but yeah, if I ever learn a new language, it’s that self-discovery that I’m looking for. Anyway, thanks for this thought-provoking post!
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