How does one go about developing a voice in a foreign language?

I don’t recall actively developing a voice in English. Looking back now, I think I was mostly concerned with expressing myself or communicating my ideas in a natural, grammatically correct way. Not once did I stop to ask myself whether I was writing in a style that felt right to me or similar to how I wrote in my mother tongue, and vocabulary choices were made almost entirely on the basis of clarity and efficiency.

Yet I did end up finding my voice. Or it found me. It’s not a particularly unique one, but I think if you were to compare the articles on this blog to the branding copy I wrote for my clients, you’d be able to tell that they were written by the same person.

I suppose my real question is this: is this process strictly organic, and if not, how much control do I have over it? How should I go about exerting that control? Should I start analysing works of Korean authors I like and try to work aspects of their styles into my own writing? Is that how it works? Will it work? After all, a huge part of foreign language acquisition is mimicking what we see and hear.

But the mimicking does stop at some point. Or at the very least, retreat into the depths of one’s subconscious where it goes fully auto-pilot, beyond our control. When we’ve amassed and internalised enough input for the full spectrum of our identity to emerge out of the language, a voice takes form, and all the personas we have conceived as a temporary solution to that former lack of an outlet for expression melt away. I remember all the masks I used to wear while operating in the English-speaking domains of my life. They are not who I am today. Perhaps they never were.

Right now, writing in Korean still feels largely mechanical and artificial to me. It’s not that I’m lying or deliberately concealing my thoughts, but the process itself is different. I weigh and think through every word before putting it down, and I spend a lot of time shifting things around, playing with different combinations of the same words. I read it all out loud to see how it rolls off the tongue, mulling over the melody of the words. It’s fun, but the words aren’t exactly gushing out of me the way they often do when I write in English, or Mandarin, once upon a time.

But I remember a time when writing in English was like this. Like a game, where I got to rearrange puzzle pieces to create the picture I wanted. I had a lot of fun, too. I suppose it’s all part of the mimicking process. It’s a little like growing up and finding yourself. That awkward period in life where you’re trying to figure out who you are, trying on different labels and finding that none of them fits, and pretending to feel at home in somebody else’s clothes.

I suspect this artificiality is what makes it possible for me to experience the dissociation I explained in this article. I don’t feel completely like myself in Korean (yet), and that’s why it’s easier to write about difficult topics in Korean. It hurts less because it’s not really, wholly me. It’s a shadow of me. Not in a shallow way, but in the sense that Korean currently occupies a space in my psyche where it’s able to play the role of a filter, or of a lens that projects only a select part of who I am. And I’m grateful for it.

I wonder how I sound in Korean at the moment. I’ve been told that I write well, a compliment that I suspect comes with the fine print of “for a foreigner”. I have had people telling me that I sound like a well-educated Korean, too, but I don’t think I have a good enough idea of what that means to know how it might translate into a voice. All the same, it got me thinking – how would I like to sound in Korean?

Warm, maybe. Compassionate. Thoughtful. Genuine. Authentic.

Sometimes I think this is why I learn languages. That it’s all just an elaborate mission to find my place in this vast, uncaring world. To arrive at some kind of conclusion on who I am, through all these different iterations of the same ego, all clamouring to be seen and heard.

I wonder. I wonder about the person I’m going to be in Korean, and I can’t wait to meet her.

8 thoughts on “ Finding My Voice in Korean ”

  1. Interesting! I never thought about it like this. Now I wonder how is my voice. You always give me a new thread to go follow and think about. Thank you Heather stay blessed!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So true. As someone who enjoys writing in English, my Korean writing level is nowhere near my English abilities, and my pessimistic inner voice suspect it will never come close, unless I am forced to write more often and more creatively. Despite my speaking and reading fluency, I don’t have the active literary vocabulary yet to play with words the way a native Korean would, and I don’t have the practice to feel confident doing much structurally, or even to make decently long sentences without feeling a bit nervous about the grammar.
    This is precisely the reason I keep almost convincing myself getting my PhD in Korea would be a great (albeit challenging) decision. While that would be an incredible experience (and incredibly stressful, no doubt), unfortunately there aren’t really many programs that match my field there, and I wouldn’t be able to get the same level of financial stipend. (Plus, there’s the whole cultural phenomenon of being more of underlings of the professors rather than having more creative liberties and independence in the west–a phenomenon that I haven’t personally witnessed, but based on Korean society structure I have no difficulties imagining that this is often likely the case.) But gosh, when I think of the wonders that would do to improve my Korean, it sure does feel tempting sometimes.

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    1. I have no experience with PHDs in any language, but it does sound like something that will push you to go beyond your current limits in Korean! I think it’s possible, though, to achieve a similar effect by putting yourself through intensive writing exercises like translating books that you like, or writing regularly about topics you care about. But it’ll take a long time, and sometimes I find myself fantasizing about just dropping everything and going to Korea to study Korean. The wonders it would do for my Korean! I came really close to doing it, too. I think I would have, if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

      I suppose it is possible, seeing as I did manage to do it once with English. Surely it will happen again with Korean? But if my experience with English is anything to go by, it won’t for at least another decade, and that’s me being optimistic, haha. Oh, languages…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well hello, fellow Malaysian! Was intrigued enough to have met a fellow journaller, but now a fellow Malaysian too? Amazing!

    You have such a great voice in English, and I wonder how that’ll translate to Korean. I myself am familiar with all the Malaysian languages, so I can definitely relate to finding your voice in our non-primary languages. Definitely do document your journey here. I’ll be super interested in knowing how it goes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Stuart! Thank you so much for stopping by. It’s so lovely to meet a fellow Malaysian on here, and I’ve been subscribed to your blog for a while now… I love your articles!

      Do you feel like you have a different style in every language you speak/write? I feel like that’s the case for me, although I suspect that might change as I venture deeper into the world of translation… Surely some parts of one language will end up seeping into the other if I spend so much time translating between them?

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      1. The only other language I can write in is Malay, and that’s extra formal, for some reason. I can converse (on WhatsApp) in basic Mandarin, but I feel like that‘s not a voice more than a bunch of sayings put together (好心你啦 or 笑死我). So your post really did get me thinking!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, I see! I haven’t written anything in Malay for years, so it’s super rusty now, but I suppose if I could go back and look at the essays I wrote when I was 17, it would probably also sound kind of formal. Perhaps it’s the academic context – since I never really attempted creative writing in Malay, and whenever I did write something in Malay, it was for school.

        I actually chuckled reading the 好心你啦, 笑死我 part 😂 There’s something absurd about seeing something so familiar on a platform where I least expect to encounter it! That aside, I think I can probably say the same about my Malay these days. My daily usage of it is pretty much limited to whatsapp conversations with a select few (ooo yeke?? best tak?? ummi blh tk tolong ambil parcel, diorang kt dh sampai) 😂

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