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 my articles on here to the branding copy I wrote for my clients, you’d be able to tell that it was 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 full 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 get to rearrange puzzle pieces to create the landscape that I want. 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’m familiar enough with 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.