How Can You Make Friends in Your Second Language?
Very late PSA: I’m going to Seoul as an English teacher with EPIK next week…
…and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make friends with my elementary Korean skills.
After all, so much of our personalities is conveyed through our words. As a writer and English teacher, the very foundation of my career is diction and syntax. It’s a skill that I’ve honed for my entire life and a tool that I use to convey the many shades of Kylie that I have to offer.
A HUGE part of my personality is my ability make jokes or dish out sass like free chicken samples at a food court Panda Express.
I can make people laugh in other languages, too.
Just… not always for the reasons I intended.
FLASHBACK: Kylie’s Last Korean Lesson (via Skype)
Kylie: So I tried to make Korean seaweed soup for my dad, but it came out really watery. I went to H-Mart and there were too many kinds of seaweed so I just picked one. (Shows teacher a picture of the seaweed aisle at H-Mart).
Teacher: (begins laughing hysterically)
Kylie: … What?
Teacher: (continues to laugh hysterically)
Kylie: WHAT, teacher, WHAT?
Teacher: THAT’S the seaweed you used?!
Kylie: It’s wrong?
Teacher: (slams forehead on desk, still laughing hysterically)
Kylie: YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHICH ONE I PICKED. HOW DO YOU KNOW ALL OF THESE ARE WRONG?
Teacher: (starts crying laughing)
Kylie: TEACHER PLZ
Teacher: Kylie-Ssi, those are seaweed sheets for kimbap and rice. (Pastes two pictures into our shared google doc)
What I used:
What I was supposed to use:
Kylie: …. no wonder it came out looking like sludge.
Teacher: (dies of laughter. RIP I need a new Korean teacher now)
… My point is, I am unable to express a vital part of my personality in Korean, at least for now.
So, up until I become fluent in Korean, will the only people in Korea who truly know me for who I am be English-speaking foreigners? Will everyone else only know a watered-down, baby-talking version of me?
At first, my answer was a resounding “YES” that motivated me to study Korean even harder.
But then, I thought about the interactions I’ve had with my students and foreign friends of different English-language abilities.
There’s Eugenia, in my beginner English class. I don’t know her nuanced thoughts on American politics and race relations, but I know that she’s punctual and dedicated despite being the lowest-level student in the class. I know that she’s got a funny side, because she saw me on the train after class and sat across from me, staring aggressively, until we finally made eye contact and laughed together when I jumped in surprise.
Then there’s Jonathan, another beginner student who can’t really pronounce the letters “s” or “z” but sits at his table 5 minutes before class and plays scales on a black violin.
Are my interactions with these people less meaningful because they’re limited by language? Are they less “real” than the interactions I have with native English speakers? Are the things we share with each other actually watered-down and inauthentic?
I think that perhaps, when we don’t speak each others’ languages as well as we might like to, what we see is not a lesser part of each other but a different part. Perhaps we see a facet of someone that we might have overlooked when distracted by all the vacuous words so often tossed in the air. There’s a sort of innocence, or maybe honesty, to paring down our words to the bare minimum. There’s nothing to hide behind.