The Lopsided Linguist


For everyone learning a new language, there is a constant desire to be just more fluent than you currently are. There’s always a verb you’re searching for, a new syntax you wish you could deploy, some fanciful flourish of phrase  that would convey your meaning just so, and it’s always just beyond your grasp. More frustratingly for me, though, is how much my skills have begun to tilt to one side. Many areas of my Korean skill are haunted houses full of lingering desires and forgotten words, while others are vibrant and lively. For the people who encounter me with the former, I appear to be a stuttering boob; but for those who see the latter, I’m practically capable of modern poetry.

In some areas of speaking Korean, my skills are probably fulminating up in the great reaches of the vaunted and respectful high-intermediate. With people between the ages of 12-30, I am capable of conversing in moderately proficient, though certainly crude and idiosyncratic, lower speech. I tell jokes, and crack out new slang, and make comments on music, and food, and hobbies. I make references to mutual friends, and can describe them, usually via hair-colour or clothing choices, one-word adjectives (and if I’m feeling particularly daring, an adverb!), and vague descriptions of their character. I can pass along compliments, and recommend new bars or bands, and I can fit in.

With younger people, those for whom  I do not have to venture into the shaky and terrifying Eldritch dimensions of Korean formal speech, I appear to be–if not fluent–desperately capable. While I wield my Korean with these friends the way one would a cumbersome and poorly crafted iron club, I am still able to get the job done. I can talk. I can converse. I can hang out.

And in turn, I am showered with reams of unearned praise. Rarely a conversation with a Korean friend, held in Korean, goes by without them complimenting me on my language. I know it is partially self-serving: If I continue to reinforce this behaviour, my friend thinks, maybe I won’t have to speak in fucking English the whole night. But I don’t care from whence this impulse to flatter issues: I bask in the adulation all the same. Boy, I sure am good at this language! That I am succeeding with the young and cool only serves to engorge my ego all the more. I imagine myself in skinny jeans, smoking clove cigarettes and stroking my full, perfectly clipped goatee. I am always sipping brandy, from a tumbler I carry with me at all times.

And in other, very specific locations and scenarios, this self-deluded confidence swells and flourishes. My Korean teacher was so adamant about our learning food vocabulary, and at rehearsing restaurant dialogues, that I can waltz into most restaurants and bars and be relatively comfortable. I can get by in most stores too: asking for specific products, if they come in different sizes or colours or shapes, and where I might find them. Thanking them for their kind service, and trotting on, leaving smiles and wonderment in my wake. Did that honky just speak Korean at me? they wonder. Yes, I smile, my smugness so powerful and virulent it could be detected by Geiger counters, I certainly did.

In these very specific, highly scripted scenarios, I am safe. They ask the same questions, and I say the same answers again and again, and everything feels comfortable and warm. Familiar. The Korean never strains my capabilities, and thus I have nothing to fear.

The problem arises when I am forced to interact outside of any of these scenarios.

When my fridge broke down, a repairman came to my apartment, and I told him, thinking myself debonair and practically swashbuckling, that he could speak to me in Korean. It became rapidly apparent that this would not be feasible: I could understand, essentially, “FRIDGE BAD,” but all of the nuance beyond that was lost. I had no cooling and refrigeration terminology in my brain; I barely had the technical vocabulary to understand when he was asking me to plug and unplug the thing.

With very young people, or with much older, I don’t know how to modify my speech and thus I err on the side of appearing to be a mute. There are too many verbs that change when addressing older people, too many fanciful tricks of grammar I haven’t yet grown accustomed too; neglecting them would also, in turn, make me appear to be a marauding oaf. It is easier, then, to simply not speak at all: most Koreans over age 40 expect me to find the language Sisyphean and cryptic, and thus wave away my silence as both accepted and expected.

And there are toss-up scenarios, too. For every stranger on the street, for every person met in a bar, for every cab I get in, the conversation could easily swing one way or another. If we talk about music, or Canada, or food, I will appear brilliantly fluent, capable of expressing my point and my beliefs with a breezy élan, if maybe a plodding and somewhat ogre-like breeze. If the conversation should dart in another direction, or if the other person should be not terribly apt to decipher my accent, we suddenly hit an impasse. I appear to not have ever heard a word of Korean in my life, and the other party assumes my guttural, stifled attempts at their native tongue to me some sort of violent tumour coursing inside my vocal cords.

And thus, I have friends relatively convinced that I am perfectly fluent, and others who believe I’m barely capable of scraping out an 안녕. My students face the same conundrum. A coteacher was absent recently, and a boy perked up and raised his hand, asking me, in Korean, where she was. His entire class turned on him, bitterly repulsed, and began shouting, “Speak in English! He doesn’t know what you’re saying!” He shrunk plainly away, confused.

Because some of my students know that I can speak it, at least some of it. I’ve let it slip to some of them before, or been too quick to respond in English when they say something in Korean. If they have come to visit me, or if their English is too low, chances are I’ve switched to Korean for them quietly without the others hearing. Thus, a trembling, bewildered minority of my students believes me absolutely fluent, and cannot understand why their compatriots are so ignorant as to think me incapable. And in turn, they are horrified that these kids would put the strain on me of speaking a language I clearly could never comprehend.

But it’s understandable on both sides. I have my good days, and my bad, where the words just flow like honeyed song from my lips, and others where every Korean phoneme feels like quick-dry cement slogging past my fumbling articulators. Some of the people around me are absolutely convinced I speak the language fluently, while others think I barely speak a word. Being so lopsided means the truth is somewhere in the murky, heavily accented middle.

9 thoughts on “The Lopsided Linguist

  1. So I never really learned enough Chinese. Lopsidedness aside, I’m sure you speak far more Korean than I ever did Chinese. Also, I studied French in school. The weirdest thing was that often when I was struggling to remember a word in Chinese, I would recall it in French. In those moments I was able to vomit up the most striking trilingual, unintelligible polyglot ever.

  2. Michael, to speak another language, even in part, is a gift like no other. As you know, I studied several languages but was never able to master Lating and only spoke broken German, broken French, and, I often thought, broken English. Nevertheless, to be in Koln or Paris and make myself understood was important, as important as it was for me to understand them. I rue the day that I let my languages go though I still do harbour some phrases – even Latin, veni, vidi, vici (or as a friend once said vidi, vici, veni).

  3. Great that you are picking some Korean. Over time, through repetition just relax and at least, the basic idiomatic Korean will sound more “real” and natural.

    From a Canadian born Chinese who has lost 80% speaking fluency since entering kindergarten.

    • The basics are definitely comfortable now (at least with friends; I still get a little nervous in public, even with stuff that I know I know the language for).

      Yeah, that happens. If I had kept up my French instead of being a lazy teenager, I know I would be moderately capable now. But instead, I am basically Frenchless.

  4. What kills me is when I step into a social situation only to have a total brain cramp on basic expressions like ‘yesterday’ and stand their like a idiot trying to grasp the basic vocabulary I mastered months ago.

    • Oh god, I get this a lot. Last night I started my Korean class again, and while having entire conversation in Korean, ground to a stupid, blinking halt when I forgot a couple of simple words we had covered in the first few months. Like, I was able to translate some of the English paragraph we were doing on sample booths at discount stores, but I couldn’t remember the damn word for “worker” or “staff.”

  5. Pingback: This Is Your Brain on Second Language « Stupid Ugly Foreigner

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