Just one month ago, I was sitting in my Asian 257 class being lectured to by my professor, Juhn Ahn, on the intriguing history and modern intricacies of Korea. As we quickly learned, as knowledgable and interesting Juhn is as a professor, he lectures very fast, and it is very easy to get lost in the array of words, from the move to the Shilla capital, to the transformation of the Cheonggyecheon. As difficult as it often is to keep up with the ever-changing lecture slides, at least everything Juhn taught was in English. There were many students in my class from all over the world: China, Malaysia, Japan, and English is often far from their mother tongue. Many times, I would look at a foreign student’s computer screen in the row below me, and notice a tab open to a language translation website. It seemed the students needed to switch to that tab almost every 10 words uttered by Professer Ahn. To be able to look up words this fast is an impressive talent considering the pace that Juhn says 10 words, but somehow, the students managed.
While realizing the handicap I had over the foreign students, before coming to Korea I had never really appreciated how useful and powerful languages can be, especially English. I most began to appreciate the value of language yesterday, when I had the unique opportunity of visiting the University of Yonsei’s international campus, and spending time with Korean students as we all listened to a lecture given by my Professor. Professor Ahn lectured about the rise of Buddhism, a very complex topic, in his usual chipmunk-paced style. Numerous times throughout the lecture he would pause to apologize for his speed, and make sure that everyone followed. The students nodded with a blank face, including myself, even though I had already been lost deep in though somewhere after he began talking about the 6 cycles of life and the concept of “nirvana.” At the end of the lecture, he opened up the floor to questions. None of the students in my program, all from the University of Michigan, asked questions, but rather, I was surprised to find that many Yonsei students asked questions that were very elegantly phrased and well constructed, even if it came out in broken English.
These students, who had all clearly learned English as a second language, spoke much better than many of my university-level educated colleagues ever have. The students then proceeded to give their own presentations on unique cities in Seoul, and their descriptions were more interesting than any Lonely Planet article I have ever read.
It really made me feel as if I had taken speaking English for granted. Both the students at Yonsei and the students in my Asian 257 class are people who struggle and have worked for most, if not their entire lives, to perfect English, and they could probably surpass most Americans in English vocabulary and syntax skills. I am beginning to understand and appreciate why English is the most valuable and widely spoken language in the world.
Although, even as hegemonic of a language as English may be, I still often feel like a fish out of water when trying to communicate in Korea. This morning, I had one of the most delicious Korean-influenced sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches made by on of the nicest old ladys who put all of her TLC in making it. I wanted to thank her and show her my praise, but all I was able to communicate was the ear-to-ear grin I had upon first bite. I wish I were able to fully express myself, but my language skills, or lack of them„ were only able to take me so far. As high a value that I, and so many others worldwide, place on the English language, it has its limits that will never fill the void left by the many other deep-rooted languages that exist.