Embraceable You

To Know You Is To Love You

I’m utterly fascinated with language (any language, and indeed the concept itself). To me, it is one of the pleasures of life. Hence, this column caught my eye right away when I picked up my copy of The Times this morning. The specific cross-language dynamic that this article addresses is particularly interesting to me because it touches on my personal experience. No, I don’t speak Korean (the only Korean phrase I have mastered so far is Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo (“Are you well?” – the Korean hello), but I do live within blocks of Koreatown, and about half of the young men I serve at church are Korean-Americans since the Olympic (Korean-language) ward has more kids than either of the two English-language units that contribute to the programs my wife and I preside over.

Hence, I have to deal with users of the Korean language on an almost daily basis. The individuals in question have widely varying mastery of English, ranging from none to full native fluency. Fortunately, all but one of the boys that are actually part of the YM program have at least a passable facility with my native language (the remaining boy understands a little, but translation’s still necessary to have a real discussion with him), and K doesn’t have any in her group that can’t speak English. Since I recieved my new calling in May (Has it been so short a time? It’s certainly been action-packed enough for a much longer span), I have frequently thought that I’d like to learn at least a little Korean so I can discuss the kids with their parents. As is often the case in immigrant families, the parents have far more trouble with the new country’s language than their children do.

I’ve noticed some of the behaviors the columnist describes, such as the love many of the kids seem to have for the word “you” even when they’re speaking Korean. I have a fair ear for languages and nuance, and I frequently overhear our teenagers that are on their cellphones or talking amongst themselves in Korean dropping the occasional English word into their conversations. The most prominent of these I’ve noticed is “you”. The above column sheds some light on why that might be, and on the cultural reasons for this behavior among our kids (I notice it a bit among the adults but not quite as much).

That’s one facet of language that I am particularly interested in: how language reflects culture, the values and thinking thereof.  For example, English is a highly informal language nowadays, though older forms were less so… as the article points out, it lends itself well to egalitarian discourse, where Korean is much more heirarchical in structure (like German, my favorite foreign language) in that respect, with numerous nuanced pronouns and forms of address that English-speakers can’t be bothered with. One has to size up with whom they are speaking much more carefully to know how to address them if one is speaking Korean. Hence, at least to many Koreans that have come to America, learning English forms of address frees them up from having to worry about their native tongue’s inbuilt caste system so much and makes conversation easier.

The Noun-verb dominance in English is a distinct trait, and contrasts easily with the adverb-adjective dominance one finds in Korean. English is an individualistic language where Korean is collective in focus, blunt and direct where Korean is formal and sometimes byzantine. Some of the things I love about German are its precision, consistent grammar and reliable (if difficult for some people) pronunciation. Different languages are put together emphasizing different things, and the whys and wherefores on that are easy to spend hours at a time examining. Okay, easy for me to spend hours at a time examining.

Americans have some similar avoidant strategies to what Koreans do, though. We will carefully dance around the wording of something whose most direct linguistic approach is somehow inconvenient or that bothers us for some reason (English is more direct, though… we certainly don’t avoid saying “I”.. heck, it’s one of our favorite words). That’s human nature for you. It’s part of why languages change and develop, influence each other and are influenced in turn. We encounter something that seems useful (and fits our personal way of thinking better than anything that naturally existed to us before) and incorporate or modify it.

So, the column is about a lot of things: culture clash, personal discovery, the adaptability of our species, the impact (and reflection) of language on daily life and more. I really enjoyed reading and thinking about that.


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