It’s no news that we use language everyday to convey knowledge, ideas, and emotions of the most diverse kind. But it’s more intriguing how language directs us as much as we direct language, kind of like a stubborn GPS that doesn’t adjust to the driver’s every whim. It is often difficult to be self-aware of just how much language affects our personality and how we express it.
In my case, this self-awareness came about naturally, a consequence of being a mixed-race international student in Cambridge, spending holidays in Portugal, skipping Korean school as a kid, and experiencing some other fantastic cultures along the way.
Speaking a certain language or jargon can be the key to unlocking a certain aspect of your personality. I regularly experience this in Cambridge. When I speak English, I’m your average History student: annoyingly fast-paced, full of big words but often lacking any real coherence. Sure, I have an American twang caused by too many years spent at an international school, but the underlying intention in my speech is often rather clear: sound clever.
But in those few occasions when I get to speak Portuguese, be that with the Brazilian catering staff or someone from the surprisingly large Portuguese community in Cambridge, the traits are different: probably still annoying, but more informal and snarky. There is always a certain theatrical quality in these moments, almost as if I’m trying to remind myself what it’s like to be in Portugal again. One could attribute this to homesickness, but in my rather (un)educated opinion, language is not only associated with a particular place. It gets associated with certain kinds of emotions.
"When I speak English, I’m your average History student: annoyingly fast-paced, full of big words but often lacking any real coherence."
My evidence in support of this hypothesis comes from playing sport – obviously a much more reliable source of evidence than any academic study out there. Three years of playing university basketball has shown me that, for certain individuals, rage can only be expressed through one language. Just ask our Swedish captain to demonstrate the near-yodelling rhythm of his swearing when he’s having a bad day. Or even better, come watch Varsity in three weeks time (shameless repping, I know), and laugh at how our leading scorer, a Croat, will go from being silent as a cat, to a volcano of obscene linguistic eruptions, their meaning best left unspoken, for reasons of political correctness.
But who am I to patronise them? I seem to have developed a tendency to shout mata (literally ‘kill’ in Portuguese) whenever I or my teammates execute a play under high pressure. Aside from the anger management issues we all seem to share in our team, expressing our frustrations in different languages has several perks. It’s cathartic, completely foolproof whenever there’s bad reffing going on, and, most importantly, you genuinely learn a lot from each other. During a pre-season trip in Belgrade, our Serbian teammate made sure we had mastered a range of different Serbian expressions. Just blurting these out in the most random instances was enough to impress the locals, who took us in and made sure we experienced real cultural immersion.
But language can also be a barrier. Learning a few words of a language as a tourist is impressive, but the expectations are much higher if one wants to be seen as a native. It’s always been rather strange for me to have South Korean citizenship and not be able to speak Korean like my mother or her side of the family. This was in a way inevitable given that I grew up in Portugal with little enthusiasm to wake up in time for Saturday morning sessions of Korean school. Nevertheless, speaking Korean half-fluently makes me feel like I am only halfway in touch with a part of my identity. I know that if I went to Korea now, people would respond to me in English when hearing my Korean – fine if you’re tourist, but annoying if you’re looking to blend in as a native.
This is because speaking Korean is the only way you can really think like one. Korean society is Confucian, which basically means that a clear sense of social hierarchy is embedded in our culture. Whenever speaking to someone of greater seniority, be that due to age or employment status, the suffix yo (with a Scottish rather than American pronunciation) must be added to every verb as a way of acknowledging this difference. Language does not just facilitate communication, it allows one to understand the values embedded within a particular culture.
Ultimately, being multicultural can be problematic if one yearns for a sense of belonging. As Theresa May observed, albeit in the context of immigration issues, “if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. Language can overcome this feeling of being ‘from nowhere’. But this requires complete fluency. Speaking Portuguese like a native has allowed me to feel a sense of belonging despite my mixed-race appearance. This is not the case with Korean, something I hope to change in the future – cue some serious post-graduation gap year planning…
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