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Deciphering another code

The revelation is often received with perplexed stares, wide-eyed amusement and even the occasional creased brow. Some try to veil their surprise out of courtesy. Others are less subtle in their astonishment. But bluntly couched or sugar-coated, always comes the inescapable and irrepressible question in almost scripted progression.

“Why?”

Why would you take Korean classes as a biomedical engineering major?

Why (on earth) would you voluntarily subject yourself to the dreaded language requirements that Trinity students begrudgingly fulfill, and Pratt students are gladly exempt from?

In any other context, I might have taken offense at such baffled responses, and struggled to wrap my head around the fact that something I am deeply passionate about could evoke such visceral bewilderment from others, as though it were any different from the plethora of idiosyncratic interests they indulge in. 

But having been subjected to a decade of mandatory bilingual education while growing up in Singapore, I, too, once regarded learning my mother tongue, Chinese, with utmost acrimony and apprehension. Hearing or speaking the language still rekindles painful memories — of repetitively practicing complicated strokes of obscure characters, till my fingers and palms were sore and cloaked with pencil lead; of chanting trite expressions and hackneyed phrases over and over again to imprint them in my mind, only for them to fade into neglect after embellishing my essays and oral presentations; of feeling my heart palpitating wildly against my chest as I hastily skimmed through practice exams and answer keys at the eleventh hour, hoping that I would be able to retain all the information just long enough to regurgitate it the next day.

Such a grade-centric, pragmatic system smothered any genuine interest I might have had in the language. All my attempts to learn it were undergirded and overshadowed by a single-minded desire to excel academically and fulfill the language requirement. The rigorous training eventually equipped me with a decent level of linguistic proficiency, but I absolutely loathed the process and was always counting the days till I could get it over and done with.

My relationship with Korean, on the other hand, began in the most organic, albeit clichéd, way. Swept up in the Hallyu wave at the age of twelve, like many preteens, I taught myself how to read the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, if only because it seemed cool. (The prospect of being able to watch my favorite shows without enduring the arduous wait for subtitles was, of course, a great source of motivation.)

The more I acquainted myself with the language, the deeper I fell in love with it. I was intrigued by the fact that it bears such striking phonetic similarity to Chinese, while following an alphabetical system that renders it much more accessible to beginners. I found it fascinating that the meaning conveyed by a given statement is so heavily contingent on its ending. One can never be certain of the other party’s intentions until they utter their final syllables. The same phrase could yield multiple interpretations, depending on its final intonation. The need to use varying speech levels with different audiences struck me as extraneous and complicated at first, but I grew to appreciate their ability to infuse subtle nuances into conversations, reflect the complex dynamics of social relationships, and embody important cultural values. 

Nevertheless, while I naturally picked up the language through years of constant exposure to Korean media, my efforts to learn it were sporadic and half-hearted. As much as I loved the learning process, for years, it was relegated to a hobby that often took a backseat to more pressing priorities. It wasn’t until my gap year that, finally free from academic obligations, I found the time and bandwidth to study it consistently. Taking advantage of a wealth of online resources, I acquired grammar fundamentals and familiarized myself with essential vocabulary. My attention shifted from the cinematography and plot development in dramas to the intonations, sentence structures, and speech styles used in dialogues. I practiced translating the lyrics of my favorite songs, uncovering and appreciating the layers of meaning embedded within as I actively listened to them on repeat.

The notion of taking Korean classes in college never would have crossed my mind years ago, when I started learning it for fun. It seemed ridiculous, even after what had begun as a frivolous and spontaneous endeavor burgeoned into a passionate affair during my gap year. 

How would it contribute to my professional development as a biomedical engineering major? 

Was it worth pursuing a peripheral interest in an academically rigorous setting, at the expense of more useful and career-relevant training?

But my thirst for improvement suppressed these practical concerns. I had reached a point in my linguistic development where I felt helplessly stagnant, having attained a level of proficiency that exceeded the beginner-friendly resources accessible online, but was still grossly inadequate for conversing beyond a few sentences. I yearned for formal instruction, believing that I would only be able to transcend this gulf under professional guidance. I longed to immerse myself in an interactive environment that facilitated linguistic exchange, after experiencing the loneliness and ineffectiveness of learning a language in isolation.

Fueled by this desire for fluency, I spontaneously registered for a Korean class my freshman fall and have been enrolled in one every semester since. Whenever the time comes to decide on the next step, I am always confronted with a dilemma between furthering my pursuit of the language and quenching this passion in favor of more “practical” endeavors. My repeated gravitation towards the former confounds many, especially fellow engineers. It causes me much distress whenever I am reminded of how far I am lagging behind in my class schedule, and leaves me wondering if I would have been better off not treading down this nebulous path to begin with. 

As is often the case with second language acquisition, there are times when I am frustrated with my sluggish progress despite my painstaking efforts to improve. There are times when I lose the motivation to learn because I am surrounded by lackadaisical peers who are taking the class out of obligation, rather than interest, just as I did with Chinese. There are times when I worry that my genuine interest in a language that is so inextricably intertwined with popular culture might be disdained and misconstrued as the fanatical obsession of a “Koreaboo,” so much so that I shy away from opportunities to practice it with others.

But there are also times when I am showered with compliments by native speakers for my fairly accurate pronunciation and natural intonation, both atypical of foreigners. There are times when I am able to leverage my multilingualism to communicate with and translate on behalf of non-English speakers. There are times when I surprise myself with my newfound ability to comprehend and construct advanced sentences that once eluded me. At times like these, I am convinced that the struggle is worthwhile and pat myself on the back for remaining steadfast in my resolve to master the language. 

Having dedicated nearly three whole semesters to learning Korean, I am realizing that my aspiration to attain native-like fluency in the language is unlikely to materialize in college — or anytime soon, for that matter. I am coming to terms with the fact that while my academic pursuit of the language may be limited by time constraints, taking college classes is hardly the only avenue through which I can fulfill this aspiration. Learning and speaking Korean has become such an integral part of my lifestyle and identity that I trust that I will naturally seek out opportunities to sustain this pursuit outside the classroom, just as I always have. 

These days, I relish the dumbfounded stares and exclamations of surprise that ensue from my revelation. I perceive them as validation that I am doing something extraordinary. One might even say that they make me feel special.

Valerie Tan is a Pratt second-year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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