Assistant Professor of Division of Undergraduate English Education
Every day, we use our brains to think. We think about what to wear, how to spend our time, who to meet, what’s for dinner, etc. We think so much that thinking just comes naturally, like breathing. But it’s worth thinking about the way we think, because all of us think differently. Our thoughts are shaped by an unlimited number of factors: upbringing, values, experiences, even language. Yes, language shapes the way we think!
Let’s start with an example. Several years ago, while practicing my Korean with some Korean friends, I was asked what my evening plans were. I replied in Korean that I was going home. Or, more accurately: “Nae Jib Ga Yo.” This elicited chuckles from my friends and a correction: “Woori Jib.” It was now my turn to be amused. Why on earth would I refer to “my home” as “our home”? This story illustrates one of many unique differences between the English and Korean languages. In English, it is more common to use the possessive determiner “my” when referring to personal possessions or relationships: my home, my mother, my country, and so on. In Korean, the possessive determiner “our” is used: our home, our mother, our country. This small difference can be a source of genuine confusion. Imagine a Korean person and an American person having a conversation in English. If the Korean was to suddenly say “our mom makes the best kimchi”, the American would balk. “This man is of no relation to me,” the latter might think. “Why does he speak of my mother as his own? Furthermore, my mother has no idea what kimchi is, let alone know how to make it!” I’m not suggesting that one language is more correct than any other. Language is a tool for communication, and when language lets people express themselves it fulfills its purpose. But that doesn’t mean the differences that exist between languages are inconsequential. Grammar choices, sentence structure, vocabulary, none of these are arbitrary. They are determined by the needs of the language users and their culture. As a result, language and culture are often intertwined, with each influencing the other. By learning a language, you are absorbing the culture that spawned that language. Thus, it can be said that the languages we speak inform our very beings, from the way we behave, act, and even think. That’s right! The language you grew up learning, your mother tongue, is partly responsible for who you are today! Let’s look back at my example from earlier: “my home” versus “our home”. At face value, this appears to be nothing more than a grammatical subtlety. But it is so much more! The deliberate choice of the possessive determiner illustrates a fundamentally different world view. Speaking broadly, American culture places a greater emphasis on the individual self, hence the tendency for American English to refer to everything in relation to how it affects ourselves. In contrast, the Korean language’s use of “our” demonstrates a cultural need to place greater emphasis on the community and our place in it. Relative to American culture, Korean culture is generally more society centered, and this is reflected in both culture’s respective languages. And that’s a reason why learning another language is so exciting! You’re not just memorizing vocabulary in preparation for a big exam or learning a few stock phrases you can use the next time you travel overseas. When you study a second language, you are learning how a whole other group of people thinks. You begin to understand why they do the things they do and act the way they act. A new mode of perception opens to you, and you may even start to view your surroundings in a different light.
This is not an exaggeration. One of the greatest benefits I feel I attained from studying Korean was gaining a stronger appreciation for how Korean people see themselves and the world around them. In turn I became more interested in Korean language and culture, further motivating me to study. This intrinsic motivation, built on a genuine interest in another language’s culture, is an integrative factor in language learning. But that’s an article for another day.
The invention and ease of online translators such as Papago has caused many of us to become complacent in our language studies. However, no two languages have a one-to-one translation, and it’s important for us as students of language to recognize that languages are more than just combinations of words and sentences. Next time you’re in English class, look beyond your phone screen and consider what you can gain from learning English: you get to experience another culture without having to leave the classroom. Make the most of this opportunity and take advantage of the resources available to you here at KU. This is your chance to expand your horizons! Students, be ambitious!