We had the pleasure of hosting our very own traditional TEDx event at EF Academy New York again this year. Our brilliant students shared inspiring and touching stories with the audience, stories that we will now be sharing in a series of blog posts. First up is EF Academy Ambassador Yoonje, speaking of the power of words and language!
“Between English and…”
It all started with a simple question: How do I explain that I don’t belong to English when I belong nowhere else? I want all of you to embrace your own language just a bit more, but the fact that I am talking to you in English already contradicts my claim.
When I was four years old, I started learning English in preschool. I gathered new words and expressions like treasures, and I spoke a lot not knowing how. There were more things I didn’t know how to say than the ones I did know, both in Korean and English. By the time I turned 10, it felt like I’d been living two different lives, speaking English at school and Korean at home.
I remember, at twelve years old, I forgot the word “microwave” in Korean. I was helping my mom prepare dinner, and suddenly I stumbled across my words. I couldn’t seem to figure out what it was called, so I just pointed at it, feeling helpless. My mom thought it was strange. Soon it wasn’t just the microwave anymore; it was the table, the cabinet, and a few more words. The words didn’t fall into places naturally like they used to. I needed more time to reach into my mind and tug them out onto my tongue.
The same thing happened with English. At school, my head was full of thoughts and ideas to share, but the only way to get them out was with my native language. I realized that I wasn’t the same person when I spoke English, and here’s why: language represents specific stages in our lives, and each word is linked to our emotions. It relates to how we think, how we see each other, and how others see us. All my ideas, imaginations, and memories were engraved in my identity in the form of the Korean language. So, needless to say, I was struggling to express myself without it.
In fact, I still hate talking about my culture in English. As soon as people hear the unfamiliar syllables of Seollal or Tteokguk, my experiences immediately become flat and overshadowed.
To me, rice cake soup is not the same thing as Tteokguk, but that’s the only way to explain it. The translation does not remind me of the same warmth of the soup, the new year wishes, or the happiness I felt sharing it with my family.
It’s even worse for Jesa, a memorial ceremony for the ancestors, where my dad and uncles wear funny hats and bow in order of age. The table is set with rice, soup, meat, vegetable, fish, and other pickled food, but to describe each dish in English would be impossible.
Just like a billion other people around the world who speak English as a secondary language, English often feels like homework. It has been for a long time, whether it’s memorizing basic words like apple or filling in the blanks with the right form of conjugation. There are still thousands of things I don’t understand about English: how rough, cough, though, and through all sound completely different, why we need to switch from go to went, fight to fought, and take to took, and why do we need 4 extra vowels to spell “queue”?
And yes, I am still lost in translation, somewhere between the dictionary and google translate. Maybe some of you feel this way. Others may not even think about it. For me, my second language made me a little more hesitant and burdened me with frustration; the feeling that I will never be fully understood by anyone. But here I am, talking to all of you in English. And if it weren’t for English, you wouldn’t be able to understand any of what I’m saying. Whether we like it or not, English is a part of our lives. So no, I’m not here to take it away from you.
My new goal is not to sound like a native speaker, but to say the things they cannot say: to clearly explain them, coming from my own unique experiences. This way, I don’t have to be overwhelmed whenever English seems like a huge mountain in front of me. It tells me that I don’t have to climb the mountain. I just need to go around it. Speaking more than one language should not be a barrier to any of us. It should help us find new ways to communicate and different topics to talk about. Now I’m inviting you to do the same. Instead of avoiding to speak up, say whatever is on your mind. If some people don’t understand, try the rest of the class, the rest of the school, or the rest of the world. Say something different, talk with your accent, and most importantly, use language as a tool of communication. And maybe then, we will realize we all have something to say.