When I came to Penn last year, I decided to pick up Korean from scratch, enrolling in Korean 011: Elementary Korean. This semester, I had second thoughts, but ended up registering for Korean again. Something keeps me going back.
In Elementary Korean, our class spent the first week learning the Korean alphabet and I was able to pronounce words — at a maddeningly slow speed — by the end of it. In Korean, the character for the sound “b” and “p” is the same, as well as the character for “r” and “l.” To pronounce the first character, I was taught to say it not as hard as a “b,” but also not as soft as a “p.” What is a sound between “b” and “p”? What is a sound between “r” and “l”? Learning a new language forces us to see beyond our 26-letter Roman alphabet. Not every sound can be captured by our alphabet alone; Romanization often falls short.
Learning a new language means learning to “babble” again. There is something awfully humbling to stutter and struggle (with other college students) to express simple thoughts, or string together a simple sentence like “I like to eat noodles for lunch” in another language.
Sometimes in Korean class I stare at the PowerPoint slides and rage silently, “Why does this rule exist? It’s so arbitrary! Who came up with this?” My frustration with a new language has helped me develop a newfound fascination with my old one. For example, why does “pinning” have two Ns and “pruning” have only one N? Why does “cut” not have an –ed past tense? Why does “awfully” sometimes mean “dreadfully,” but also “very”? Languages have rules, but they are often still messy, quirky beings.
In other classes, we often study complex theories and ideas, deep into the field, submerged in jargon. We talk about the “anti-colonial consciousness of modernism” and “Aristotelian critiques of contemporary ethical theories.” To suddenly struggle in a language class to say something simple like “my friend’s shirt is blue” is deeply humbling, slightly amusing and carries a precious childlike quality.
Learning a new language also means uncovering new ways of thinking. I remember the gush of images and color I experienced while learning Chinese in elementary school. Chinese is a language full of stories and metaphors, allowing for a very vivid, sensorial experience of language, perhaps more so than English. Through Chinese, I learned the power of language to stimulate the imagination.
In Malay, I learned to describe nouns differently and reverse the order of the way we see things. While we write “my blue book” in English, we say “book blue my” in Malay; “my new house” is “house new my” in Malay. There is something humbling in deferring the possessor of the noun to the end, to acknowledge the “thing” before ourselves.
In Korean, we almost never say “my mother,” “my father” or “my family.” Instead, we say “our mother,” “our father” or “our family.” This extends to some other nouns — “my country” and “my neighborhood” become “our country” and “our neighborhood” in Korean. Using the plural possessive perhaps reflects a cultural preference to prioritize the group over the individual and a reluctance to define ownership as exclusive and singular.
Languages are riddled with ambiguities, exceptions and irregularities, but are also rich in history, myths, cultural nuances and social codes. Many of us are able to have our language requirement fulfilled and waived using languages we learned before coming to Penn. For Engineering students, . The Wharton School also from four semesters to two semesters this year.
I understand that taking language classes at Penn can be daunting — some involve 8 a.m. recitations meeting four times per week, along with weekly vocabulary and lesson quizzes. I also admit that the language-learning journey is riddled with tedious memory work, but there are plenty of treasures and pleasant surprises along the way. Learning a new language is ultimately a lesson in intellectual humility, and can be deeply rewarding, eye-opening and stimulating.
SARA MERICAN is a College sophomore from Singapore. Her email address is email@example.com. “Merican in America” usually appears every Monday.
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