Navigating a Foreign Language: Forcibly Silenced in South Korea

I feel forcibly silenced in South Korea; both literally and figuratively. Literally, because I cannot speak Korean. The words run into one another when I am listening to it. Figuratively, because it is much harder to make relationships. I want to reach out and make connections, but it is nearly impossible to do so if you cannot speak to them.

For the first time in a very long time, I feel mute.

I know that only about 10% of communication is verbal, but I did not realize how important that 10% was until now. Another thing I did not realize until this experience is that our verbal communication and cultural context informs our non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication varies among cultures. It can be challenging to decipher the non-verbal if you are not familiar with the language or the culture that creates that context.

On the steps of Memorial Hall building at Korea University!

Even though I am living in the city, go out of my way to explore on my own and attend classes at Korea University, I know that without knowing Korean, I will only scratch the surface of what this country has to offer.

During my time here, I have been reflecting on the experiences of my parents and other immigrants who had to learn English. I am well aware that English is not easy to learn, but even beside the language component- there is so much lost in translation. There is robust vigor of a person’s personality that can be hard to translate. I feel robotic in a sense because I can only express myself in very simple, mechanical phrases. There is so much depth missing. I have a renewed appreciation and respect for people who are able to make the transition because it is not easy.

I am also working on overcoming this element of vulnerability. My Korean class is bringing back suppressed memories of my early Spanish classes. Normally my memories of learning Spanish are positive but I forgot- until recently- how vulnerable I felt in those early days. I forgot how intimidating it is to be expected to engage in a language that you cannot speak and barely understand. It is frightening. There is a pressure to perform at a level that is just not accessible to me right now.

My teacher is so nice, but I still feel so vulnerable in her class!

I realize – in a unique way- that I truly know nothing or at most very little. It is difficult to put this feeling in words because I have never felt like I knew everything- in any language. The expectation to know everything is unrealistic, but it is still humbling to realize that a toddler understands their surroundings more than I do at this point.

This level of vulnerability is both familiar and foreign.

Familiar because I felt it once before.

Foreign because I hate it. That’s probably why I blocked it out. I have no idea how to resolve this other than learning the language. I’m sure, like before, as my fluency increases this feeling of vulnerability will evaporate but until then I have to come to terms with this oddly sickening feeling until it doesn’t make me sick anymore.


Nothing particularly scandalous happened! I thought a picture like this would add dramatic effect!

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