Forcibly silenced

I forgot how intimidating it can be 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 no accessible to me right now.

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. 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 between 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.

Nnenna Umelloh

Redefining access to higher education and professional achievement

Achievement Consultant


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

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