The Art of Being Bilingual

Bilingualism is the ability to understand and communicate in two languages. To me, it is how I catch the pieces of my grandmother.

I think language is a different experience for everyone. Some people are masters of the craft—they easily capture the “gist,” or what I think is the nuanced, near­-native understanding of a language; they quickly turn their words into another language. To others, it’s a grueling process, plunging deep into grammar rules and pronunciation. “Gist” comes later because the foundation is so hard to build.

For me, language is neither extreme; I’m neither a master nor a slave to the process. My parents immigrated to the States before I was born. I spoke exclusively Korean in the house. I got my English from school. There wasn’t really a tangible process of language learning to me. Even so, my environment surrounded me with English, which became my native language—the language I am most comfortable speaking. Korean became my second language and inevitably, I lost much of my proficiency in it.

My grandmother’s garden is located in the backyard of her home. It is rare to see in Seoul because many of the older generation have left the homes they had built to move into apartments that reach higher and higher every year. In the face of this dynamic landscape, my grandmother’s house remains untouched—an artifact of the sixties when the house was built from fresh concrete and filled with my grandmother’s hopes. My grandmother’s garden remains the one dynamic patch of life within her unchanging home. Often, our discussions pivot around this patch of land—what new flowers have blossomed today.

flowers2          flowers1

The pieces of her flowers: Today.  Cactus.  Picture.  Fade.

Eloquence in translation, as I have read, comes with mastery of the target language—of the native tongue. I subscribe to this ideology because it makes sense. “Gist” is important here once again. Once you understand the intent of the first language, it becomes less complicated to string together the ideas into coherence. I find myself constantly piecing together a narrative with clues. I try to understand the intent of the original, and mirror the same eloquence. It is through this process that you realize that finding the translations to every word is not as important as carrying the same messages across in the most similar manner.

When pieced together, my grandmother’s message: This is a cactus flower. I took this picture before it withered. Cactus flowers wither quite quickly.

cactus1          cherries

There’s something very reassuring about knowing another language.

“Foreign” is not necessarily “unfamiliar.”

Korea stands 14 hours away on a direct flight from the Detroit Metro Airport to Seoul Incheon Airport, and does not share the same common language with the States. There are no two nations so different when it comes to customs, cultural standards, and landscape. But from learning—or perhaps speaking Korean, I feel that this disparity is lessened. I think that at the base of knowing another language is a basic understanding of the culture that surrounds that language.

From understanding we derive a relationship.

I think that’s irreplaceable and important, especially as the world becomes more and more interconnected.     I think that my elementary understanding of Korean, though highly lacking, ties me back to those who matter to me.

How we work with language and all the culture and nuances it carries—the weight of that language—that is what makes bilingualism worth it. That is the root of the familiar that connects us to each other.

My grandmother likes to send me pictures of her garden. Last week, she sent me a picture of cherries and cactus, accompanied by small words of wisdom. Unfortunately, idioms, when translated, tend to lose their meaning, however her words were wise because I understood beyond language.

— Stephanie Choi


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