Why Korean? Why South Korea?

The news has gotten out. Ever since an article about my NSLI-Y scholarship was posted on the front page of my school’s website on May 2nd, my entire high school has had access to an article that declares that I will be packing my bags and going to South Korea for 6 weeks and a few days this summer. Before this happened, only my close friends and two teachers knew about my summer plans. Now it seems that everyone knows. I have even received congratulatory messages from people I haven’t talked to in ages. This whole scholarship isn’t something that is brought up in conversation that often so it was kind of overwhelming to have so many people know about it at the same time (You can bet that I recieved a lot of questions). Obviously, what I’m doing is strange to a lot of people. In fact, some people think that what I am doing is kind of unbelievable. I’m pretty sure I am the first NSLI-Y participant at my school and besides that, my school doesn’t seem to be that big with having it’s students study abroad in the first place. I have gotten so many questions from my peers and teachers regarding what I will be doing in Korea. Some can be labeled as more “interesting” than others but overall many of the questions have been repetitive. Most of them can be answered rather easily but on the other hand, some questions require a longer explanation that is kind of not appropriate for a conversation taking place during passing period on the way to World History. I plan on writing a series of posts answering frequently asked questions before I leave to Korea. This post will mark the start of this series. I personally feel this is one of the most important questions I receive and I seem to never have the amount of time I need to give a clear and coherent response. However, this is me trying.

Why Korean? Why South Korea?

So in this installment of my FAQs, I will be giving a response to the question written above. Usually, once I thank a person for congratulating me on the scholarship, their follow up response is “Why Korean?” or “Why South Korea?” I would just like to start off by saying I am aware that not everyone asking this question looks down on the Korean language or the country in general, but there are a vast amount of people who ask this question wondering why I picked Korean instead of a more “popular/useful” language. Sometimes the person will even straight up ask me with the question “Why Korean when you can learn [insert ‘popular/useful’ language here]?” or “Why go to South Korea when you can travel to [insert ‘popular’ country here]?” To answer this question, I am not going to respond to my overall reason for wanting to go to South Korea (I will do that in a later post). Instead, I am going to respond to the idea that one language or multiple languages are more “useful” than others. When most people ask me this question, they bring up the position that I should study abroad in Spain/any Spanish speaking country because there are more Spanish speakers in America than there are Korean speakers. To this position, I have a question. To all highschool students who are studying a foreign language in school currently/adults who have studied a foreign language in school, when was the last time you have used that language outside of the classroom/school? The majority of people who can answer this question will probably state that they have rarely used their second language outside of school (even if they have a large population of native speakers nearby). I can vouch for this. I can count all the times I have spoken Spanish outside of my classroom/my home (My mother and her side of the family speak fluent Spanish, so I do keep up my skills at home on a regular basis) on one hand. I have been studying Spanish for two years and I have had a large knowledge of the vocabulary for many years before I started learning Spanish in a classroom environment. That’s honestly really sad to me. I have had plenty of opportunities to use my Spanish skills but when the opportunity arises, I realize that I can go on without using it. I resort to English and that is what many people do. I hate that I have created a pattern of acting this way and I am slowly trying to break out of my habit of only speaking in English. In fact, even when my abuelo (grandfather) speaks to me in Spanish, like habit, I just reply in English whether I knew how to explain my thoughts in Spanish or not. Does this mean that the Spanish language is useless to Americans since so many citizens in the states don’t regularly use it? No, it just means that those people aren’t making Spanish useful to themselves. No language is more useful than the other in general terms. Every individual has the ability to make every single language in the entire world useful to themselves as long as they look for opportunities to use it, immerse themselves in the language, and truly put in the effort to maintain a second language. You could have the best memory in the world (lucky you) but if you don’t go out of your way to practice that language and actually use it in conversation, you won’t go far at accomplishing true fluency. So is the Korean language useful to me? Why yes, yes it is. It is useful to me because I make sure that it is. I have frequent conversations with native speakers and I even spend a few hours at a Korean church from time to time (though I am planning on attending the church regularly with my friend when I come home). No statistic about how big of a population of the world speaks a language is worthy enough to deem a language “useful” or not. It is all about how you decide to use a language. Language is a form of communication, and that in itself is important, whether it is being done in Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Croatian, Turkish or Swedish.

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.” – Nelson Mandela


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