What It’s Like to Speak Multiple Languages

This photo was taken on my recent winter break trip to South Korea.

“Welcome to the first day of class. I want everyone to go around the room and say their name, hometown, major, and a fun fact.”

As much as I dislike these kinds of icebreakers, I have perfected my introduction that I use in every class. My fun fact is that I am trilingual in an interesting combo of languages: English, Korean, and French. When this time of the year comes around, I can always rely on this trusty fun fact.

English is my first language, of course, as I was born and raised in the United States. My second language is Korean, which is the language of my parents, who immigrated from South Korea in the early nineties. And although I never formally learned it when I was young, Korean was the language I spoke at home growing up. And finally, French was the language of choice throughout my entire K-12 education. I also studied abroad in Paris, France after my first year in college and am now pursuing a French minor.

While I use English in my day-to-day life, Korean and French are two languages that I don’t get to use as much. I speak Korean less frequently than when I lived with my mom, and I only practice my French now in classroom settings a few times per week. The only other times I’ll hear these languages is when it’s sprinkled into conversations I overhear in random public settings.

For example, I was sitting at a Starbucks in Durham by myself last week to get a fresh breath of air and escape campus for a few hours. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on assignments at an outdoor table. All the other tables were full of people, young and old, also enjoying the sun. Next to me, I started to hear the chatter of two elderly Korean women, gossiping about some other women in the neighborhood. They looked over at me a couple times, probably because they could gather that I could understand what they were saying, but they continued their conversation anyway.

I wasn’t intentionally listening to them and I obviously couldn’t stop my ears from doing what they were naturally wired to do, but these moments always make me laugh to myself because I remember doing the same thing with my mom. Those who speak multiple languages know that this is a huge relief to be able to switch to a different language when having to gossip or making a decision with your own discretion. It has come in handy in crucial situations, such as when my mom and I had to make sure the car salesman wasn’t ripping us off when I was buying my first car. However, it can also make others feel like they’re being left out of the conversation–it’s like when you go to the nail salon and everyone there isn’t speaking English to each other.

About a month ago, I was sitting shotgun in an Uber with some of my friends. I am the type of person to be conversational with my Uber drivers, and so I found out that our Uber driver had immigrated from Morocco, which meant that he could probably speak French. Soon enough, we were having an entire conversation in French–we talked about moving to North Carolina, how I studied abroad in Paris, and what it was like to live in Morocco. Not only was I able to confuse my friends, I also made my Uber driver feel happy to speak French, a language he knows far better than English. Language can be a unique force to connect two strangers together beyond the surface level.

Although I live in North Carolina and I don’t normally expect to practice these languages on a daily basis, it always makes my day when I get the chance to hear or speak it with others. It inspires me to learn more languages and to travel to countries where these languages are pervasive.

The Seine River in Paris during the summertime

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