Linguistic Disability: Not an Excuse?
The Real Expert
In reaction to a recent article by Daniel Pipes at National Review Online, "Arabist Snobs: Languages are helpful, but don’t guarantee good analysis" (November 22, 2011), a dispute broke out over at the Marmot's Hole concerning the necessity of knowing the language of a country before passing oneself off as an expert, with some commenters implying that without knowledge of the language, an individual would have almost nothing of value to say, and suggesting that anyone who's lived in Korea for a decade or more really has no excuse for not knowing the language. Being one of those without excuse for my linguistic ignorance, I chose to take up the gauntlet, and wrote:
Some of us came to Korea at an older age, are very busy with work, and perhaps have little talent for learning foreign languages.My friend Hamel, who is brilliant at languages and speaks flawless Korean, responded:
That describes me.
Of course, I don't claim to be a Korea expert . . . though after being with a Korean woman for nearly twenty years, living constantly in Korea for over ten years, teaching Korean students almost daily for over ten years, reading about Korean issues daily for over ten years, working with my wife as a translation team for articles and books from Korean into English for nearly ten years, and serving off and on as a Daesan Foundation judge concerning the literary quality of translated Korean literature for about five years, among other things, I might occasionally venture an opinion about Korea.
I'd also add that if we were to limit ourselves to expressing opinions only upon topics that we’ve studied deeply enough to be considered experts, we wouldn't have much to say, nor would there be much intercommunication across boundaries of expertise.
[I]t might not be unreasonable to expect that [such] a person would know more than taxi/supermarket Korean.I replied:
Hamel, just read the first part again:I don't doubt that those individuals with great linguistic ability, who can pick up a language within a year or so, are baffled at those of us who can't learn a language without years of intensive work, but there it is.
"Some of us came to Korea at an older age, are very busy with work, and perhaps have little talent for learning foreign languages.
That describes me."
Those of you with a gift for foreign languages simply have no experience with how difficult learning a foreign language can be for some of us.
You object that "it might not be unreasonable to expect that a person would know more than taxi/supermarket Korean."
Perhaps not, but life is not always reasonable, nor are talents reasonably distributed across populations.
Just try to imagine something for which you have no talent and which you find deeply frustrating. Perhaps math or chemistry or analytic philosophy. Could you master it? Perhaps . . . if you made it your consuming passion. But doing so would require all your time and energy.
For some of us, learning a foreign language is like that.
I'll just have to keep relying on Google Translate . . . and on Sun-Ae, my beloved Wortschatz.
Labels: Korean Language