Howard's Blog

This is Howard C. Park's blog. Interests: live music, simulations and modeling, languages, iPod, social and business networking, systems thinking, history of science, management, BBQ, trivia, good coffee, organizational learning, traveling, personal histories.

Monday, September 03, 2007

a mystery revealed

I am still writing entries from my trip to China and Korea. It seems that I may have a second chance to go to China for business soon. The goal is to finish up the previous entries BEFORE I leave for the second trip.

There is a topic I've been wanting to blog for a few weeks, and it addresses one of the mysteries in my life. A little background: I was born in South Korea, and lived there for the 1st 7 years of my life. I was "fluent" in Korean and did not learn English until I moved to the States. So, for the 1st seven years of my life, I spoke, wrote, dreamt, thought in Korean... IF we explicitly use a specific language for such things. Someone once asked me... do you still "think" in Korean. My reply: "no, when I construct thoughts, that's done in English.". So, the natural question to ask is: "when and how did you make that transition to 'thinking' in English?".

I have never been able to answer that question. Was it gradual? Was it relatively sudden, say within a few days or a week? Was there a impetus? Is the question moot, as the kind of thoughts a seven-year old is likely to have would be insignificant? But there are larger questions: "how does thinking in one language actually shape the thinking?" and "what other kind of transitions were there for the seven-year old, such as cultural and relational?".

I was given a glimpse of a possible answer while I was in Korea a few weeks back. My Korean is not very good, but did improve during my time there. It was much more practical to blunder my way thru simple Korean than to try to communicate in English. I still had my pocket dictionary and phrasebook with me. And since I knew how to read Korean, and was with relatives, it was easy to get by.

I was being driven somewhere by my aunt, and I was taking in the street signs that had both Korean and English. As I was sounding out the street names in English, I distinctly remember thinking, IN KOREAN, "that sign is wrong, isn't it?" ("wrong", in how the Korean was phonetically translated into English... it turned out that it was correct*).

The reason why I thought this on Korean was NOT because my mind was in "Korean mode" or because my Korean had improved. I think the reason why I thought this was it was more "efficient" in terms of number of syllables and the construct required to express this sentiment. Sure, "that sign is wrong, isn't it?" is not a complicated English phrase, but the Korean was more efficient, "simpler", and more "at the ready" at the time I needed it.

So if my theory is correct, my guess is that I made the transition from English to Korean gradually, as my English improved and my ability to express what I needed to express became easier in English. This also explains why adults generally still think in terms of their first (or original) language. Their first language skills are developed enough to express the thoughts required. I don't know how quickly the transition came for me, but only that it probably came very naturally. The other transitions (such as my relationship with my parents and brother, cultural, school, etc.) probably played a key role, as it was probably easier to utilize new English words to deal with my new American life.

This may also explain why it seems easier for me to speak Korean to relatives compared to speaking with other Koreans. The Korean I know is mostly tied to my being a child. To my relatives, including my parents who have also been in the States for 30 years, I still have Korean words and constructs that work. I once tried talking in Korean to my fellow Korean counterparts when I was with a large consulting company. That was a difficult conversations... I lacked the words, the customs, it was awkward at many levels.

* The reason why the sign was "correct" is due to the fact that I was sounding out each Korean syllable in a strict sense, without taking into account that it fluent speaking, some of the ends of syllables are changed to accommodate the next sound. It reminded me of this.
|| hcpark, 3:37 PM


When we are in Mexico, I dream in Spanish.
Blogger Sarah Hazel, at 9:43 AM  
Howard - This is Rebekah Rogers. I'm trying to track down your current address because I'm getting married in December, and this is what popped up in Google. My parents and I would love to send you an invitation! If you get this, could you email me at
Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:48 PM  
Howard-- I completely agree with you. I came over to the States when I was 3, but my family exclusively spoke Vietnamese in the house. I didn't learn English until I was sent to the babysitter's when I was 5 or 6. Yet now, I do better in English than Vietnamese as a whole.

I think the brain is like an electrical circuit, or maybe like a river. And like electrons or water, our brain patterns take the path of least resistance, particularly when forming thought and language.

There are times when I find it most expedient to use a Vietnamese phrase for a particular situation, but the same can be said of English or Spanish. When I am forced to speak only in one language (other than English), I hit snags in my formation of thought and phrases, and I think to myself, 'It would be so much easier if I could just say___ in English.'

When I moved to CT seven years ago, I knew I would be taking over a medical practice that had a large number of Vietnamese patients. And for three years I was in the back woods of Virginia, and I didn't have to use Vietnamese at all. I still understood Vietnamese and thought in the language, but there were certain phrases I had forgotten and therefore made fluent communication difficult. But as I used my Vietnamese skills more and more, my ability to express myself improved. I don't get made fun of as much anymore for not being able to speak correctly.

What I find fascinating that there are some days when my brain will not transition into another language. I use English, Vietnamese, and Spanish just about every day at work, and I dream in all three languages. But still, there are times when my brain short circuits and only one language will come out.

I wonder what other multilingual people's experiences are regarding this matter.
Blogger Minh Han, at 7:38 PM  
Howard, I think I have the same dynamic going on, but in reverse. I was born in Milwaukee, America (I still don't understand what language they speak) and now live in Mallorca, Spain. Whilst my spanish is total shite (well, I think it is), everyone I talk to here says they completely understand what I am saying. My problem is that no matter how hard I try, I still think in English. But similar to your recent experience, as soon as I become involved in a conversation with a Mallorquin or Spanish person, the 'think-translate-try to say' simply fades away and the conversation moves along quite smartly.
Cheers, JBR
Blogger James, at 3:03 PM  

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