Today I got a ride back to my place via the generosity of a Korean friend. Normally I take a cab, but I’m trying to budget so when she offered to drive me back to my place I was more than happy to accept.
Feeling the need to break a somewhat awkward silence, I decided to start with some conversation basics:
"Your English is very good! Where did you learn?"
"Oh, no," she laughed, "I am still studying. English is… uhm… how say?"
"Well, yes. But also… art."
"Yeah. I love English. It is a beautiful language."
Now, this really surprised me. I’ve never really thought of English as particularly beautiful-sounding. I mean, to a native speaker, I can see why we might take a certain amount of pride in our language—- knowing the ins and outs of it, but I was shocked to hear this from a non-native speaker.
"What do you mean?"
"English sounds like singing, to me. You sing when you speak."
This made me laugh. I have often compared Korean to chanting, so hearing English described the same way made me feel like the shoe was on the other foot.
"In Korean," she explained, "we do not have stressed syllables. And words have only one meaning. For example, if you are talking to someone, you can say ‘I like you’, or ‘I like you’ or ‘I like you’, and they all mean different things. And the word ‘like’ has so many meanings! It is just one word, but you sing it. You sing it and your meaning is not always clear, so you have to paint with it. English is art.”
I gave this some thought. For one thing, that was a shockingly eloquent way of putting it. But I think my silence made her uncomfortable, because she continued:
"In Korean, if I say ‘I love you’, I say 사랑해 (saranghae), that is how to say it.”
I wasn’t really sure what she meant by this. I repeated the phrase, though, as best I could, imitating her inflection.
"You sing, too!" I told her.
She laughed, “If that is what Korean sounds like to you, I am very happy.”
After that, the conversation followed different lines of thought (cars, driving, America, etc.), but it’s stuck with me. I think it’s interesting that she sees my language as musical or artistic— not just in its meaning, but also in its sounds. Food for thought, I guess.