Building a Language Bridge

The other day I was on my way home sitting on the warm subway shuttling through Seoul thinking about a quiz I had just gotten back from my Korean teacher when an analogy started to form in my mind. The image that struck me was how learning a foreign language seems very much like building a bridge.

Every language learning journey starts at a chasm. On one side is the speaker, our internal world full of ideas and desires. On the other side is the outside world, all the people whom we communicate with. We start out only being able to fling small objects (bits of meaning) over this chasm, like “eat” or “no”. But gradually our language bridge takes on structure that can support heavier forms of communication, like a rope bridge. Instead of throwing single words across this chasm we can begin driving full chunks of meaning across, like “I want to eat now” or “I don’t want to do that”. As our bridge grows from a shaky rope structure to a more solid concrete bridge the weight of communication we can transport across this bridge also increases, and thus our mind’s connection to the outside world grows.

As a native English speaker with college-level language skills my brain has a six-lane double-decker super highway of communication equipped for semi-trucks, race cars, and even a pedestrian walking lane. I’m very use to the speed and ease at which I can get meaning from my mind to the outside world via this super highway. But in Korean my language bridge is more like a sturdy wood bridge, good for walking or maybe the occasional horse-drawn carriage. This difference in the speed and ease of communication can sometimes be the most frustrating part of learning a second language for me.

Without stretching this analogy too far I’d like to draw out one more facet of the language bridge. Not only is each bridge different in its ability to carry meaning, but every bridge also has its own rules for driving. Some roads drive on the left side, while others drive on the right. When we learn a language we not only learn a new way of talking but we also learn a new way of sending and receiving that talking. In short, it’s a new way of being that we learn. A language can’t be separated from the culture it’s a part of. Some examples of this in Korean are the way events and causes are often expressed in ways I’d consider backwards, or the place the speaker has (or doesn’t have) in Korean language. I find learning to see the world in a new way one of the parts of language learning that is the most exciting and the most the most exhausting.

As I keep learning language I hope to keep sharing fun or interesting things on my mind. Also, if language learning is interesting to you, check out this neat article I recently read about language learning techniques.