A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Conference

University of Helsinki

“So I just found out I got accepted to the International Circle of Korean Linguistics this summer!”

“Oh, that’s great, congrats!” my colleague said, swiveling around in her chair at the news. “You’ll be going to Seoul, then?”

“Actually,” I replied, “the conference is going to be in Helsinki.”

She stared.

“Finland,” I added.

“Oh, yes. Of course! Finland. Because that makes perfect sense for Koreanists!,” she deadpanned.

“Clearly the global hub of all things Korean in 2017,” I shot back with a wink.

It was the perfect opportunity, at that moment in our interaction, to pile on the sarcasm. Bringing up that deep Finno-Korean cultural connection, for example, or hypothesizing that climate change is forcing summer conferences to relocate north of the Arctic Circle to escape the heat. As a linguist, I have studied humor as it is used by humans to accomplish specific social goals: in this case, to obliquely reference the absurdity of an area studies conference being held 4,367 miles away from the area in question, as well as to forge a stronger social bond with my colleague through cooperative joke-telling.

But I didn’t follow through, because I was genuinely too excited about the conference to mask it with a veneer of slightly amused detachment. Helsinki! I had never been to that part of the world before. I had also never presented my research, which analyzes the speech patterns of Korean-English bilinguals, at an international conference like this before. The audience would comprise not just experts in my particular subfield of linguistics, but also experts in my language of study. Up until then, I hadn’t met any other Koreanists in my field; I also knew that one of the conference’s invited speakers was a star researcher from another UC. My excitement was tinged with only slight trepidation.

With some support from the Graduate Division, I bought my tickets and secured a place to stay in the city during the final week of June. I arrived in Helsinki in the middle of a golden afternoon – almost all daylight hours are tinted with an unusual atmospheric glow when you’re this far north around midsummer – and discovered a city as clean and walkable as any I’d ever been to. I loved the public trams and committed myself immediately to figuring out the differences between Swedish and Finnish, judging from bilingual street signs and public notices. There was a beautiful park with a monument to the composer Jean Sibelius just a short walk away from my apartment. Everything seemed beautiful and so well-designed. This was Scandinavia in the summertime, after all.

On the second day, it rained from morning to night.

Andrew Cheng presentation
Andrew Cheng giving a presentation on his research with Korean heritage speakers at the 20th Meeting of the International Circle of Korean Linguistics at the University of Helsinki in June.

On the third day, it was conference time. Nervous but eager, I went to the University of Helsinki. I already had an idea of which sessions I would want to sit in on: phonetics, phonology, sociolinguistics. I wanted to connect with people who were doing research similar to mine and trade ideas. To that end, I knew, I would have to actually talk to them. And this is where I would have to address a gap in my ability wider, it seemed, than the Atlantic: Korean speaking proficiency.

Now, as a career linguist, I’ll be the first to tell how irritating it can be when new acquaintances guilelessly spring that clichéd question: “So how many languages do you speak?” Not only is it too predictable, it is also based on a misunderstanding of what linguists do. We are not polyglots. We study the structure of languages, not necessarily how to speak them. Granted, working knowledge of the language in question often comes hand-in-hand with scientific study of it. But what I’m trying to explain here is why I can say that I study Korean, but also not really be very good at speaking Korean.

And what I’m also trying to explain is why this suddenly embarrassed me greatly when I walked out into the coffee break area after the first session ended and realized that more than half of the crowd was chattering away not in Finnish, not even in English, but in good old hangukmal.

That first day, I stayed close to the English speakers.

I recognize how much I’ve passively benefited from having native English proficiency. It’s the closest our globalized world has to an international lingua franca. English is always expected in academic circles. English is in all the airports. English is studied by every schoolkid in Finland and Korea. And I have English-speaking privilege in my back pocket.

But here, suddenly, I found that I wanted to speak in Korean instead. It was difficult to overcome my introversion, compounded as it was with rusty language skills, but I had to keep telling myself: I’m not here just to give a talk. Conferences are for networking and building relationships, too! I had practiced my Korean self-introduction; telling myself, “When in Helsinki, do as the… Koreans do?” Or, at least, do whatever you can to make whomever you meet feel at ease in otherwise awkward conversation.

Perhaps that’s what all the native Korean speakers were thinking, too, as they approached me hesitantly during coffee breaks to ask, in English, how I liked Berkeley and what my project was about. There was more than a little confusion over whether I looked, as a person of East Asian descent, like I could maybe, possibly be a Korean-American? It was actually… funny!

In the end, I tried my best and managed to draw some “good effort!” compliments from the Koreans. That was enough. I realized that all of us were trying really hard, harder than we needed to. I also managed to nervously introduce myself, in English, to the invited speaker whose work I admired so much, and everything was totally fine.

As it turns out, ICKL was held in Helsinki to honor the legacy of a Finnish linguist named Gustaf J. Ramstedt who had done major work in describing the structure of Korean and its alleged historical relationships to other languages (such as Japanese and Mongolian). I, too, would like to thank Professor Ramstedt for the opportunity to travel abroad, contribute to linguistic scholarship, and learn a lot more about language, not just through the objective lens of research but through the warm and whimsical perspective of lived experience.

Andrew Cheng is a 4th year PhD student in Linguistics.