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Do You Remember That Moment?

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Joo Park

The last paper on tacit understanding

Do You Remember That Moment?

Paul: Hold your horses.

Dan: I can’t. I have ants in my pants.

Paul: Try not to worry. Maybe he’ll let you off the hook. Maybe it slipped his mind.

Dan: That sounds far-fetched to me, but I’d be tickled pink.

Paul: I don’t think there’s a problem. You’re talking about chicken feed.

An: Not to him. He’s a tightwad. He’ll want to get paid come hell or high water.

(77, Idiomatic American English)

Reaction of my Korean friend after reading this: So, are they in the zoo?


I can hear my heart leaping. I check my body to see if it were shrunken to a single electron, but it was still there with three digits pounds. It feels like a powerful force of magnet inside my brain is attracting all the ends of my body to become a small dot. I wish I could really be like that so I can be invisible to people, or ‘you’ to whom I want to appear ‘normal.’ Do you think I am abnormal? A constantly asked question in my brain. In your laughter, my magnet is turned on, and gingerly searches for your facial messages for my question: How do you perceive me who is not laughing at that joke? My questioning voices too murmur in my ear and blindfold my brain to take in what you say. I vividly remember how your jaw moved, and how your lips were shaped to maximize volume of a certain word when you spoke. I remember what particular word you used when you were telling that joke. That word I saw on page 87 of some book my friend recommended to me, about three months ago at some Vietnamese restaurant with impressive wall decoration. Processing all of this, I do not recall the gist of the joke. I looked more serious as the joke hit the peak. The more you laughed, the more serious I became. That’s the self-consciousness of nonnative speaker of English.

Could a grown-up nonnative speaker ever not be self-conscious talking in a second language?

For this final version of my paper, I focused on nonnative speakers’ spark moment when they stopped or became less self-conscious talking in English. As a result, I learned that the moment can last as long as they are desperate. It can become permanent.

Last time, I surveyed four Korean friends who are nonnative speakers of English. I asked them to whom they feel most comfortable speaking English. The majority had the most preference for Caucasians, and the least preference for Koreans who are nonnative speakers of English like them. I analyzed this unexpected result with an observation I made on the Serendip exhibit, “You’ll Find ‘Time to Think,” and found a correlation between my friends’ responses and the fact that reacting after thinking takes more time than reacting unconsciously. Obviously, this thinking takes extra time and effort. I speak better English to Caucasians than to Koreans. When among a group of Korean friends whose first language is English, I always have hard time talking in English. I feel like my old grandmother is watching me through my friend’s eyes. My tongue strictly trained with a chopstick for pronouncing the letter, ‘r,’ hardens, and the only words that come out of my mouth are Korean.

My second survey had to do with a preference of a different sex, or the same sex as a listener. Many people on the survey preferred the same sex as a listener. Now, the question “To whom do you feel most comfortable speaking English?” changes to “Could a grown-up nonnative speaker ever not be self-conscious talking in the second language?”

According to Pinker, a child can learn language without any effort. He emphasizes the child’s capability throughout his book, and it really discouraged me. Of course, I cannot deny the fact that a child learns the second language faster too. But is it only a youngster who can master a second language? I see Jackie Chan on Hollywood TV, and many other nonnative speakers of English speak good English. Also, there is JYP, a Korean producer who speaks English as if it were his mother tongue. I was desperate to find more such cases to have a sense of hope for my own sake, and went on I found BoA’s English Interview file. BoA is a South Korean singer who is the first one to start a Korean wave, ‘the recent surge of popularity of South Korean popular culture in other countries, especially in Asian countries’ (Wikipedia). Watching her English Interview, I realized she was making many grammatical errors, and her pronunciation was awful. Yet, she made a number of big hand gestures, laughter, eye-contact, and body language. The interviewer commented at the end of the interview that there is no doubt she is going to be a big success in the world.

I noticed several things about BoA’s presentation. First, BoA did not appear to be self-conscious. On national TV show, what was BoA’s motivation to forget being self-conscious in the non-native tongue? Her responses to the questions were very quick and unplanned. Watching the interview file several times, I was able to conclude that BoA’s motivation came from her confidence as an entertainer. She was passionate to talk about her goal and hobby, at the expense of constructing syntax of English word sin her head. In her case, thoughts surpass words.

Second, the interviewer did not seem to remember or care about BoA’s English in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. Instead, he was rather impressed by BoA’s energetic movement and tension-free lead of conversation. This reminded me of the blind spot in which everyone is an artist and creator. In other words, the interviewer already made up (predicted) BoA’s responses before hearing from BoA, and only confirmed the validity through BoA’s passionate body expressions in tacit ways. The words spoken by BoA were merely a form, or a direction that carried BoA’s thoughts. In fact, BoA and the interviewer tacitly communicated each other.

This striking observation on BoA’s talk and the interviewer’s art led me to investigate a new question: When was the particular moment when I became less self-conscious talking in English? It occurred when I joined chorus. I was Soprano 2 in my choir. When my dearest teacher, Mr. Picone, had us sing Hallelujah I had a very strange feeling, an overlapping between balance and unity. The choir of more than hundred people sounded like one person. I was part of that body. Loading my soul into the rhythm of music, I forgot about being conscious of being a nonnative speaker. My tongue danced when the piano allured us to be more united. I did not hear the word as constituent. The only thing I heard was a human’s intrinsic voice.

I had several more moments in which I became tension-free talking in English. When I joined a volleyball team in high school, I had to stop thinking and had to simply take an action upon a coming ball. Otherwise, I would become the most miserable person getting all the blame from the team members. Which one is less severe? A. a self-conscious nonnative speaker or b. an incompetent scapegoat. In athlete’s world, the latter is more miserable.

Another moment of unselfconscious occurred during a retreat with my church, only four months after I came to America. At that time I was not even able to pick up others’ word use, because English sounded like a chunk of butter to me. About five minutes before the sermon began, I could not understand what other friends were saying to each other. But when the minister delivered a sermon in English, I was so moved that I burst into tears. I call it a miracle. I was able to ‘feel’ the minister’s words, and cries so hard. I felt like god was rubbing my heart to crack open my unconsciousness.

I was curious if other nonnative speakers had their similar transitional moments. So, I decided to interview 6 non-native speakers of English about their moment. They are Yufan, Andrew, Jimmy, Jihyon, John, and Basira.

Yufan is a freshman at Bryn Mawr. She is Chinese. She is always bubbly and stays merry. She said working at Haffner Dining Hall she could forget being self-conscious. She added identifying which item is which in English to customers is pleasant.

Andrew is Korean. He confessed he stopped being self-conscious when he had a fight with his friend. “There was no time to think,” he said.

Jimmy is a freshman at Campbell University. He is also Korean. According to him, “Ever since I felt that the listener knew about me very well, I did not have to plan ahead what I was going to say.” He confirmed living in an environment in which only English is spoken helped him a lot. Now, he had no trouble talking in English.

Jihyon, a freshman at Seton Hall University, responded that when she got hurt, she unconsciously spoke a curse in English. She gave several more examples: when she was desperate for something or when she was drunk she spoke English unconsciously.

Basira, a freshman at Bryn Mawr, is from Afghanistan. She said she could not spare any moment to stay self-consciousness because she was working on a high position in Afghanistan government before coming to America.

John, a sophomore at Rutgers University, had an interesting response. He stopped being self-conscious when he got his PSAT score back in his junior year in high school. “it was a mental shock,” he recalled. After that moment, he said he forced himself to think only in English. Also, he had a dream in which everything was in English. “I had trouble expressing myself in English. I had 500 things that I wanted to say but the right expression, the appropriate words didn’t come out or couldn’t think of it. Maybe lacking some words… I was very self-conscious. Pronunciation was another thing. Korean people tend to talk from the back of their throats while regular English speaking people speak with their lips. I was able to fix my pronunciation when I starred a musical in high school.”

These special moments all have something in common. They could be narrowed down to two branches: when they were put into a position that requires responsibility, and when they were emotionally desperate, comfortable, or shocked. That occurred to me when I unconsciously screamed out for the coming volleyball, “mine!” I was desperate.

Throughout this experiment, I had another moment of forgetting my self-consciousness. My responsibility to interview these people to know about them better, was greater than my proclivity to become self-conscious. The “trick” is find something that you are so passionate about that you can forget the fact you are a nonnative speaker.

The dominant factor that brings up anxiety around second language use is adrenaline. Nonnative speakers should relax! The purpose of conversation is not getting the right vocabulary, but sharing emotions with one another. This adrenaline is so powerful that any “anti,” or calming factor cannot remove the tension. In other words, memorizing 1000 vocabulary words and grammar rules to compensate for self-consciousness does not work. We need another adrenaline to suppress the previous adrenaline, just like the diamond can only be engraved by anther diamond because there is no sturdier material than itself. In Andrew’s case, a fight with his friend woke his brain up to spit out words of English unconsciously. A hormone, adrenaline, helped him out of his comfort zone. Would you still care about your accent when six feet from the edge? This brings optimistic news that in fact, all nonnative speakers can be fluent in their second tongue as long as their second ‘adrenaline’ or passion for fill in the blank is on. For BoA who lives her life full of the passion of singing and dancing, language was the most trivial thing for her to attend to. So it was for JYP, who delved into hip hop since 6.

Now, what do you like the most? Being self-conscious is merely a habit or a story to justify staying in one’s comfort zone. If you want to be passionate about staying self-conscious, then go ahead because you will surely be so. But I am sure there are many other things out there to turn you on. Click! It is just a 1 millisecond difference between the self-conscious you and care-free you. Which one would you choose?

Work Cited


Gaines, Idiomatic American English

Pinker, The Language Instinct

Serendip Exhibits, “You’ll Find ‘Time to Think.”