Technical language

When I was an undergraduate working in the lab, my former boss was Spanish but was very strict about everyone using English and only English in his lab, which I can understand.  Research is a collaborative effort and it doesn’t help anyone if you’re alienating other members of the lab by using a language they don’t understand.

Most of the scientists I worked with last quarter are Chinese and converse mostly in Chinese with each other and, everyday, I’m amazed that they can talk science in practically 100% Chinese.  It’s funny and interesting at the same time to hear things like “Something something something TRANSGENIC MICE something something BIOTINYLATED something….”  It makes me wonder how flexible a language is about “inventing” new words as science and technology evolve.

Japanese, for example, seems to be pretty generous about adapting English words (considering that they have an entire alphabet for foreign words).  On the other hand, I remember being highly amused when my mother said that a language institution? organization? of some sort actually invented Tamil words (not just “Indianified” pronunciations of the English words but actual words) for “computer,” “e-mail,” and “television.”  Ha!

Oddly enough, though, there do seem to be foreign word equivalents even for technical scientific words.  For example, both Korean and Japanese have words that mean “gel electrophoresis” – a molecular biology technique that uses electricity to separate fragments of DNA by size.  It’s especially fun to look at the Kanji for this word because the characters that comprise it pretty much tell you the meaning.

gel electrophoresis = ゲル電気泳動 (ゲルでんきえいどう)

  • ゲル  = gel
  • 電気 (でんき) = electricity
  • 泳 (エイ) = swimming
  • 動 (ドウ) = movement 

Gel electrophoresis has been around since 1975 but I wonder how long it took to actually coin the Japanese equivalent for this word.  Was there a transition period of time during which just the English was used  (with Katakana, perhaps) before the appropriate Kanji were selected?  Or was it immediate?  Who came up with the word, scientists or linguists?

Is society moving toward more or less homogenized language?  Personally, I think the global pressure of English will soon force inventors and scientists from non-English speaking countries to use Latin roots to coin new words; it’s only a matter of time before we see the breakdown of native “invented” technical words, especially in science and technology where international collaboration and the necessity to be understood is so key.


So today, as I was taking the bus back home, I inadvertently overheard the couple sitting behind me having a very interesting conversation.

The girl (her native language was probably Spanish, by her accent) was talking about the challenges of taking Japanese and Chinese courses at the same time.  She clearly had an interest in both languages but was having a hard time dedicating enough time to Chinese and her grades reflected that.  To that, her companion said sympathetically, “You just can’t fake a language.  You either know it or you don’t.” 

I feel like this has occurred to me at some point or another, but for some reason, it struck me as especially profound today.  Maybe it’s because of where I am and what I’m doing and how I currently feel about what I’m doing….  Science, in my opinion, is very easy to bullshit.  With enough arrogance, people can seem like they know more than they do and mean more than they say.  Some even consider it a merit if you’re good at faking your way though it.

Learning a foreign language, on the other hand, is different.  Even if you know the “rules,” you can’t “fake” your proficiency.  Without persistent study, your abilities will deteriorate.  At the beginner level, at least, it seems that language learning has an inherent unfakeability about it.  You’re not going to fool anyone (especially a native speaker) into thinking you’re better than you really are.

In a way, it’s refreshing to know that one’s level in a certain language is at least a direct, if not proportional, outcome of the amount of work one puts into it.

Just realized this is kind of a meaningless post but something I’ve been thinking about a lot regarding my own career choice.  Cheers, everyone!


Interview Week came to an end on Friday.  It was an exciting time for me because I still have vivid memories of my own graduate school interview circuit (has it really been a year since then?!) and I was definitely looking forward to experiencing it from the other side of admissions this time around.

Most of the graduate students in the program participate in Interview Week as student hosts – basically, our job is to accompany the interviewee to his/her nine interviews, answer questions about the program, entertain, and (most importantly) pitch the school.

I chose to host Yekyung, a post-graduate student from Yonsei University.  I had an incredible time showing her around campus and by the end of her four-day stay here, we had already become fast friends.  In fact, we’ve still been in touch through Kakaotalk and Skype since she went back to Korea!  It just goes to prove that there are some people you can make an instant connection with, even if you haven’t known them for long.  I know regardless of where she goes to graduate school, she’ll always be a good friend, a wonderful 언니, and a great language partner!

After finishing her interviews, we took a walk around campus and chatted for something like 2.5 hours in a mix of Korean and English and had a really great time just relaxing and talking about Korean, English, entertainment, and culture.  When it was time for her to leave, Yekyung asked me if I knew what 아쉽다 means.

I think 아쉽다 is one of those multi-layered words that can take on subtly different meanings depending on the context.  I’m not sure if there’s a single English word that can be used in all the contexts that 아쉽다 can be used in – but I always thought of it as feeling like you’ll miss something or don’t want something to end or go away.  The dictionary definition is “to want for,” “to miss,” “to feel inconvenienced by the lack of.”

But Yekyung phrased her definition of 아쉽다 beautifully:  “Feeling like you wish time would stop.”

I was so touched when she put it that way. :’)

Drama Dialogue @selfstudykorean

Many of you are probably already aware that a couple of days ago, Shanna of Hangukdrama just launched, a brand new website aiming to bring together and unite the rapidly growing online community of Korean language learners.

Selfstudykorean seeks to pool the knowledge and experiences of several Korean language bloggers, which will hopefully motivate others to find and develop their own effective method of self-studying Korean.  As of now, there are around nine main bloggers (myself included!).  Each of us will be contributing content from a variety of sources as well as from our own personal experiences as regularly as possible, in order to not only bring more content, but also to highlight that there are multiple ways to go about successfully self-studying a language.  If you’re interested in contributing, check out this page!

I will be writing a (hopefully) weekly feature entitled “Drama Dialogue,” where I will take a few lines from a scene in a K-drama and then expound upon a single word, phrase, cultural or grammar point – similar to what I did a few posts back with 칠거지악.  I’m aiming to have my first post up by this Saturday!

That being said, I’ll still be active on this blog so (though I don’t have a very extensive readership), please continue to check out panjjakpanjjak for more randomness about Korean, Japanese, language learning, and language in general.  And, of course, be sure to check out!  So excited and honored to be a part of this community.