Name: Um Seong-Eun (Judy Um)
Nationality or Ethnicity: South Korean
Where do you live: Seoul, South Korea
Languages: Korean, English, French (C2), Spanish (C1), Portuguese (B2), Italian (B2), Mandarin (basic)
Judy Um was appointed as Director of Outreach, HYPIA in 2024.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
Growing up in a monolingual family, I only spoke Korean until the age of 7. I remember I was around 7 when I started going to English academies, where I would learn basic songs and expressions in English. Even at a young age, I was always very excited about learning a foreign language. After diligently studying English in Korea, I went to Vancouver when I was 10 years old. Back then, it was a trend in South Korea to send kids abroad for a year for a total language immersion. Now that I think about it, I was too young to be sent alone to another country, but I was still enthusiastic about the idea of immersing myself into another language and culture. I spent a year at an elementary school in British Columbia and my improvement in English turned out to be unbelievable. I kept a journal in English while I was there, and I could tell that my journal entries by the end of my stay had little to no grammar errors.
In Vancouver, I had another fascinating linguistic encounter. It was French. I was first introduced to French in Grade 5 because French was taught as a second language in Canada. I thought it was a beautiful language. I loved the melody of the French language. When I came back to Korea, I decided to continue learning French and kept practising with French native speakers. This is when my language certificate challenge began. I first started with French A2 in middle school. Strangely enough, I learned Japanese and Mandarin since elementary school, but for some reason, I never grew a passion for Asian languages.
After finishing middle school, I went back to Canada for high school. I took every single French class offered and challenged myself by taking DELF exams including B1, B2 and C1. Upon graduating high school, I came back to Korea for university. (Yes, I did a lot of moving back and forth.) I initially wanted to major in international relations but somehow, I declared my major in French language and literature. While studying linguistics and literature in French, I managed to pass the DALF C2 exam, the highest level in French. I thought I was so done with French.
Then, it was time for me to study abroad as an exchange student. I chose to go to Geneva because it was a perfect mix of my interests: Francophone culture and international relations. I thought I was going to practise my French. However, I unexpectedly met Spanish friends who were also on exchange. Because I already had my DELE B1 certificate before going to Geneva, I was able to communicate with them in Spanish. While hanging out with them, I suddenly grew a strong passion for the Spanish language and culture. This led me to declare my double major in Hispanic literature and language when I came back to my home university. While in Europe, I got my DELE B2 certificate and in Korea, I passed the DELE C1 exam. I thought I was so done with Spanish.
I was bored. I felt like I already conquered my greatest loves in my life: French and Spanish. I then started looking for something similar, something that would remind me of the strong connection I felt at one point in life. After graduating from university, I studied and passed the CELPE-BRAS intermediate (Brazilian Portuguese) which is equivalent to a B2. The following year, I passed the CILS B2 (Italian) exam.
I soon found out that I have collected a total of ten certificates throughout the course of my language life:
DELF A2, B1, B2, C1, C2
DELE B1, B2, C1
These are my babies.
I am very proud of myself. Also, I thank God for giving me this talent and destroying the tower of Babel.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I wish I could practise Mandarin more. I learned Mandarin since the age of 9 but I didn’t enjoy learning it as much as other languages. Because it’s my weakest language, I would like to try and improve by practising more.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
Although I have studied most of the Romance languages, I still have Catalan on my list. Also, I would like to study Esperanto because I find it cool.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
I would have to say French. It’s sexy.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
For this question, I would like to use this quote by Nelson Mandela. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
The greatest pleasure is being able to connect with people from different cultures. I have experienced that the relationship one can forge while speaking each other’s native language is much deeper and intense than when solely communicating in a foreign language. It not only deepens one’s understanding of the world and culture, but also individuals from all walks of life.
6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in 100 years, do you think this is really true?
I disagree. While it is true that an increasing number of people speak English, thus there’s less need to communicate in other languages, many countries are trying to preserve their languages through policy and law. Languages should be preserved because they include culture, heritage, and history.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Congratulations! Follow your heart and passion. Learning a new language will open multiple doors for you.