There are a whole bunch of reasons. But here’s one tiny example.
Years ago, I saw The Joy Luck Club in a movie theater.
(Spoiler Alert: You might want to skip the rest of this post if you haven’t seen the movie yet.)
Anyway, at the end of the movie the main character, June (Jing-Mei), travels to China to meet the older twin sisters that she never knew she had.
Finally face to face with her long-lost siblings, she says, in Mandarin:
Wo shi nimende meimei!
At the time, I had been studying Chinese for all of two months. But I easily understood what June was saying:
I am your younger sister!
That got me to thinking. How would you say that same sentence in Korean? I had gone to Korean school on and off for six years. I took two years of college Korean. I spent a summer in Korea. But I had no idea how to say this simple sentence.
So I did what any other Korean American would do. I called my mother.
Hey, mom, how would you say in Korean: “I am your younger sister?”
My mother thought about it for a few seconds. She made a couple of false starts, and then finally said, with some irritation:
Why would anyone want to say that, anyway?
She explained that it was a highly unnatural situation, and that there wasn’t any literal translation of the sentence into Korean that didn’t sound totally weird to her. The best she could come up with was: “Sisters, it’s me.”
Years later, I told the story to a friend of mine, who is a college professor (non-Korean).
Intrigued, he related the story to one of his Korean students, who scoffed at the notion that the sentence could not be translated into his native language.
My professor friend then asked his student to write the Korean translation onto a piece of paper so he could show it to me. The student quickly complied with a flourish and handed the paper over.
A moment later, the student asked for the paper back, scratched out what he had written, and then wrote a second sentence. He stared at what he had written for a few seconds, scowled, and then finally crumpled it up and put it into his pocket. So much for linguistic universalism.
All I can say is that I hope that I’m not going to be meeting any long-lost siblings the next time I visit Korea…