Na Yeon Choi: Learning English Made Me a Better Player

For those of you still stuck in the stereotype of the stoic, standoffish Korean LPGA Tour player, give it up. The world has passed you by.

Because I have spent more than a little time following the LPGA Tour, I discovered that the caricature of the Asian players is more than just dated, it’s wrong.

My first experience was with Taiwan’s Yani Tseng. I first saw her in person at the initial RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix in 2011. She was the No.1 player in the world and when I saw that she was going to be first out for a 7 AM pro-am start, I jumped at the chance to watch her without a big crowd; who else would show up that early to watch a pro-am? Nobody it turned out. 

I had seen an article on her quest to learn more English. When the 2010 season wound down, the first thing she did was enroll in a month-long, intensive English class that met at 7 AM for three hours a day. I got an opportunity to ask her about the experience in her press conference and then I got to interview her one-on-one immediately after that.

I was blown away. She still spoke with a heavy accent and some grammatical mistakes, but we discussed some very esoteric matters about mastery and her comprehension was right with me every step of the way. And her responses were right on point.

I got a chance to interview her again in 2012 at the same tournament and found her command of English even tighter and her use of idiomatic phrases nonchalant.

And that emboldened me to interview Na Yeon Choi about those same mastery issues. And I was shocked at how polished her English was in the fifteen or so minutes we spent together. It was a real lesson for me.

And so I was quite interested to discover these passages about learning English in her winner’s interview today at the CME Group Titleholders (she won by two and ran off with $500,000, the second largest winner’s check on Tour this year; she won the other one too, the $565,000 that goes with the U.S. Women’s Open).

Why was it important, so important for you to learn English so well?  And Se Ri [Pak], when she first came over, talked about the importance of learning English because it made her comfortable off the course and made her golf better.  Do you understand what she meant by that?

I mean, first year when I was here I couldn’t speak English well and then very hard to tell my feeling to people, even media or fans or even swing coach.  When I learned English and when I tell my feelings to people, I feel way more comfortable than before.  I think that made it good golfer, too.  And on the golf course I can relax and I can talk with the other players.

So, I mean, my English tutor couldn’t travel with me this year, only last year, but I’m talking with him to travel with me for next year again.  So I want to improve my English for media and fans, I want to tell my feelings in more detail.

How much did you study last year?  Every day?

Every day, one-hour class, and rest of day I just talking with him in English, so I think that’s more make me better English.

How often did you guys — did you guys Skype this year, or how did you kind of do your lessons throughout this year in terms of trying to keep it up?

Actually, this year I couldn’t much with him, but when I go back to Korea, I always met him and we had dinner and I talk about everything to him.  Then even today, this week, I had one-hour class with him on Skype.

So we didn’t talk about golf, not only golf, we talk about anything.  Like I said I’m going to looking for a new house and he tried to help me which house is better for me.  He’s more like not just English tutor, he’s more like manager or assistant to me.

So while the English-speaking players on the LPGA Tour are hitting balls and playing practice rounds and working out to get stronger and more flexible, the Koreans are doing all of that and spending an hour a day learning English…and more than that, practicing English.

And the reason that they do this is to make themselves better players. They have found that the ability to communicate with other people is an integral part of connecting with other people. That connecting with other people is at the very foundation of who we are as human beings; satisfying that felt need to reach out and express yourself; satisfying that felt need to allow others to reach out to you.

To get a sense of what that must feel like, imagine that you are reading along in this post and suddenly discover that you can’t read. You can see all the characters, but they are nonsensical to you.

You are now cut off from other human beings except those in your immediate proximity that you can speak to…kind of like you were a Korean in America.

And now imagine that you can suddenly read again…and that the collective consciousness of the rest of the world is suddenly there again…and you are connected again.

That immediate sense of relief, that feeling of comfort and safety, is the reason that the Koreans are working so hard on their English. Because they have figured out that being comfortable and connected is essential to how the world — and their golf — works for them.

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