Wednesday, May 18, 2016

100 Days of Studying Swedish

I love the way Swedish verbs work, so I don't have to. 

I have now lived and worked in four countries other than my own: Japan, Albania, Laos, and Sweden. In every single case, I made an effort at committing time to learning the language, with varying degrees of diligence and, as a result, varying degrees of success. In Japan, I willfully chose to be illiterate so I could focus on conversational skills. There is a standardized Roman alphabet for the Japanese language, so I could read and teach myself out of books, and practice talking in my day to day life. By the end of my year there, I could hold basic chit chat conversations with taxi drivers, make niceties with my neighbors, effortlessly fling out all the set daily polite phrases for a myriad of interactions, and I had a firm vocabulary of the specifics of my life: the post office, the bank, the doctor’s office, buying things, ordering in restaurants, etc. 

Getting a fortune poem I could not read on New Year's in Tokyo.

Albanian was a similar level of fluency, aided by the fact that I could read signs everywhere and everyone assumed I was Albanian so they threw the language at me from the start.

Oddly enough, though, to make it to this Albanian beach I spoke Spanish with the Albanian hotel owner, who was giving me directions in Italian...

And then came Lao… learning Lao was rough, due to my transition, because from the first month I was counting down the days until I could leave. Of course, all that changed eventually, and as soon as I decided I was staying another year I threw myself into actively trying to learn the language. Unfortunately, this had to be shoved into the corners of life that were not taken up with grad school and work and being ill for a year with mysteriously bum legs. As a result, I am most ashamed of my effort in Laos, because I spent two years there and ended with less language capability than Japan and Albania.

Thankfully not everything required translation.

What I learned from the experience in Laos is that, no matter how long you think you will be in a country, yes, yes, the answer is always yes, you should start learning the language from day one. So impressed with this regret was I that I even stuck to this while traveling for half a year- I made active efforts to pick up day to day phrases in German, I endeavored to finally learn to read in Italian correctly, and all over the Balkans I was netting phrases- especially in Croatia, where I spent the most time. When I returned to Albania for a long awaited visit, I busted out all my old study sites and reviewed the language so I could use it every day. I don’t like to make the same mistake twice, and I hate feeling like I missed out on a learning opportunity.

I did as I was told.

So with all that in mind, here in Sweden I am approaching my most difficult task yet: I am living in a country where virtually everyone speaks English to a fluent level, and I am the most committed I have ever been to learning the language of my host country now that I am free of grad school for the first time since moving overseas. I am using two apps I highly recommend, Memrise and DuoLingo, and I strictly use my bus ride to and from work (about 20 minutes one way) for language study. My record keeper tells me I have used both apps every day for 100 days now. I amaze even myself at that kind of commitment, starting, as it did, when I was firmly in the “what the hell is my life?” blues.
What is difficult is that I find my level of self-consciousness in speaking a foreign language is directly proportional to the likelihood that the listener speaks my native language very well. So, in Japan, or Albania, or Laos, where I could assume the listener is not likely to be fluent in my language, I would gladly fumble through, hoping that my meager efforts would at least be met with understanding, or an appreciation I was trying to integrate. But here, in Sweden, the thought of speaking is almost paralyzing to me. I know that as soon as I start fumbling through the words, the person will rescue me, effortlessly, swooping in with a delivery of my own mother tongue, expertly spoken.  It makes me even more embarrassed to be mono-lingual.

I like knowing enough Swedish to read passive aggressive but funny notes on trees exhorting dogs to think of the children.

The real issue is that sometimes the ease with which I move through the world thanks to English really shames me. I think back to all the times I, as a foreigner speaking English, have been accommodated, have been understood, have been helped. I have a habit of ending up in foreign hospitals- every time, the nurses and doctors spoke at least enough English to explain to me the general idea of what they were about to put in me/cut out of me/test me for. I have never been shamed for not speaking the local language. I recall, fondly, the man who owned the shop in my building in Albania, who patiently typed out my total for groceries in the calculator before I learned the numbers in Albanian. No one has made me feel stupid, less than, or worthless for my lack of language skills. When I compare this to the rhetoric I have heard hurled at those who do not speak English, I feel even more guilt.

I know there are lots of people who have lived in Thailand or Laos or Albania or Japan or Sweden for years, and can barely string together a few sentences. Why? Because they speak English, and they run in English speaking circles, or hang out with locals who also speak English. Of course, when English speaking Western people do it, we give it cute names like Inter Nations or Couch Surfing or Meet Ups. We rest on the fact that it’s okay, most people speak English, I don’t need to learn (fill in the blank local language).  Sometimes, our friends who are citizens of our host country even graciously excuse us by making fun of the pointlessness of learning their language, going so far as to express surprise and ask “Why would you learn_________?” We should be asking ourselves why it is considered okay for western, English speaking people to not integrate, not learn the language, and not “assimilate”, even after decades of living in their host countries, but non-Western, non-English speaking people are seen as willfully ignorant and stubborn for doing the exact same thing.

And sure, you can come back at me with a very logical response- English is, for all intents and purposes, the unofficial global language. It is the most popular second language worldwide. The thing is, I’m not talking about purely logical or useful arguments for English. I am concerned with the ways in which people who speak English are absolved of responsibility for learning the language of their host countries, while those who don’t speak English are often judged very harshly, even in countries where English is not the mother tongue, but is rather the unofficial second language. Take my situation- I moved to Sweden, and I speak English, and thus no one gets prickly at me for not knowing Swedish. If I had moved to Sweden and spoke Spanish, French, and Italian, but knew no English or Swedish, I would suddenly be lazy or refusing to integrate or isolating myself. The only difference is that in the former case I was lucky by birth or opportunity to have learned English. And this is a problem- conflating English knowledge with intelligence or willingness to adapt or integrate, when most of the time it is just luck of the draw, pure and simple.

I have studied Japanese, and Albanian, and Lao, and I never became fluent in any of them, but the effort of trying to understand made me feel better than resting on the (unearned) laurels of my English ability. I have terrible pronunciation, my grammar structure is awful, and Swedish prepositions confuse the hell out of me, but I just remind myself that verb conjugation is so much easier than Spanish, at least it isn’t tonal like Lao, and I don’t have to learn an entirely new alphabet like with Japanese. So on my 100th straight day of studying Swedish, I will say I plan to continue studying Swedish, in spite of all the assurances that it is pointless and impossible to learn. I can say one thing with certainty- no, no, no, the Swedish chef is NOT speaking Swedish. But I do think I sound like the Swedish chef when I speak Swedish.


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