Monday, July 10, 2017

Learning Swedish on the Watermelon Farm

When I was living in Laos, I met three Italian men while they were in the process of putting the final touches on the bar they were about to open. Over the course of what ended up being countless visits, I got to know them and so many of their stories well. The short version of one of those stories is that they met while working on a watermelon farm in Australia, saved up money, and bought the bar. The long version is one of my favourite stories about goal setting, motivation, and language learning.

L., the bartender, told me how he came to find himself on that watermelon farm in Australia in the first place. When he was deciding to leave Italy to work abroad, he knew he could have gone to the UK much more easily. You don’t need a visa, it was closer, and the flight was certainly cheaper. But one of L.’s goals, in addition to saving money and living abroad, was to learn English. At that point, he was in his late 20s and he knew virtually nothing of language. Learning English by immersion was possible in the UK, but he told me that he also knew that if he went to the UK he would most likely move into an Italian neighborhood, with his Italian friends, and speak only Italian. And if things got hard? It’s an equally cheap, short flight right back home. So, instead, he spent all of his money on Australian visas and flights, and put himself in a situation where he was forced to stay, and forced to learn. There were people from all over the world at the farms where he worked, and English was the official language of communication. There were always a few Italians, but he asked them to only speak English with him, no matter how little he understood. 

He said the first three months were miserably painful. He felt stupid, out of touch, didn’t feel socially connected, struggled with the language, with listening, with speaking. Loneliness was an enduring feeling in the first weeks, because language connects, and he didn’t have the language. But after those first three months, things improved, and after that, everything accelerated. Only two years later, he stood before me telling me this story in perfectly fluent English, having learned it all orally and by immersion on a succession of farms in Australia. It reminded me that so many things people do are accomplished because they simply do them, and keep doing them, even when they are not doing them very well in the beginning.

Since then, I often think about taking on big goals and projects as putting myself on the watermelon farm. For one, this reminds me I am choosing to do this to myself, and for two, it reminds me that I will be able to accomplish the task, even if the beginning stages are absolutely miserable. Unexpectedly coming to Sweden and learning the ins and outs of the IB program while picking up halfway through the year qualified as a watermelon farm project for sure. More directly connected to L.’s story, when I am struggling through tough patches in my own Swedish language study, I always think of my friend and his time on the watermelon farm. 

Having this approach is useful, because studying Swedish in Sweden often gets reactions ranging from Swedes jokingly saying “why are you bothering learning Swedish?” to expats vigorously defending the idea that the language is impossible to learn due to the prevalence of English. When told that learning Swedish was useless and/or impossible, it motivated me even more, on top of my main motivation to not make the mistake I made my first year in Laos, when I didn’t commit fully and immediately to language study. I have, therefore, spent a lot of time teaching myself Swedish in the last year and a half, on top of recently taking a class and getting untold amounts of help from Swedish friends. At this point, it is hard for me to imagine not having this level of language knowledge. Understanding Swedish, even at my current basic level, has made me feel more connected to Sweden, and connected to people within Sweden, and has without a doubt fundamentally enriched my experience here. Now that my Swedish has gotten more complex, I have multiple interactions a week that give me a feeling of happiness and accomplishment, because I am using something I worked hard for. Having something to show for it, that results in human connection, is deeply satisfying to me. In a strange way, though, it is only by knowing Swedish that I understand the benefits and impact of knowing Swedish. 

Just the other day I came home to find a woman, and her bike, on my front stoop. As I got closer, I saw her furrowed brow, and still closer, she saw me and her expression turned expectant. She asked me, in Swedish, where the pendelt├ąg station for Sollentuna was, and how far it might be. Her words were richly accented from a language I could not place, and they made the Swedish sound lilting in a wholly different way, one I found pleasing and unique and still totally understandable.

I responded back to her, in what I know is my own richly accented Swedish, and gave her directions and approximate times but admitted I was not aware where the bike path started. She immediately replied back that maybe she should just take the train to meet her friend, and I affirmed her choice and wished her well. In spite of our respective flairs of accents, intonations, and melody, neither of us had any hesitations or problems understanding one another. We had a pleasant interaction, she was helped, and then we went our separate ways. 

Interactions like this always get me thinking about the definitions of speaking a language “correctly”. As someone whose mother tongue is English, I am accustomed to hearing English more ways than I can count, with a seemingly infinite number of accents and melodies and intonations, grammatical structures and wording. It never occurs to me to care if someone has a “native” accent in English. I enjoy hearing all the variations of English accented with mother tongues- the guttural persistence of the French r, the musicality of Hindi, the thick twang of Southern accents twisting vowels into entire words, the rolled r’s of Spanish- none of this makes the English less English, and I have never had a problem understanding and being understood. Language does not need perfect pronunciation and grammar to work. If we can understand one another, the language is working just fine. After being here in Sweden for awhile, I can notice different accents in spoken Swedish, but I find them interesting variations, not problems.

What I have noticed, conversely, as a speaker of English learning other languages, is how tortured English speakers get with their expectations of pronunciation perfection when they start trying to learn other languages. Anxiety around pronunciation might be the number one thing holding back language learners- you might know that phrase, or have the words, and maybe you are even sure of the grammar, but you hold back because you know as soon as you open your mouth, you will be found out. And you probably will- but just forge on ahead. Unless you are speaking a tonal language, pronunciation should not be totally making or breaking you, because context also matters. Maybe you pronounce the vowel sound wrong and it sounds like a similarly spelled word, but in the context of the situation 99% of people will be able to fill in the blanks. If ever you feel self conscious about your accent, just remember all the millions of ways you have heard English, remember everyone has an accent of some sort, and then open your mouth and speak whatever language you are trying to learn. Swedish can be daunting for me because it is a musical language, and that melody is hard to hit. I can feel painfully awkward at times, but never speaking it certainly won’t help, so I am just hoping I can talk my way into something that has a bit more flow to it. 

Speaking of pain- learning a language is a monumental task that takes years to refine, and there are definitely painfully embarrassing moments, but it is not impossible to work on the watermelon farm. You do not have to be “good at languages”, or have some magical gift, or even have hours of free time every day. What you do need to have is commitment, consistency, and a drive to do it. If you have zero desire to learn a language, you will never learn that language- and frankly, that’s totally fine. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a life, and we all make choices with how to spend that time. The key is realising when we are making those choices. 

Here is where the watermelon farm story can often be used as an excuse- it’s very easy to hear that story and take a different lesson from it. Maybe something like “Well if I were in that situation I could learn a language, too!” And that wholly misses the point. L made the choice to put himself in that situation. You must also make the choice to put yourself in that kind of situation. And you can do that with language learning. With all the free resources there are now, it is possible to immerse yourself in any language, in any country, wherever you are, if you have access to the internet.

If you have some language learning goals, I highly suggest these two free apps for your phone: Duolingo and Memrise. Another excellent resource I use for general language learning motivation is the site Fluent in 3 Months. While the catchy title means different things to different people, I have yet to find a better aggregation of inspiring stories, useful tips, and motivation to keep studying. 90% of my Swedish study has been based on these three resources, as I only just recently took a Swedish class for conversational practice. Fluent in 3 months has several articles about free or very cheap conversation partners, which is also useful if you are learning a language while living somewhere that language is not widely spoken. 

At the moment, my next step with Swedish is to take the A2 Part 2 course in the fall, and I think I should probably have a weekly conversation partner to force me to talk about things beyond the standard day to day interactions I have at shops. I am looking forward to seeing where my language skills will be a year from now, judging by where I have gotten in about a year of total study time. I have to say that I have surprised myself with what I have learned, and there are often times when I open my mouth and something I don’t remember learning comes out. On the flip side, I also have terrible grammar and word order at times, my verb conjugations are atrocious in the past tense, and I still don’t get the endings of adjectives right. But every time I have used Swedish, no matter how raggedy and American accented, I have been understood, and that’s the main goal for me right now.

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