When I visit a new place, I like to know a few words or phrases: hello, thank you, please, how are you, where is…(the train, loo, exit), excuse me, help!
I’m lucky that my first language is English. I’m also unlucky. Because here, in this insular island-esque not-island, attached top and bottom to countries that speak languages other than ours, we’ve decidedly decided that we need not know more than one language to get by in the world.
Tidbit: Did you know that 58% of Americans do not hold a passport? (and that’s up markedly, mostly because passports are now required to get to the Caribbean and Canada)
I studied French in Junior High. Hated it, then switched to Spanish in High School. American Sign Language in college (because at that time nobody suggested it might be a good idea to have a 2nd language, so I thought this might be good to have in my back pocket if the tinnitus ever worsened 🙄).
I’ve been to Central America 9 or 10 times. The Spanish has come in handy (assuming a Duolingo brush-up before the trip): I can get by in broken Español.
I’m envious of my multilingual friends, my half-Brazilian/half-American niece (who can prattle in 4 languages before breakfast), those to whom another tongue is not a big deal to idly pick up and put on, as one does a new shirt.
Nearly 3-1/2 years ago, my most polyglot copain asked me, “how’s your French?” Horrors of 8th grade flashed on so many levels as I realised my answer was, “horrible.” In any language.
Since that day, I’ve studied 5, 10, 30 minutes of French pretty much every night. My longest Duolingo streak is well over 100 days. I’ve got a Babbel subscription. I’m able to read a newspaper article, understand (and tentatively participate in) adult conversation…J’ai lu Le Petit Prince (en Français!). Social media headlines baffle me, yet I went to Paris for my birthday last year and didn’t completely flounder. I had an interesting dinner with a Swiss couple and my B&B hosts in The Seychelles in May and wasn’t entirely underwater. It feels good but not nearly enough… My English-speaking brain is still trying to convert the other language into English as it comes in, then convert that into something French-like as it goes out. In the process, the time it takes to create conversation seems interminable. And I’m left, literally, speechless.
And so as I’m preparing to leave for my next adventure to Scandinavia (favourite Swedish interpreter literally in tow), I’m trying to learn some Swedish words. If to impress no one but myself.
It begins easily enough: hej. tack. ja. nej. Hello. Thank you. Yes. No.
Quickly the problems mount: There are now 3 new letters to learn and not mangle [ä, å and ö] while simultaneously trying to not sound like the Swedish chef (whose gobbledygook, I’m told, rings closer to Norsk than Svenska).
Hur mår du. snälla. hejdå. How are you? Please. Goodbye. And I’m trying to configure lips that are clearly inte Scandinavian. I almost instantaneously become a parody of myself…Bork. Bork. Bork.
It continues: Duolingo gives me jordgubbe (strawberry! I can do this!). And frukost (a girl needs to eat…brekkie!). And then this happens: skärp (bork. bork. bork.), which is not at all the same as en scarf or en halsduk. (or is it ett?) And kött. And fläskkött (use the ä, or else it’s bottle meat vs. pork!). But those are okay since I’m nearly veg. But at frukost we need to use a sked (no, really, try to pronounce that word with an American mouth). And we’ll be in the forest so we may encounter en sköldpadda or en groda, which is not the same as en fråga. Numbers: I should know there are sju dagar in en vecka. Health: what if I get hurt and need en sjuksköterska?! I have a “k” problem. F*ck. (this one is global)
So on one hand, I’m lucky: that most of the Western world speaks English. I’m lucky, because I get to travel to Sweden with a real-live Swedish interpreter (who cringes in horror as I contort my mouth to form the simplest of words without laughing). But I feel quite opposite: I’d like to participate and explore and learn about a place with a partial understanding of what makes it tick. Food and words and history and people…it’s all connected.
And so, if you see me walking down the street these next couple of weeks, earphones on, talking to myself and making strange faces: this is why.
And if you encounter my terrible Swedish in Stockholm, humour me? I’m just hoping to embarrass myself as little as possible on this trip.
Ursäkta. Förlåt. Tack så mycket.
CLICK HERE for the full and very beautiful language diagram by illustrator Minna Sundberg I used in the header photo.