Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Can you talk another språk (language)?

Ever since I was young I've been fascinated by people who can talk another language. Fascinated by what it must be like to think in another language and how it must feel to effortlessly move between two sets of people, who can only smile at each other. I've always wanted to learn another language and I guess more than anything that is the reason I chose to live in Sweden.

What I didn't realise was that Swedish is an extremely difficult language to learn. It's not tricky grammar, or that you must sing as you speak, or even the precise prononiciation that make it difficult. Instead it's the fact that nearly every Swede you meet is so damn good at talking English. The bare truth is that it's very hard to motivate yourself to speak a foreign language when you can effectively communicate in your mother tongue. I guess this is the reason why many foriegners live in Sweden for many years without learning anything more than how to order a beer.

I, however, was determined not to be one of those people.

My first attempts at speaking the language were nevertheless pathetic. I was over-flowing with excitement to speak this language I had read about in a book, but my pronunciation was terrible so no one could understand. It was so frustrating.

Looking back all I needed was a lot of practice and time. There seems no short cut to learning a foreign language, you've got to just do. You've got to speak and make mistakes and get corrected. You've just got to listen and try to understand and ask again and again for help. It's a hard road.

In particular speaking requires a lot of confidence. I always feel nervous when I speak. I think this is the major reason why adults have a hard time of learning a second language, because the older we get the more we hate to feel stupid. And trust me, learning speaking another language makes you feel stupid. Really stupid.

One little trick I developed in the begining was too remind myself how much I love hearing my French friends speak English. Yes their pronunciation is not that great and they miss a few words here and there. But does it matter? No. They still get there message accross. I can tell they're French so they don't sound stupid to me. Infact if anything, they sound exotic and sexy... So I just assume this is how I seem to the locals here!

The process to learning a language might be long and painful, but the rewards are great also. Like the day you have a your first real conversation, or when you suddenly realise that when you talk to strangers they don't swap to English straight away. At these times you feel like you're really alive, and that feels so incredibly good.

And there's so many interesting experiences along the way. While learning Swedish I've believe I've also learnt to talk a third language, Simplified English. I've seen what's it's like from the other side so I know that non-native English speakers require me to speak slightly slower and to use simplier words. Excellent, fantastic, brillant, awesome are all fabulous words which I love, but sometimes "good" is the only suitable choice.

Living in a bi-lingual culture is also interesting in itself. It's taught me a lot about what mother tongue means. At first it annoyed me that my friends would talk Swedish around me even when they knew I couldn't understand them. But now I realise that when it's the weekend there's only one truly relaxing choice, and that's your native language.

Living here, learning Swedish is definitely entirely optional, but I really don't think it's a good long term action. If you don't learn the language you'll always be an outsider. Language and culture go hand and hand. You can't learn to understand people talking if you don't know also learn the popular culture that they refer to. And likewise you'll never really understand how people think, unless you can understand them in their own language. And just sometimes, it's so nice to put your friends totally at ease by talking to them in their language.

When I finally go home, maybe I'll forget a lot of the language I have learnt, but I don't think I'll ever forget some of the funny experiences I have had on the way. Like talking my friend on the telephone in Swedish for the first time and wondering if she really really was the person I thought she was. And then finally hearing her speaking a little English, and realising it was her after all!

Or the time when a friend introduced his friend to me in Swedish. I assumed his friend was Swedish, and I started to ask him which part of Sweden he was from. However at the last moment I recognised his English accent so my question came out as a jumbled "Where come you from?" That English words, but the Swedish sentence order.

So I challenge you. Do you know the joy of your first real conversation in a foreign language? Or the first joke that you actually get? Or the fun of asking someone whether your can share their bed tonight when all you want is a car ride home? These are my memories and I will treasure for ever.

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