Impractical and Important: Why I Learn Unpopular Languages

Standard
Burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala. Each mound is one grave, dating to the 5th and 6th centuries.

Burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala. Each mound is one grave, dating to the 5th and 6th centuries.

When two people are proficient in the same language, the path of least resistance is for them to communicate in that language. It’s instinctive, it’s pragmatic. It’s the greatest barrier to my learning Swedish.

Before I left home, I memorized the necessary Swedish phrases to sustain an air of polite cluelessness– hej, tack, ursäkta. Hello, thanks, excuse me. I figured I’d pick up more robust language skills relatively easily once in country. On my gap year, I learned French in Senegal and then picked up Wolof through French. I know I learn a language best by going where it’s spoken, being too shy to speak it for 4 months, and then waking up one day and yammering nonstop. I don’t have a better alternative to offer, but I don’t love the term immersion; it feels a bit romantic and exotic. Beyond objections of sentiment, total immersion is an ideal hardly attainable in much of our globalized world.

Film, music, television, internet, and international business have served to propagate English as an international language, to different degrees in different places. Here in Sweden, particularly among the very international student population of Uppsala, most people speak English comfortably if not fluently. My courses are taught in English, I talk to my friends in English and watch movies in English. Aside from my Swedish language course, the most Swedish I hear all week is 75 minutes of yoga instruction. However, though I’m surrounded by spoken English, everything in public and on Swedish websites is written in Swedish. If Swedish was a pool, I’m sipping lemonade on a raft, just dipping my toes in.

I’ve only been in Sweden for about two months now, but I think I can predict the way language learning will pan out over the rest of my time here. If I let myself skate by on just enough basic Swedish to pass my exam, I won’t be able to converse in any useful sense and I’ll forget what I learned as soon as I go home. But if I take initiative and make use of the resources available to me, I expect I’ll come to understand written Swedish better than spoken, and understand spoken Swedish better than I can speak it myself. The ubiquity of spoken English does limit my familiarity with the sound and social context of Swedish, but it also presents plenty of opportunities to ask questions to native speakers and have words and conventions explained as they come up.

Typical Swedish countryside. The sun doesn't get higher than this at this time of year, and it gets dark around 5PM now.

Typical Swedish countryside. The sun doesn’t get higher than this at this time of year, and it gets dark around 5PM now.

It’s not uncommon for native English speakers in Sweden to live here for years without learning the language, and I understand the temptation. If you can get by without it, is it worth the effort? There are just 8.7 million native speakers– slightly more than the population of New York City proper–and of those, many also speak English. It can be frustrating for both parties to communicate in stunted Swedish when their English conversation is fluid. But there is so much more than ease of communication or international applicability to be gained by learning a less popular local language.

Our languages reflect the way we see the world around us, and our worldview is colored by the language in which we articulate it. To insist upon English is to impose a foreign lens on Sweden. I may still be grappling with the basics when my time here is done, but I think slow progress is better than none. If I hadn’t tried to set aside my own linguistic worldview, to appreciate the language that came from this place and these people, then this experience would be little more than a series of novel amusements. A place is what its people make of it, and the mind of the people is candid in how and what they speak. I think that that insight is worth the effort of making a few flashcards.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s