Nothing about Swedish culture is more regularly encountered than the language. The challenges of adopting a new tongue have prompted Justin Chan to ponder the experience of learning Swedish, and languages in general.
As a monolingual American prior to coming here, it was imperative that I would speak the language by two years end. The journey has been enlightening.
For starters, I never imagined that acquiring a language in its country of origin could be so challenging. The language itself isn’t difficult. Practice opportunities are just so hard to come by.
Swedish people’s enthusiastic fluency in English is a blessing to most people coming from abroad. It also removes an obstacle I’ve come to recognize as critical to language-learning: pressure. Without our backs against the wall, without the threat of social isolation unless we learn to communicate with the natives, we’re robbed of motivation.
It also creates a way out when the going gets tough. Instead of persevering through a challenging sentence or attempt to recall a certain word, the temptation to switch to English beckons too strongly.
This is why I both love and rue Swedish people’s English. Depending on the situation, it can be either a benefit or a hindrance.
Unexpectedly, the process towards speaking Swedish has allowed me to appreciate simple things that speaking my native language enables. My several attempts to build friendships on a Swedish-only foundation made me realize that we lose more than just words when switching languages.
Along with words, I’m robbed of my personality, my sense of humor. My sophisticated ideas about the world become grossly simplified. Absent tools of expression, I am rendered unable to convey the impression of myself I want others to see.
And this creates a dilemma towards building friendships with the locals. Do I express myself clearly in English but retain my foreignness? Or do I demonstrate my desire to be nearer to Swedes by speaking their language, but sacrifice the degree to which we can relate to each other?
Regardless of these struggles, I’ve realized that even if speaking Swedish doesn’t lead to practical uses, it will always be the strongest connector between me and this country, even when I move away. For those of you who have also made Sweden a meaningful portion of your life, I hope you feel the same way.