Thoughts on learning Swedish
This week I tested out of SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) after a little over four months of class. SFI is just the first step in the long road to Swedish language proficiency. It gives you enough Swedish so you can have simple conversations, read newspapers, understand the basic concepts of grammar and the basics of writing. It is by no means an exhaustive education of Swedish. After SFI comes Svenska som andraspråk (Swedish as a second language or SAS). There are two parts of SAS, ground level and high school level. Essentially you go through the same material Swedish students go through when they are 10 to 19. Unlike SFI these course are much more structured. Whereas with SFI you could stay in the same course for years without ever being able to advance, SAS has clear starting and ending dates with clear expectations of what is due and what you need to do. From what I have read the courses are taught much more like a literature course than a language learning course. You read a book and write a book report and discuss the book. While grammar and language rules will be undoubtedly brought up, there isn’t the same level of focus on them during lectures.
So far learning Swedish has been one of the most fulfilling learning experiences of my life. When you learn a language it is much easier to see yourself advance than with other subjects. There are things that I can read now that I couldn’t understand two months ago. I notice myself understanding more and more of what people see around me. When strangers have asked me questions on the street I can respond in more ways than “sorry what?”. I can have conversations, understand news stories, and write messages to people.
A good barometer for my language progression is how much I have improved communicating with Emelie’s family. She has two younger brothers who haven’t learned English yet so the majority of family conversations are in Swedish. We meet up with them once or twice a month so probably about five times since I started SFI. The first time I couldn’t understand anything. I’d sit quietly for long stretches of time, not bothering to try and concentrate on what they were saying. Although I could try and follow along I sometimes felt bored and isolated. Contrast that to last weekend, when the family came up to Uppsala to fika. I was able to understand 50%+ of the conversation and have small conversations with everyone. I understood jokes and the silly things Emelie’s four year old brother said. I was talking to Emelie’s 10 year old brother who was surprised I had learned so fast. He asked me if I could speak Swedish now and I said “Yeah but not so good” he replied “I think you’re good at Swedish”. Score.
When I am listening to Swedish I have to focus intensely while at the same time feeling like everything is on a one second delay. Anything with new information is more difficult to process. You have to first understand what they are saying while at the same time piecing together the meaning of those words strung together. If someone is talking and you don’t understand a single sentence it can be incredibly difficult or impossible to pick up what they are saying after that sentence. You get lost. It is easy to give up on understanding and just wait for the conversation tides to shift to something you can actually understand until you get lost again.
This process has also made more comfortable with not understanding what’s happening and having awkward interactions with people. I have gotten plenty these experiences since I started volunteering at a cat shelter and a second hand store. When people give me instructions and I am never 100% sure if I understood correctly. I am always nervous with asking for clarification because I don’t want to show my lack of Swedish but also I have noticed that if I take to long to understand the person I am speaking with will inevitably switch to English. When I first started volunteering I had near panic attacks because of my lack of understanding, “I can’t understand which order to feed the cats, how am I going to ever work in this language”. It’s incredibly discouraging to realize you can’t understand even simple instructions or communicate simple tasks.
In my mind there are different spheres where I speak Swedish and where I don’t. When I volunteer I speak Swedish, when I got to class I speak Swedish, if I order a coffee I speak Swedish but when I am at home I speak English, when I hang out one on one with a friend I speak English, when I hang out with a groups of people and they speak Swedish I invetiably listen to the Swedish and then contribute comments in English. I want to keep expanding the places where I only speak Swedish. It hit me the other day that in my Swedish class I have known people for months without ever speaking English with them. I have no idea if they can speak English or how comfortable they are with English. Our communication is solely broken Swedish.
Since my class was four hours every day, the way that I have been learning Swedish outside of of the class largely involves consuming media. I watch Swedish movies or tv-shows, I listen to Swedish music, I listen to the news, I read the newspaper, and I read books. The library in Uppsala has great resources for Swedish learners. There are a number of simple Swedish books, where they either write a novel in simple Swedish or take an existing novel and make it an easy read. It is a great way to boost vocab while reading something that isn’t meant for children. When I read through these books the scenes of the books are fuzzy. I struggle to understand where things are, who is doing what, what is happening exactly. I might read one sentence and think that a cat is outside the house only to look up the definition and realize that the cat is on top of the house. The image in my head shifts the cat is on top of the house now. It’s glitchy. Meaning and understanding isn’t static.
The downside of these easy read books is that they lack subtlety or nuance. Which I also lack in Swedish. The characters motivations are obvious. There are no subtle insinuations of what the character is feeling. It is essential told to you: “then harry went upstairs and cried because she didn’t like him”. Phrases are repeated in different ways to ensure understanding. The upside is that a fully understand almost everything I read. The downside is that this writing style is so odd and unnatural that the characters come out as unlikeable flat cutouts of the original characters they are based on. That sort of lack of nuance or subtlety is also reflected in my Swedish ability. With English I can chose my words with precision accuracy. I can phrase things in certain ways to convey or emphasize certain meanings. I can bend the sentences in words in different ways. In Swedish I can only sometimes convey the most basic of meaning in the bluntest way possible. I feel accomplished at just making myself understood.
Again when trying to search out Swedish media the prevalence of the English language here really sticks out. Most songs on the radio are in English, most TV shows are in English, every bookstore and library has a huge English section. Just the other day I was searching for something to watch on TV to try and practice my Swedish with and almost every channel, including the public broadcast channel was showing English language TV-shows. It is normal here but for me the idea of all media not being in your native language is foreign. I remember when I was little I used to think that bands performed their songs live in the language of the country they were in. Smash Mouth would perform “All Star” in German in Berlin and Japanese in Tokyo. I couldn’t fathom that people would listen to music without understanding the lyrics.
I feel like I have two ways to go about making a life here, I either focus on learning Swedish as my main priority while searching for work on the side, only applying to jobs I am really interested in or I try to find English speaking work and take whatever I can get even if it is just a low paying internship in order just to work. I am constantly weighing these two options. I know that since I want to stay in Sweden I need to learn Swedish. It’ll open up hundreds of doors here for obvious reasons. But on the other hand learning a language takes years and if for some reason I have to move back to America I’ll have nothing to show for those years except learning a language whose native speakers all speak fluent English. It’s stressful.
This is difficult because I don’t think there is a “right” is a right way to this. I am used to following a rigid path when I have planned my life. I am going to go to university. I am going to get a job so I can save money and get experience before I move to Sweden. I am going to move to Sweden. Now I am here I don’t know exactly the best next step is. It is less prescribed than the life I would have lived in the US. I can’t ask my brothers are my parents how they tackled the issues of moving to a new country or the best way to tackle to the Swedish job market.
I was forced to think about this question of focusing on a career or focusing on Swedish education I got a call back for a job interview. I wasn’t terribly interested in the work but it made me think about what I wanted the next year to look like. Did I want to put my Swedish studies on the back burner and work an office job with something I wasn’t really passionate about? Or did I want to sacrifice financial security so I could continue focusing on Swedish? The weekend before my interview I went to a friend’s birthday party. She is American but studied Swedish and her partner and all of their friends primarily speak Swedish. When I was sitting there at the party trying to to understand the conversation I knew that my heart said I wanted to focus on learning Swedish. I didn’t want to keep living removed from the society I live in. I don’t want to be an expat who lives somewhere for ten years and can barely order a cup of coffee. I don’t want to force everyone to switch to English just because of my existence. I want to learn about the place that I live. I want to engage in the society that I live in. I want to feel at home here. In the end I wasn’t forced to make an active choice. I didn’t get the job. I most likely would have taken it if I was offered the position. The financial stability would have been too appealing. But I was conflicted.
My plan going forward is to continue with high intensity Swedish lessons. My goal is to be able to speak, write and understand Swedish at a university level by 2017. That is very ambitious. I don’t know if I’ll be able to that within the timeframe or every. I am nervous putting all of my eggs in the “learn Swedish” basket. I am worried if I am making the right choices. I see my friends advancing their careers or their educations. I feel jealous. I wish I had a comfortable job. I wish I was enrolled in Master’s program. I wish I knew I was making the right choices. But I know that isn’t what I want. I want to be here. I am happier now than I have been since the last time I was living in Uppsala. Despite the enormous stress of learning Swedish before my money runs out I feel calmer here I feel more satisfied. I feel happier here. I know that this is what I want.