Emelie and I spent the first week of March visiting my childhood friend Jason who is studying at Trinity in Dublin. We had a great time on the trip. Ireland is a beautiful country. It felt great to be able to explore Dublin with someone who lives there, we never had to look up where the good restaurants, pubs or cafes were. We went on a nice little tour of Ireland, going from Dublin to the west coast and then down to Killarney. I viewed the trip as the end of my month and half vacation of lounging around Uppsala. I knew when I got back I would start my Swedish classes and get serious about learning the language and creating a home in Sweden.
During the tail end of the trip I began to get both more excited and more anxious about learning Swedish. Being in Ireland made me remember what it was like to be in a place where you could read all the signs, where strangers would assume you spoke a language that you actually spoke, where you didn’t need to worry about accidentally buying some weird type of dairy at the store. In Sweden all of those things beat down on me, a constant reminder that I am from a different place and don’t speak the language of the place that I am living. My anxiety was only further intensified by the fact that I have seemed to have self-diagnosed myself as someone who is “bad at learning languages”. My reasoning is because it doesn’t come naturally to me that it is therefore an impossibility for me to ever get good at learning a new language. That I am somehow genetically predisposed to forever speak English. I think this feeling is only magnified by the fact that both Jason and Emelie are incredibly good with languages. Jason is fluent in three languages and is confident in two or three more. Emelie speaks English to such a degree that most people in Ireland assumed she was American. But the reality is that I have never really tried to learn another language. I never put in any serious effort into the process. The people who I have assumed are “naturally good at learning languages” are also people who have spent years studying those languages. One of the side effect being around two people who love languages is that I started to shift my mindset to thinking that learning a language is a fun and fulfilling experience is reinforced, rather than my go to mindset that it is a second language is a hugely insurmountable obstacle.
We got back from Ireland on a Monday, which was the same day I would have taken my placement exam for SFI (Svenska för invandrare/Swedish for Immigrants). I emailed them earlier about this and they happily arranged for me to take the placement test on the day after we got back. I was excited for the placement test. Over the last few years I have constantly tried to learn Swedish without putting in too much effort. I did some Babbel, I have done some Duolingo, I constantly tried and hack my way through together Swedish news articles, I listened to Swedish music and watched Swedish TV and movies. So I have gleamed some knowledge of the language, particularly reading. Things like word order and actually putting verbs in the right tense and in the right way were some of the finer details I chose to skim over. The placement test consisted of steadily more difficult questions. Initially when I saw the ten sentences of Swedish, with all the å, ä, ö, I felt a bit overwhelmed. The reality that this will be a long and difficult learning period before I ever feel comfortable with Swedish, really set it when I was staring at that page of Swedish. But once I calmed down the test wasn’t that bad. It started with answering a series of both multiple choice questions and short answers about the aforementioned text. I think I did fine on that, I actually surprised myself by how much of the text I understood. Where it got difficult was the free writing section. I think the questions were something like “Describe what you usually do during the week?” and “Describe what you did last week?”. I wrote down a few sentences for each of these questions but I knew that I everything I wrote had no sense of order. “Last weekend girlfriend my and I travel to Ireland for week. We fly back from Dublin to Copenhagen to Stockholm. On flight I had angst. But it become good.” After about thirty minutes I turned in my diagnostic test and just a few hours later I got my placement, 3C2, which meant I skipped the very beginners course. My first class would be the next day.
My section has about a dozen student, although we share the building with two other classes both of which have slightly larger class sizes. The course that I got placed into assumes I know the basics things like how to tell someone what time it is, how to count, the alphabet and how indefinite and definite articles work. The class is taught entirely in Swedish however the instructor will answer questions in English if needed. I could tell that I was placed in the right class immediately. I understood probably 50% of what the teacher was saying and we were going over material that I have read about before but I didn’t fully understand.
My coursemates in that first class came from all over the word. Syria, Gambia, Mexico, Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan, UK, Poland, and a few from America. For many of them this isn’t the first time they have emigrated to another country. Most of them have education levels higher than me and tend to be older than me. There are doctors, computer engineers, lawyers, and scientists. Many of them have kids. Many of them are refugees. Everyone speaks English at a higher level than any of us speak Swedish. Which makes class less awkward because I feel like I can actually get to know my classmates. However, since everyone can speak English it gets rid of the push factor of having to speak Swedish with one another. We always tend to default back to English.
The first section of the course is loosely structured using the theme of fritid (free time) to teach us the basics of Swedish. Here we learn useful words like “vattengympa” (water gymnastics) and elljusspår (electrically lighted trails). Then we write and talk about different things relating to free time, what you usually do during the week, when do you have free time, what do you in your free time etc. The question of what I usually do during the week would make sense for people who have established a daily routine, a group of people who probably share very little overlap with newly arrived immigrants. The question also is useful to make me question the banality of my daily routine. “On Mondays usually I go to the gym after I go to the gym then I…..” Hmm how do I say “get riled up about comments on my hometowns online social forum” på svenska?
Sometimes we talk about what we did “i ditt land”, I write and talk about how drinking fancy coffee in the Bay Area, eating at restaurants and hiking around the hills. It is a fairly normal exercise. But when someone from Syria talks about what they used to do and how life used to be and asks how to say “I hope it will be like that again someday” or when we have to write a letter to Anna about things to do when she visits your country and the teacher specifies “just pretend it is before the war” the seemingly routine exercise gets dark.
These little snippets remind me that some of my classmates didn’t have much choice in moving to Sweden whereas I made a very deliberate decision to move here after years of planning. I had a conversation with one of my classmates from Syria where she asked me if I liked Sweden. I said I preferred living in Sweden than living in California. I said the Bay Area is crowded and hectic, that it is hard to establish yourself as a young person and that rent is too high. From that conversation she took away that “I didn’t think life was too good in the United States”. A few days later she mentioned that she told her husband that I thought that and he said “well then what does that make life in Syria?”, which made me realize that I was complaining that where I grew up is expensive and has bad traffic to a Syrian war refugee. Our reasons for leaving our countries could not be more different.
After the first month we took a test on the “fritid” section. The test was easy. Mostly multiple choice questions to test reading and hearing comprehension and a short writing section. The writing section was about what we did in our free time, but it snuck in that it had be written in the past tense. I passed the test with flying colors and got moved up to the next course level. Now I am in a course with much more students and less individual time with the teacher. It is easier to lose attention and not really pay as much attention as I would like to. I feel like I am advancing slower than I did my first month but I guess that is to be expected.
I have enjoyed learning Swedish so far. I am glad I have the ability to spend time focusing solely on learning Swedish. I have class every weekday, four hours a day, so I have been able to get a ton of exposure to the language very quickly. But it has been a challenging process. Half the time I wake up I don’t feel like going to class. I know that I am going to go in make a ton of mistakes and not really fully understand what is happening. It is a daily beatdown of my perceived intellect. I feel stripped of my ability to communicate. I want to say things but I can’t. Even on good days, where I feel like I have understood everything, where I chatted away with my classmates, the moment I step outside I get transported back to a place where I understand less than 5% of what the people around me are saying. It is demoralizing. I have to keep reminding myself that I have only been really studying Swedish for slightly over a month and I have improved dramatically and that it is a slow process.
The high level of English fluency is a double edged sword: I don’t have to struggle to explain what I want on my sandwich, I don’t have to bring an interpreter with me to the tax office, I can make Swedish friends without studying the language for years it makes day to day life easier. But it makes learning Swedish harder because I don’t need Swedish to navigate my day to day life. There is no push factor to speak the language. I was having a conversation with my brother who recently traveled to Mexico to improve his Spanish. He was sharing experiences of going out with people trying to speak Spanish, talking to cab drivers or striking up random conversations with people on the street. I couldn’t relate to any of those experiences. And that isn’t just because I am a boring recluse. Swedes don’t do small talk with strangers. I remember after coming back to California after studying in Sweden for a year, more strangers talked to me in two days than the entirety of my time in Sweden. Secondly, when you meet the oddball that does they will speak in English with you. I can count the number of times I have interacted with strangers in Sweden who didn’t speak English on one hand. Usually these people are also immigrants, who speak Swedish but not English.
I have my second test coming up this week. It is hard to believe that I have been studying Swedish for close to two months. I know I have vastly improved and that everyday I get better, but the fact that I am still incredibly far away from being close to having a good grasp scares me. I like talking, I like writing, but I know I’ll never have the same ability to community in Swedish as I do in English. I am worried the feeling of my communication ability being handicapped in Swedish will never go away. That’ll I’ll forever be someone who waiters switch to English to when they take my order. That’ll I do the opposite of what I am supposed to because I misunderstood instructions.
Despite these fears my drive to learn Swedish hasn’t waned. If anything it has increased. It is still my primary focus right now. In just these two months I can already understand more than I ever could before and even though it can be incredibly demoralizing, the feeling when you read or hear something and understand it completely is incredibly satisfying.