"I wish life was not so short," he thought. "Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about."
-J.R.R. Tolkien

When I was fourteen, my Biology teacher had us write down some short and long term life goals. It was an exercise at the beginning of a school year that had no relevance to our actual course. A couple years ago I came across the list again, and the curious variety of the goals was quite amusing...

Goals for that next year included some typical teenage girl stuff like "wear more purple" and the standards like "keep my room organized." I had some goals to achieve by my early twenties, such as "visit Venezuela" (I chose Costa Rica instead, at 21) and "meet a member of a European royal family" (never did that, have no idea where that came from).

One goal that I wrote down I always remembered over the years, even before I discovered the list again. It was to learn a third language by the time I was 30. At fourteen I'd started with Spanish classes, and knew those would take up the next few years. But I always loved languages and really wanted to set myself to knowing another one later. I didn't specify what language, I thought I should leave that open pending where life took me.

Fast forward to fall of 2008. That was the first time I really heard Swedish (or realized I was hearing Swedish since I'd likely heard it in movies or when traveling unbeknownst to me). It's not something that sounds very familiar and easy to recognize to most American ears right away, like Spanish, French, or German, but it certainly seems European. It was a bit lyrical, not in the way that Italian is, but in it's own way. It was many months later, after deciding to study in Sweden, that I knew that learning Swedish wasn't going to just be a casual temporary hobby, but that it was going to be my way of meeting that goal set when I was fourteen.

My process of learning has been more similar to how a baby learns to speak rather than in a language class... hearing it, repeating, seeing it, learning to read it before I write it, understanding but not always able to respond...

The encouraging thing about it is that the patterns and vocab are sometimes easier for me to figure out. I don't know that many native English speakers realize how close Swedish and English are. I recognize similarities in words and structure all the time, more so than with English and Romance languages. Here's a variety of sentence topics that show the similarities, and while a native Swede may state some of these phrases differently, the words and meaning still directly translate.

Where are we?
Var är vi?

Can you give me a little bread?
Kan du ge mig lite bröd?

Coffee is my favorite drink!
Kaffe är min favorit dryck!

My courses are in Leadership and Strategy.
Mina kurser är i Ledarskap och Strategi.

Come and see my show at the theater!
Kom och se min show på teatern!

We are hungry and thirsty.
Vi är hungriga och törstiga.

The difficult thing about learning it is that the pronunciation of most vowels is pretty different from English and not always regular, and also, Swedes don't tend to be that great with understanding you if you don't pronounce things that precisely. It's a common thing I hear and read about with people trying to learn Swedish, and not something I've witnessed with Spanish... you can have a horrific accent and still be understood with native speakers.

But the most difficult thing about learning Swedish is my hesitance to practice. I can read and study and repeat after people all the time, but using it while I'm out and about is not easy for me. I can understand and read so much. I'm definitely capable of saying and asking for whatever I need to in stores and in brief interactions with strangers and friends alike, but I just don't. It's the same with Spanish. I just feel pretentious. Maybe less so after a drink or two, but I still need to get over it.

Meanwhile, the process is a mixed bag of small victories and little fails. A victory when a woman asks me at the bus stop in Swedish if she can pay with cash or has to buy a pre-paid ticket, and I understand and respond appropriately. A fail when I am at a cafe and go ask the cashier what the code is to open the bathroom door, when apparently, as I am told by a friend later, there is a big sign on the bathroom door saying the code is on your receipt. Kvitto= receipt. Forgot that.

Luckily I'm not 30 yet... I have time.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
-Nelson Mandela


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