Who’s Afraid of Swedish ‘n Friends? The Culture of Discouragement from Learning Scandinavian Languages and its Implications

Polyglot Facebook groups exploded last week with countless debates and personal stories about learning languages of Scandinavia via on-location immersion (or, in simpler terms, learning Swedish in Sweden very much like I did [even though I did the majority of the work after I left]).

The vast majority of the stories were discouraging for a multitude of reasons. Icelanders who wanted to use English no matter what. Danes telling study-abroad students that learning their language was a waste of time. Nearly a HUNDRED stories about people had given up learning these languages because of these attitudes.

I’d like to say two things.

First off, there’s tunnel vision at work in a lot of these. Looking back at my time in Sweden, I was met mostly with ENCOURAGEMENT to learn Swedish from native-speaking friends (especially since I told them that I was doing it for heritage reasons). But again, there were times that I screwed up with in hesitating (which WILL get you answered in English) and unnaturally slow speech (same result).

I had frustration, no doubt. I called up my parents for encouragement and sometimes was nearly on the verge of crying, wondering how I could ever learn the language of my family to read the letters of my ancestors who had passed on.

But there were also people like the learners I met in Heidelberg, staff members at stores who would use Swedish with me even if I was speaking English to my family members within earshot, and those who were pleased when I switched from ordering my groceries in English to Swedish and told me that I was going a good job.

Keep in mind that during all of this I was at a BASIC level. And another thing to keep in mind (with all of these internet horror stories hopping around) is the fact that using a language is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GAME depending on what level you’re on.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, yes, the attitudes need to improve. As far as the west is concerned, the day is not far when NO ONE will be impressed by good English spoken by non-natives anymore. The flipside to this is that as fewer and fewer people in the Anglophone world see a reason to learn languages, especially those outside of the mainstream, the more you’ll stand out and the more people will want to engage you because of that.

If you are a speaker of a language other than English, you have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to not switch to English unless absolutely necessary. This isn’t up for debate anymore in an age of mass language death.  No one is impressed, no one thinks it fun, and it just makes you look insecure. If you don’t like the fact that I said that, get over it. Learn to have some pride in your identity and your native language and realize that throwing away your identity for some cool American-esque one only serves the corporations destroying the planet. (And did I mention it makes you look insecure? I did. Also using multiple languages with English is okay, as no doubt I may encounter in places like Fiji should I go there later this year).

The good news is that most people are changing. The polyglot communities seem to be getting more powerful and with the Internet people are being exposed to other languages and cultures more quickly than before and realize that machine translation isn’t going to solve everything or make everything accessible.

When I was reading a lot of the Scandinavian discouragement stories in groups, I kept on thinking “why did none of this really happen to me?” In Greenland when buying things in stores, it was usually in a mixture of Greenlandic and Danish even though sometimes they might have thrown some English in their in the off-chance that they thought I was from somewhere else. (Disclosure: with the exception of speaking with friends [in which we took turns hopping between various languages], I didn’t take the English-thing personally and just continued using whatever language I was without flinching).

Then, of course, the fact that I’ve met speakers from the Nordic countries in New York and they’ve all been super-appreciative of my efforts to learn their language and with CONSISTENCY they’ve told me that they’ve been impressed. Sometimes some of them wanted to learn other languages from me, in which case I was willing to switch (I gotta do my part to keep languages alive too, y’know). But nowhere NEAR the variety of stuff along the lines of “people told me to stop wasting their time, people rolled their eyes, I needed a perfect accent in order to not get English used with me”, yada yada yada.

It has nearly been one year since I was in Myanmar and I could have easily blamed the fact that I got answered in English fairly frequently on the fact that I’m WHITE. Or I could do the mature thing and realize that I’ve encountered fluent Burmese speakers of all races and that I should have worked on my general fluidity and sounding natural rather than expecting to get answered in Burmese with simple phrasebook material.

Looking back at my time in Sweden and Iceland, I saw it as an added challenge. Getting answered in Icelandic in a restaurant was so elusive in polyglot groups that it almost never happened. I had it done consistently (with public transport it was another story because they expected me to be a tourist. Keep using Icelandic and they’ll switch, trust me on this. Again, with personal conversations = completely different game). That said, I also hear that Quebec and Senegal make Iceland seem like “the first level in the game”.

At the end of the day, I want you to read this piece with nothing but encouragement.

Getting fluency in the languages of the Nordic countries AND getting L1 speakers to use it with you IS VERY MUCH POSSIBLE. Don’t believe ANYONE who tells you otherwise. Sure, there may be some people who discourage you but they’d exist for any language community and are always in the minority.

But any language journey, no matter what language you choose, is no simple process—you need to be dynamic, inventive and persistent.

And keep in mind that, in all likelihood, you’re not reading a whole lot of success stories about language learning in the polyglot groups. But those success stories are out there and you can start writing your own!

Have fun and don’t give up!

norden

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