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!


The Fascinating World of Mooré, Moré, Mossi…That Language Spoken in Burkina Faso…

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you’re probably not too surprised to learn that a new national holiday of a country that most people don’t know much about shows up about every week or so.

In the case of today, we go to West Africa, in particular to Burkina Faso, which is where a language I’m currently learning is primarily spoken—Mooré, Moré, Mossi…however you want to spell it.

While today (August 5th) is the Burkinabe Independence Day (more on the word “Burkinabe” in a moment), something I’ve sadly noticed is that only developed countries seem to get Google Doodles for their national days (so Peru and Norway get them, but Vanuatu and Burkina Faso, not so much).

Another trend I need to speak to is the fact that only official colonial languages tend to be used in the interfaces of the Google Search Engine as it is localized in the developing world (Sierra Leone and the Seychelles Islands are noteworthy exceptions in Africa that I can think of), and sometimes the “actual” local languages are completely glossed over. It’s truly a shame because I think people need to realize the true extent of linguistic diversity in the developed world!

Burkina Faso is the only country name I can think of that actually uses two distinct languages in its name. “Burkina” in Mooré means “land of honest people” and Faso in Diouala (another language of the country) means “fatherland”. Further complicating matters is the fact that someone from Burkina Faso is “Burkinabe”, and the “–be” suffix comes from yet a third language of the region, Fulani.

But you’re probably wondering exactly why I chose this language and not many other languages besides, even when you just take Africa into consideration.

For one, my father really wanted to provide medical help in French-speaking areas of West Africa in the same way that he did in Sudan and in Sierra Leone. He actually even got tapes to learn French, and while my sister and I learned French at the time, he himself struggled.

As a result, I actually have three native languages (English, Ancient Hebrew and French) but I forgot French since then and had to re-learn it as an adult. I can read EXCELLENTLY, but I can’t really speak it consistently well (although sometimes I can speak it very well if I’m in a good mood or studied correctly that particular day).

I also saw pictures of Ouagadougou (yes, that is the name of the Burkinabe capital), and it looks like it was taken out of a style guide for a fantasy video game!

Have yourself a look:


What’s more, after my study of Salone Krio (Salone = Sierra Leone), I really wanted to see how many similarities there would be to another African Language. Yes, I could have chosen one closer to Salone, but I’ve had a fascination with Burkina Faso for a long time. Life is too short and too precious to not learn the languages you want. So if there’s any language you want to learn, no matter what it is, do something about it. Now. Even if you can’t focus all of your time on it, just learn a few words to sate your curiosity. Learn something about the culture of that language. You won’t regret it.

Since I was young I was (and continue to be) very heartbroken by the way that African cultures are underrepresented or, even worse, distorted and portrayed as uniform in many aspects of American popular culture. Perhaps this has to do with the Atlantic Slave Trade, which really encouraged a lot of the slaves to think that the cultures of their homelands was worthless and should be discarded in favor of whatever cultures or religious practices their owners had.

In an era of climate change and unfolding civil wars, the true aspects of this inequality are coming out to literally be deadly to entire ethnicities, peoples and countries.

We NEED more people who take languages from the developing world seriously. It will help these places heal. I remember hearing from my father’s friends who were priests about the many sides of life in Tanzania and the way that they enthusiastically injected entire dialogue snippets in Swahili in their narratives, complete with English translations afterwards. Truly magical.

Luckily, thanks to the Peace Corps and Live Lingua Project, both available online, you can learn many of these developing-world languages for FREE!

Anyhow, something about Burkina Faso.

I’ve been learning Mossi for about a month now and I’m nowhere near conversational and my vocabulary has significant gaps, even on a basic level. However, thanks to books I’ve been capable of finding idioms and other curiosities about the language that I really like and that I think should be shared:


  1. To say Happy Birthday in Mossi, say “Ne y taabo”, which is a greeting that is used for all occasions that occur on a yearly basis. Use it for birthdays and to someone who just drank water at the conclusion of fasting during Ramadan.

To say “Happy New Year”, use this phrase: “Wend na kõ-d veere” (the first two e’s in the sentence should be nasalized but it won’t show up in my orthography). It roughly means “may God show us next year”.

The nasal o looks identical to the Estonian õ (a sound that is extremely difficult for foreigners to pronounce and not pronounced the way it is in Mossi), which did lead to confusion despite the fact that I’ve chosen to abandon Estonian for the time being in favor of languages that my heart yearns for.


  1. For those unaware of what nasal vowels are, these are pronounced with your nose. The two European Languages that I associate most with nasal sounds are Portuguese and Polish, although even when Europe is taken by itself they aren’t the only ones that have them.

Mossi actually has nasal vowels for a, e, i, o and u! (Polish, by comparison, just has a nasal e and a nasal a). This meant that I needed to expand my repertoire of nasal vowels. But hey, at least they’re not click sounds, which would be an interesting thing to write about in any case. (Mossi doesn’t have these)


  1. Perhaps due to influence from Islam, a lot of greetings and wishes involve an invocation of God:


Oh My God.PNG


And you answer any of the God-blessings with “Amina” (Amen in Hebrew is a cognate to this word from Arabic).

Interestingly enough, Amina is also a female name. Which means that she must go through life with a significant amount of confusion. Or not.


  1. The money system is based on the 5-franc note, and so 15 francs would actually be expressed as “3 wakirs” In other words, in the oral language you somewhat have to clash with whatever numbers you actually see on your bills or coins.

Wikipedia tells me that Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo all use the West African Franc. I’m curious if they also use the same system as well…


  1. And probably the coolest expression I’ve come across in Mossi, is a congratulations or a good luck: Wend na maan zũ-noogo, which means “May God give you a capacity to survive near-death experiences against all favorable odds”. One who has a near-death experience and has survived (August 2005 in Glacier National Park comes to my mind immediately) has acquired “zũ-noogo”

I can’t wait to grapple with this fascinating language in more depth! At the present moment it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be visiting Africa (although there was that one time I encountered a Burkinabe bar tender in Manhattan who was conversational in ten langauges!), but who knows what sort of opportunities for personal and professional development lie ahead?

Because if there’s one thing my journey has taught me, it is that doing the stranger thing always gets you noticed and respected more. And I’m going to continue to do that for as long as I can.

Ne y taabo!

burkina faso