This week I want to share some thoughts about one of the biggest aspects of living abroad: learning the local language. Living in a foreign country is the most efficient way to learn a new language and when you move abroad this opportunity shouldn’t be wasted. This was also my goal.
When it comes to the Swedish language, I am in a different position than most of the international students. Swedish is a mandatory subject in all schools in Finland so I had studied Swedish for years before ever even thinking about moving to Sweden. In addition, I worked as an au pair for a Swedish family last year so I already felt pretty confident with the language when I moved here. My plan was to use the language as much as possible and “take it to the next level” so to say but this has sometimes proven to be surprisingly problematic. And here is why:
Firstly, Sweden is a country where everyone speaks at least some level of English. There has been more than one occasion when the person I’m talking to has switched to English after noticing I’m not a native speaker. For example, last week I went to buy a new charger for my phone. I went to the store, explained the sales person what I need in Swedish and got an answer in English. I know the main reason people do this is to be polite and make things easier for you but for a language learner this can be very frustrating. How am I supposed to learn the language if you don’t allow me to use it?
Secondly, I study in an international programme that is entirely thought in English. Even though there are Swedes as well and I’ve gotten to know some of them, we very rarely speak Swedish. Many in our course don’t speak Swedish at all or on a very basic level so there’s almost always someone around who wouldn’t understand. It’s also very easy get comfortable and just go with English which at least for me comes much more naturally than Swedish.
That leads us to my last point. This is something I never really thought about before moving abroad but it is harder to be yourself in a language you’re not fluent in. Constant searching for words, only having one way to say something you could express in a hundred different ways in your own language, your humour not translating well – these are all things I find very frustrating when meeting new people because they make me feel that the other person doesn’t get the real picture of me.
All that being said, I really believe you should go through all that trouble. You should continue with Swedish although the cashier answers you in English. You should try to talk to that cute Swedish guy you just met in Swedish and hope that when you stumble with your words he just finds it cute. And you should at least once in a while try to exchange a few sentences with your Swedish classmates in their own language. Because learning a language takes practice but by learning it you also gain a lot – you learn to understand the culture you’re living in in a new way, you can connect with people in a deeper level, you learn to challenge yourself. For these and many more reasons, it really is worth it.
Until next time!