Never would I have known the power of language, had I not moved to Sweden. Sweden is one of the most picturesque countries in the world, comprising of several archipelagos. Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is itself a cluster of 30000 islands. You get the picture. Its uniqueness comes from the distinct culture, charming Swedes and, exquisite architecture, Swedes are one of the best English speakers in the world, but they love their Swedish language. And who doesn’t?
We all love to communicate in their mother tongue. After all, the most affectionate and most notorious outbursts can be best blurted out in the language you resonate with the most. I love Hindi. I was brought up with verbal ejaculations of joy, contempt, anger, passion, frustration and fun, all in Hindi. The Indo-Aryan or Indic language comprises of thousands of dialects, because of which my Hindi will be different from Bihari Hindi. So much so, that I may have to carry a dictionary if I visit Bihar or eastern part of the Hindi belt. Similarly, as an example, talking about West Germanic languages*, four most prevalent West Germanic languages are Afrikaans, English, German, and Dutch. And these languages are diverse and one cannot claim to understand German if he is master of English.
The structure of language determines not only thought, but reality itself.
~Ruth Nanda Anshen, Biography of an idea, 1986
Having said that, my life’s experience tells another story. I am sure most of us have traveled to places where people do not speak the same language as you do. The dialect, parlances, jargons and word formations could be different. Historical forms would be dissimilar, which would lead an indecipherable sound vibrating on your eardrums, but would mean nothing to you. If you are a tourist, you will be thanking Charles-Michel de l’Épée and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, inventors of sign language, every day of your travel. (Though don’t brag about it, because the way you ask about directions in Spain or China, is far far away from the real sign language, which is quite complex to learn.) But I digress.
Let us come back to my relocation to Sweden, with my darling husband and my adorable 11-year-old and a failure which changed me. By now, you must have guessed what the failure would be about. Yes, it is about my failure to learn Swedish. In my first three months in Sweden, I realized the importance of learning the language, which, to say the least, was incomprehensibly foreign to me. I was glad to put my son is a Swedish dagis(childcare), where he started uttering his first few words, which were in Swedish. I was happy for him, at least he would feel at home.
I quickly enrolled myself in a Swedish speaking course. The Swedish government has several free language schools set up across all local authorities. Within a month, I picked up the alphabets, numbers, days of the week, names of fruits and vegetables. But as soon as I was ready to do independent grocery shopping without using a word of English, I found a job. Unfortunately, it was a full-time role in the international department of my company. So the prerequisite was English. All communication was supposed to be in English. I dropped out of the classes and picked up the job, along with the duties of motherhood and learning life skills. Why was I learning life skills at the age of 28? Let’s leave that for another long post.
In my 8 years in Sweden, I was fortunate enough to make many friends. Several of my colleagues turned into lifelong friends. But the regret of not relating to them at a level I would love to, still remains. I talk to them, but the relatability is lower than what one would have if I would speak the same language. This is how important a language can be. Not only communicating with people, knowing a language helps you understand the culture and traditions as well, along with loving the country more than what you do as a tourist. In short, I remained a tourist throughout my 8 years in Stockholm. I was totally disappointed in myself.
I visited my friends in Stockholm in October last year, only to be reminded of my failure. I could not take it anymore. So, 2 months back, though I live in England for the past 2 years, I decided to learn Swedish. These were three reasons for picking back the language. First, the failure of learning the language in 8 years of my stay. Second, for the love of Sweden, I carry on my sleeve. Third, and a more selfish reason is to learn a foreign language to keep my grey cells exercising. I am happy to report that my progress is quite satisfactory. Babbel is my bible for now, and I have ordered a couple of fictions in Swedish. Reading in the language is giving me more insights into the country than what I had when I was living there.
So I promise that magnificent country, to visit her next year, and talk to her in the language she flourishes in. I am sure she will welcome me just the way she has always done, but the smile will be a Julia Roberts smile instead.
Did you know – Tamil is one of the oldest languages still spoken in the world.