I am not a linguist; I am actually the furthest thing from a linguist. Learning foreign languages has always been challenging for me. For example, I studied four years of French in high school and two years in college. But today, if I had to construct a sentence in French and say the words out loud for someone else to hear—eeks, it would be bad! I could probably figure out the meaning of a French sentence if I read it, but speaking? Forget about it. The thought of it makes me sweat, tense up and become very quiet. People who know me would never describe me as a quiet person, but when it comes to speaking a foreign language I become nearly mute.
In my mid twenties, I studied Malagasy. You are thinking, “Mala-what-ie?” I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar for about two years and part of the program is learning the language. Malagasy was hard—really hard. I was pretty much silent for the better part of a year. My nickname in the village translated to, “Look, look, smile, smile,” because that was all my language abilities allowed me to do. And then after being at my post for nearly a year, I started speaking slowly. My confidence was building and I was ready to give it a go. I wasn’t speaking well, of course, I sounded similar to my four-year-old Malagasy best friend but I could communicate. Sure I made plenty of mistakes. A few of my mistakes were so hysterical they are probably still told today in the Peace Corps Madagascar language teaching program but they are not really appropriate for here.
Ten years later, I am now studying another language, Swedish this time. It too is hard, at least it is for me. These days I am studying Swedish so I can communicate with my husband’s family. My husband is Swedish, his entire family is Swedish, we were married in Sweden and we even said our vows in both English and Swedish. Now you understand my desire to learn this difficult language.
In my experience, I will say it is a lot easier learning a foreign language when you are living in a place where the language is spoken. Sure my husband and I can commit to only speaking Swedish at home, but we don’t. I can guarantee if we did, it would be a pretty quiet house and our dog would be very confused. Instead, I try to spend at least one to two hours a day learning Swedish from an online course and meeting up with a class once a week. Each week when class rolls around I feel the same anxiety and fear I felt my first year in Madagascar. What if I say the wrong thing? What do I do if I have no idea what someone is saying? I do the same thing I did in my Malagasy class, when the teacher asks me a question and I am clueless, I just, ‘Look, look, smile, smile’ and hope she will move onto the next student.
Something a little different today. Not my regular family portraits or wedding images but two very landscapes from two very different places in the world; Madagascar and Sweden.