The long conference table is full of elderly retired Swedish women chattering about at a rapid clip—about what, I’m not sure because my brain switched off thirty minutes ago. My ears are technically hearing words, but the translating machine inside my head has gummed up, and all of the words have run together into one long blur. I can no longer keep up with the flood of language swirling around me.
Donating my time and energies to this volunteer organization is part selfless and part selfish. I volunteer with these women in hopes of improving my Swedish while at the same time, helping women in my local community. A win-win situation for everyone involved, no? I figured that by attending these meetings and volunteering a few times a month, Swedish would worm its way into my vocabulary in a passive and effortless way. The reality is that I am still only catching about 40% of what is being said around me despite my best efforts at immersion and I sound like an uneducated goon whenever I open my mouth.
“Lisa, förstår du?” Lisa, do you understand?
Oh no. Like being caught sleeping in class, I perk up and make eye contact with the leader of the group. She knows that my brain has been turned off.
Uhh, yes. Good, Lisa. Keep it short and simple and they won’t know that you are clueless about what is being discussed. Surely she won’t ask a follow-up question. But she does!
She rattles off more Swedish that flies over my head even though I am watching her mouth intently, willing my last few brain cells to focus on what she’s saying. All of the women laugh. I laugh as well and nod my head. That’s my go-to reaction—smile and nod. So far it’s saved me more times than not.
This is my life now. Despite having a masters degree, extensive work experience, and feeling somewhat professionally accomplished in academia, I can only speak to my Swedish peers like a five-year-old. No, scratch that. That gives me too much credit—I sound worse than my five-year-old.
My five-year-old is funny in Swedish. He is bilingual and fully comprehends when someone is speaking to him. He’s not stuck at the 40% plateau like I am, flopping around like a half-dead fish. He’s cruising and in his element as he should be as this Swedish life is all he has ever known.
My Swedish is only impressive to people who don’t know Swedish. Their ears don’t hear the hesitation while I wait for my brain to listen, translate, formulate a response in English, translate what I can into Swedish, then revise that first translation because I know it’s not correct, and then send that revised translation to my mouth with the hopes of pronouncing each word correctly lest it all come out as gobbledygook.
It’s an exhausting process which is why after sitting in those meetings for two-and-a-half hours, I leave with a somewhat stunned look on my face and a headache. So much for the “easy and effortless” immersion approach.
While dropping my son at preschool, a Swedish mom approaches me, introduces herself, and speaks to me in rapid Swedish that mostly sailed straight over my head. I do the smile-and-nod technique and added in a few, “jaha’s” for emphasis that I was totally following along and in complete agreement. She grabs a slip of paper and a pencil and begins to write down her name and phone number and hands it to me.
In the past four years of living in Sweden, no Swede has ever done this type of friendly outreach. Sure, we’ve had pleasant conversations before but no Swede has ever followed through with a phone number and a promise to call me later for fika/coffee. It dawned on me that she must think that I am Swedish! I totally faked my way through that conversation like a pro, and she thinks I’m Swedish! Internally, I am fist pumping and jumping for joy! All of my language courses, tutors, and immersion efforts are working. I am finally a “secret Swede” and I start thinking through fictitious scenarios about how I will break the news to her that I am, in fact, American despite my ridiculously near-fluent Swedish and superbly local accent.
Tucking the piece of paper into my jeans pocket like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, I hurry home to send a Gmail chat to my husband.
“I made a Swedish friend today at preschool. I think she thinks I’m Swedish. Why else would she want to meet up?”
“Did she approach you? She knew who you were?”
“Yeah, she knew I was Calvin’s Mama, and she wants to meet up sometime for coffee.”
“That’s great, babe. You need some Swedish friends so you can practice.”
Eeek! This was happening. I was making local friends and speaking (or at least nodding at the appropriate times) in Swedish. All of that hard work was paying off.
A few days later I receive a text from my new Swedish mama friend.
“Hi Lisa, hope all is well. Would you like to come over tomorrow for coffee around 11?” Her text was in English.
Like last week’s birthday balloon, I slowly deflate. My ego is a pooled puddle of purple. She knew all along that I was American. How could I have been so stupid, so naive, so ridiculously delusional that she wouldn’t detect my American accent in my Swedish?
I text my husband, “Babe, she knew I was American the entire time. She just texted me in English.”
“Wait, did you really think that you didn’t have an accent? Can’t you tell when someone isn’t a native English speaker?”
Yes, of course, when you put it that way it makes total sense. Of course, I’m not some invisible Swedish impersonator. I will always have something in my language or mannerisms that tips someone off that I’m not Swedish. Next time it might be a cultural reference or a political joke that gives me a way. No matter how good my language becomes, I cannot ever be something, I’m not.
What to do when you speak like a five-year-old?
Don’t give up.
I have been told time and time again that language is the key to unlocking the cultural treasure chest. It is by far, the hardest key I have ever tried to acquire despite my best efforts. But you know what? I’m not a quitter. I’m going to keep chugging along at my five-year-old language level until it becomes a seven-year-old level and eventually I will inch my way to the high school level.
I’m not going to give up, roll over, and die even though that’s what my ego wants. I know I’ll look ridiculously stupid throughout the entire process. I’ll do it for my kids even though I am aware I will embarrass them with my broken Swedish.
I will do it for the Swedish job I will eventually get. And ultimately, I won’t be sitting at a table with Swedish women speaking in swirls around me. Eventually, I will be that old American immigrant lady at the table who is leading the charge against domestic abuse with a hint of an accent, and it won’t matter one bit.