I didn’t think I had anything in common with Ashton Kutcher. I never particularly liked him (as an 80s kid, my loyalty lay with his ex Demi Moore). But people can surprise you, and he did, because he’s currently learning Russian, so he can communicate with his fiancé Mila Kunis (who’s Ukrainian) and their future offspring.
Well played, Kelso. For now we both understand that nothing says love, devotion, or pigheaded bravery, like learning the language of your partner.
Funnily, when I first came here, all these blogs assured me, “Swedes love to speak English!” Let me correct this misconception. They love to show that they can. But they still prefer speaking their own language. (Which, to be fair, is true of Filipinos, too.)
Naturally, they still prefer hiring people who can speak Swedish. Fat chance people in a smaller town and a first world country will bother translating every grocery sign, package label, or train announcement.
The worst days were mostly in the beginning. I found myself among people who would greet you in English, talk to you for a few minutes, then lapse back into Swedish; leaving you to become better acquainted with your phone but not necessarily with them. I wished, often, that people would come with subtitles so I’d know when to laugh. I knew they didn’t mean to be mean; it was just natural.
Language is a lot like clothes. Some you endure for meetings or weddings. Dressing up, or in this case, using a certain language, shows you respect other people enough to leave your comfort zone for a bit. Your mother tongue is your holey pambahay that you slip into with relief at the end of the day.
Many – partner included – were conscious of my language level and would try to speak in English. But in a room where most are yammering away in a certain language, one becomes painfully conscious that any English spoken is for your benefit. You suddenly wish both that they wouldn’t bother; and also, that they would stick to one language everyone could understand.
I entertained myself with the thought that learning a language was like Candy Crush Saga. You zip through the first few levels and think, I’M A GENIUS. Then you hit this level that you stay stuck at for hours, days, weeks; a month if you get easily discouraged. But so, I have learned, is the nature of language. You gotta get dunked before you can swim or dive. There is no way to it but through it.
And slowly, the good days come, a word at a time. You actually catch yourself following a conversation to the point where you can laugh at all the right moments, without someone to explain the joke to you.
The Inculturation Goes Both Ways
The struggle hasn’t ended. It’s only changed. It will only keep humbling me every day with something new to learn.
But to my growing delight, I realized that when you bring two cultures together, this stream of learning doesn’t flow just one way. I’ve been so absorbed in this challenge, that I haven’t noticed how my husband is changing too. By that I mean that he is picking up Filipinisms that no book can teach.
For instance, his repertoire has grown to include: “You ha,” “Sige sige lang,” (Just keep going), “Joke LANG” (just kidding), “Yiheeee!” and “Naaaaaaaks”. For example: “It doesn’t matter if it’s closed, as long as I’m with you. (pauses for reaction) Naaaaaaaks!”
He’s gotten into the habit of drawing air-rectangles with his fingers when requesting the bill at a restaurant; and pointing with his lips when I ask where something is.
When frustrated, he yells, “HOY NAKO!” (An expression of exasperation for which there is no direct translation.)
No matter where we are in the world, if we want to find each other in a crowd, we just go “PSSSSSSSSSST.” (I know. Classy!)
In the early days of spring, when weather is known to play with one’s feelings, and I wondered which jacket to take, he stepped out onto our balcony and said, “You don’t need a thicker jacket. It’s Baguio weather.” (He’s never even been to Baguio, but he’s been around enough Filipinos to understand the context.)
And this is the best illustration for his willingness to try.
Me: “Sige nga, give me all the Filipino words you know.”
A: “Baho?” (Smelly?)
A: “Um. Bango?” (Fragrant?)
Me: “Come again?”
A: (desperately) “Banyo! Baho bango banyo!” (Bathroom! Smelly fragrant bathroom!)
Nowadays, our language is about 80% English, 19% Swedish, and 1% Filipino. It’s evolved into our own odd sort of mishmash secret language, but so is the nature of language – it evolves based on needs and context.
Someone speaking your own language to you is a gift. They don’t have to. They could just be silent, smile and nod; and come away none the poorer, but neither are any richer from the interaction. It is a gift when someone ventures out of their comfort zone and risks making mistakes every second. It shows someone cares enough to try. It proves that someone is willing to make an idiot out of oneself day in and day out; to sit in a room and laugh at all the wrong moments; and feel like an absolute moron. A willingness to forget oneself and forsake one’s own comfort – nothing speaks louder than that.
“Talk about the boy sayin’ to the girl:
“Golly, baby, I’m a lucky cuss”
Talk about the girl sayin’ to the boy:
“You an’ me is lucky to be us!”
Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?”
– Bloody Mary, South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein