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Week Four: Universal Languages

Virtually all Swedes speak at least a little English. It’s taught in public schools as early as first grade, many of the songs on the radio are sung in English, and museums always provide an English translation underneath the Swedish description. Yet, I am noticing a lot by living in a country where my mother tongue is not the majority. From street signs to public transit announcements, hearing my host family speak casually to each other to hearing the music students converse in the school cafe, it is clear that English is not the primary method of communication here.

I feel some combination of tired and exhilarated because I am immersed in a language that I don’t understand. It is exhilarating because I am motivated to learn Swedish with every advertisement I see, every conversation I overhear, and every person I timidly say “ursäkta” to on the subway. I enjoy hearing the darker, throaty sounds that come so naturally to Swedes and it is a tough challenge to replicate them. But this immersion is tiring. It feels disempowering to not know how to ask for directions or what the announcement on the intercom was. I am uncomfortable having to ask for help, a translation, or “Pratar du Engelska?”. Expecting people to use their second language and conform to my needs as a privileged English speaker instead of practicing their language and culture that I decided to enter myself into makes me feel slimy. Ashamed, even.

But, through this immersion, I am becoming keenly aware of how much I do understand when people speak to me. Not only because Swedish and English are very similar, Germanic languages (which is really helpful), but because humans have an innate ability to communicate nonverbally. These unspoken methods of communication have been a source of comfort to me. It provides solidarity with strangers and friends alike, even if our primary languages differ. I want to share with you a list of universal languages that I have come across through my short time in Sverige:

  • Music: Sweden’s very own Melodifestivalen began last night. It is a cheesy, epic, televised music competition that decides which song will represent Sweden at the annual Eurovision competition in May. With subtle to grandiose choreography, shallow to emotional messages, and hyper anthems to emotional ballads, Melo has it all. Although most songs are in English, the Swedes really have a way of performing and representing their country. This is perhaps my favorite cultural phenomenon I have experienced so far. Highly recommended to watch with friends – you’ll have a lot of fun.
  • Laughter: I feel like I am always laughing when I am with my friends here. Eating dinner, getting drinks, watching a movie, exploring the city, getting lost on the T-Bana, and learning Swedish together are all things that bring me a lot of joy. Making others laugh, hearing laughter, and actually laughing are all incredible experiences. Laughter is something that transcends language and is a manifestation of the joy that everyone has a capacity to feel.
  • Applause: My generous host family knows me and my love for theater so well. Last Thursday, we all went to see the musical “Sister Act” at a nearby theater. Although the entire show (besides one number at the beginning) was entirely in Swedish, I understood the story more than I was expecting. By following along with the audiences reactions – when to applaud, laugh, and clap along to the music – I still felt very connected to the story, the characters, and the emotion behind the show. The talent was impressive and it was incredible to see how Sweden puts on a show. Jätte bra! Brava!
  • Exercise: Physical movement is another way I feel connected to people aside from verbal communication. I attended a yoga class, instructed by my host-mother Ilona, where she guided the group entirely in Swedish. I followed the flow of everyones movements and felt like I followed her instructions quite well. And it acted as an informal Swedish lesson, too! It isn’t even the words that she said, but the tone in which she said them that made it easier for me to follow. I was able to feel relaxed and follow the mental journey of the class, too; feeling the energy of everyone collectively deep breathing and stretching together was powerful and motivating. Through this physical and mental movement together, I did not need language to help me feel more grounded or relaxed.
  • Dancing: This past week, I trekked to the other side of the city with some friends to go to a bar that hosted a queer karaoke night. Once we arrived, I was immediately impressed. So many people were dancing, singing along, and performing together. Songs were sung in Swedish, German, and English and all the performers really went for it. A lot of talented vocalists! I had fun dancing with my friends and the strangers at the bar while we all connected to the songs and the atmosphere. An exciting and beautiful night to remember.
Tickets to “Sister Act” in Swedish

Spoken language is the medium through which we communicate, think, process, and perceive the world. It is something that we identify with, how we think, and how we share our thoughts. But, it is not the only way in which we are capable of understanding. Universal languages are media that connect us instead of divide us. They are felt instead of understood. When we see the collective humanity in all of us and our ability to communicate with feeling and emotion, we can realize that we are actually all the same. We may just say things a little differently.

What other universal languages will you notice today? Please feel free to DM me on Instagram, Facebook, or leave a comment here! I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions! Vi ses!

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