Keep On Climbing

So, we had a BBQ this afternoon with some Swedish friends and their kids.

To start off with, when sentences were short, I held my own. I understood most of what was being said and it felt great.

But, as the afternoon wore on and anecdotes became more embellished, I could feel the familiar tingle which I now recognise to be my brain actually frying.

Brushing my teeth just now, I came up with a great analogy:

Imagine being a rock-climber: At the beginning of your climb, your muscles are strong, you glide your way up the rock-face with little effort, taking care to watch where your feet are. You are smiling to yourself, pleased at your progress.

About half way up, your legs start to ache and you miss a few foot-holes. But, your spirit is still strong and you are determined to do it.

Then, right at the top, you lose concentration and slip, falling down into a deep abyss, to a certain death.

That’s me and Swedish.

The more tired your brain becomes, the harder it is to digest what is being said and to do it quickly. Thought processes slow so much that they nearly stop and you find that you are working so hard to translate one, often insignificant word, that when it finally clicks, you are two sentences behind.

Then panic sets in. And the more you panic, the more you strain to listen for a word (any word) that you recognise and before you know it, your broken body is banging its way down Mount Everest.

I often wonder if my friends actually see my eyes glaze over.  Is there a point where they think “Ah, yep. She’s a goner”?

Because for me, I can’t imagine how they would fail to notice. They must see the lolling head; the fixed, pupil-dilated stare.

The most excrutiating thing for me is that I begin to pretend. Pretend that I understand. I listen to the cues of the other people around me and nod my head in agreement when there is a break in the conversation, or a slightly different intonation of the voice. My biggest fear is that my body language is not mirroring their conversation. That I might be raising my eye-brows in exaggerated disbelief when they are talking about some great achievement they have made. Or that I might be nodding and smiling while they are talking about the death of a beloved animal.

That absolutely mortifies me.

But you know what, I am sat here laughing at myself. Because, in reality, it is hilarious.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

And as the rock-climber fell to what should have been his undoubted death, his fall was saved by the cushioning canopy of a tree. And so he lived to climb another day.


9 thoughts on “Keep On Climbing

  1. I’m so confused why they would talk exclusively Swedish during the whole party. We just hosted a party at our house on Friday and yes there were several Swedish conversations going on but no one expected me to follow them so when they spoke with me they spoke English. It seems almost rude. I don’t understand. You haven’t had years of Swedish lessons so why intentionally ostracise you? How are you learning Swedish here? SFI classes?

    • I know! I would repeatedly speak English and they would always reply in Swedish! I think that they think my Swedish is better than it is. Yes, I did SFI and SAS when I was here last time. My Swedish is okay, I am just a little melodramatic at times!

  2. I have a few strategies I have developed. First, I do try to get people to speak Swedish as it will help me learn faster (at least in theory). But when I start to tire, I tell them, or I excuse myself. I also test myself, I listen then repeat back, in English, what I think I understood of a story or conversation. Most of the time I miss something and then people realize/understand first hand my comprehension level. I have also learned that many Swedes are very self-conscious about their English. Until they know you (or are comfortable) they are less likely to speak in English for fear of making a mistake (sound familiar?). Once people realize that I am not judging them, they tend to relax and I have lots of Swinglish conversations. Having said all of this, I often find myself excessively quiet at dinner parties, which is completely unlike me, and thus makes me feel very alone and homesick. It is at that point that I usually go home because I do not want to wallow in it. No matter what country I would be in, it would be the same challenge. And I am pretty sure that the French are not as kind as the Swedes with respect to this.

  3. I am the same. It makes me feel very isolated and I usually love to be in the midst of conversation. When you can’t fully participate, it is hard. And yes, ironic isn’t it, that Swedes are shy about their English skills!

  4. Love the mountain climbing analogy 😀
    I’m pretty much fluent in German at this point, but if too many people are talking at once or the subject matter is completely alien to me, I still get lost. Most people are good about repeating themselves or explaing if I tell them I’m lost though.

  5. This is so beautifully written. I can totally relate to being surrounded by a foreign tongue and trying to figure out the conversation using body language and other nonverbal cues. It definitely isn’t easy. But, like you said, even if we fail, we have another day to give it yet another shot.

    I really like your blog. I will be following you. 🙂

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