Swimming in an Ocean of Intermediates

By Lola Akinmade-Åkerström

As a Stockholm-based writer/photographer, Lola has contributed to many major travel publications such as National Geographic Traveler (both US & UK versions), BBC, CNN, Forbes, Vogue, Fodors.com, Travel + Leisure, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times’ LENS blog, United Airlines’ Hemispheres, AFAR, Matador Network, and many more - http://www.akinmade.com/articles.

I was shocked when I read the news off my husband’s iPhone.

A famous Swedish actor had died in a house fire on New Year’s Eve. Quickly turning to one of the other dinner guests, I tried explaining to her what I’d just read, expressing how horrendous it was.

She looked me straight in the eye for two seconds and burst out laughing.

I was confused. Why would someone’s death generate such forced laughter? She chuckled a bit more, nodded, and then turned away. We’d chatted freely earlier that evening – in Swedish - and the conversation had flowed both ways.

This time felt different, and it was then I realized she hadn’t understood a word I had said to her, and she felt too polite to say she hadn’t grasped it. If I’d been purely green, she might have stopped me or switched to English.

But she let me go on.

This wasn’t the first time I’d gone on and on in Swedish to a local only to have them respond incorrectly. They usually just pick out a few keywords, try to form the context of what I was explaining in their minds, and formulate incorrect answers.

Again, if I’d been an absolute beginner, they probably would have asked me to repeat or switched to English.

I’d finally moved into the class of intermediates – language learners whose hands weren’t being held anymore. We were now in the sink-or-swim category; that nebulous never-ending transition period one seems to find themselves in forever.

A transition period I now call the plight of the immediate speaker.

Moving through the beginning stages of Swedish was like hopping a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York. Sure, there were a few turbulent bumps along the way but it was a relatively smooth experience. I was then left standing on the shores of the Eastern US about to swim across the intermediate Atlantic Ocean towards Scandinavia. My goal being to land on fluent shores of Sweden before trekking upwards as a “master” to Stockholm and finally mastering the language.

These are the four levels of language learning I’ve geographically mapped out for myself. And now, I am right in the middle of the Atlantic, swimming as best as I can towards fluency along Sweden’s shores.

Sometimes, the waves carry me backwards. Sometimes, I swim past other intermediates.

Often times when a fellow intermediate pulls out an advanced word in class, I liken it to an unexpected swimming stroke. “That’s new?!,” I’d say to myself as rogue waves of stagnancy mentally push me backwards.

Never one to overestimate my Swedish-speaking skills, I know it’s going to take some time to reach fluency the way I know it needs to be reached. I may very well take a detour over to Greenland or Iceland and hang out there for awhile – plateaued in my speaking skills while mixing and matching words I already know to keep the conversation going on deeper levels.

And when I’m ready, I’ll jump back in again and continue my swim towards Sweden’s shores, finally becoming fluent. This means speaking without those awkward pauses of trying to collect my thoughts and mentally translating them from English. Completing that final trek towards mastery remains my ultimate goal, and this goal could take decades.

Right now, I need to keep treading water to stay afloat and just take it one stroke at a time.

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