How has your perception of your host country changed since your arrival?
In many ways my perception of Sweden was a blank canvas before I arrived as I had never been to Scandinavia before and had only met Swedes in ones and twos in England, so I had no experience to form any ideas upon. Any preconceptions I had formed were founded primarily upon word-of-mouth from visitors to the country and stereotypes of Sweden and Swedes, some of which were highly contradictory. While the stereotype said Swedes were always very polite, I had also heard that they could be rude and anti-social; consequently I came to Sweden with no idea what to expect, which struck me as more exciting than it was scary.
Within hours of arriving, my overriding opinion of Sweden was that it was very similar to England. The architecture seemed a little different, in part because the older buildings were unaffected by the Second World War, and the trains seemed a little smoother and more punctual in Sweden, but these were small, superficial things to my mind. In fact, so strongly did I believe that Sweden and England were alike that I hardly felt any homesickness in my first weeks in Sweden, as to my mind I may as well still have been in an obscure corner of Britain, especially as during International Freshers’ week English was the universal language and it felt a lot like International Freshers’ week did in Hull last year and how it probably does in any country in the world.
The problem with making sweeping generalisations about countries is that as soon as you have decided that a people all have one trait, you will find a huge exception to this- this may be a large reason why it was so hard to form a solid picture of what Sweden was like before I arrived. For example, I could say that Swedes are a figure of Teutonic efficiency- trains generally run on time, punctuality is highly esteemed, and even dinner parties seem well-organised affairs. However, seeing a Swedish businessman laboriously climbing over another passenger so that he can sit in the precise seat allocated on his train ticket, as opposed to making do with another vacant seat somewhat undermines this theory.
I’d always had the impression of Swedes being quite humble, compliant people, but the strongest characteristic I am aware of of Swedes at the moment is that they seem to be very proud people- they are proud of the Swedish Model, the word “lagom”, their intellectual prowess and a host of other things. While it is good to have something to be proud of, it seems sometimes that perhaps the Swedes should consider whether they have a basis for their pride, as it occasionally becomes apparent that this pride is unfounded.
Overall, I would say that my perceptions of Sweden haven’t changed, so much as I have formed real perceptions of Sweden which are as complex as the country is and of no real use to anyone except myself.
What new strategies have you developed to learn new vocabulary & grammar? How successful have these been?
My primary sources of vocabulary in Sweden have been Swedish lessons, conversation with Swedes, music and various forms of media. Self-evidently, Swedish lessons are not a new strategy for me, but they are one of the best ways to learn the language as vocabulary, grammar and relevant explanations are freely given. A perk of the lessons is that they tend to involve a lot of day-to-day language, which has the perk that immediately after the lesson you can apply what you have learnt that day to dinnertime conversation, which in turn revises what you’ve learnt and embeds it in your memory better.
Conversation is an enjoyable source of vocabulary, as it also doubles as a way to meet new people, make friends and find out more about Swedish life and culture. The vocabulary you learn here is often very useful as you are likely to re-use it often. Conversation is also a good way of gauging how your language is improving as you people’s reactions tell you how well you are communicating. Disadvantages to this method of learning are that you must be wary of colloquialisms and poor grammar and after a while it can become a little tedious or embarrassing to frequently stop the conversation to ask how to say something. Some conversations also seem deceptively simple and when they turn into complex, confused affairs they can give the impression that you are less able than you really are.
Music is an interesting source of vocabulary as the syllabic constraints of pop music and the creative nature of lyricism lead songwriters to use unusual language, which can broaden ones vocabulary. The use of this medium is quite limited, but as a musical person it keeps me interested for quite long periods of time, not least because I am curious about what Swedish songwriters write about and the techniques they use.
In a bookstore during a free afternoon, I decided to browse the children's section in an attempt to calculate my Swedish reading age. Allowing for being more intellectually developed and being able to guess a lot of higher vocabulary, I decided that I was at about the standard of 9 year old. Understandably, with a reading age of approximately 9, newspapers are quite challenging to read, so I try to read a few articles a week to stretch myself a little. Commuter tabloid "Metro" is readily available in Lund, which is perfect for me, as it is advanced enough to learn new vocabulary without getting bogged down in analysis or legal terminology, and this has become a regular source of vocabulary.
One of the best mediums I have found for learning vocabulary is Swedish television. Swedish television is almost perfect for learners and it broadcasts a mixture of Swedish programmes- some with subtitles either for benefit of the hard of hearing and foreigners- and also subtitled English and American programmes. I have begun to realise that the subtitles on the English programmes are not entirely accurate, but as a source of new words and idioms I have to rate it highly. A large problem with subtitles is that you have no guide to accent or sentence stress, so the English programmes have to be watched sparingly among other sources.
Which aspects of your linguistic ability in the language of your host country do you feel you need to work on the most? Why? How will you go about doing this?
The largest area I feel I need to work on in Swedish is currently my vocabulary. Conversationally, I feel that I often struggle because I simply do not know how to express what I am thinking, and this is simply because I have only been learning the language for 2 years and have not had the time to acquire extensive vocabulary. I have been addressing this by trying to learn at least 2 new words a day, which does not sound like a lot, but amounts to 14 new words per week and 60 within a month. This is a bare minimum, of course, and some days it’s possible to learn far more, particularly if you begin reading or discussing an entirely new topic, such as medicine or religion, which we have not discussed in class in Hull. I have found that I have very few problems grammatically in Swedish however, partly because I believe that Swedish is a simple language grammatically and also because I feel I have a solid grounding in it, having systematically addressed most of the major Swedish grammar points over the last 2 years in Hull.
One thing that has improved a lot since I arrived here has been my spoken Swedish- I did not feel like I had had enough practice in speaking before I arrived and I was initially very hesitant in anything I said. However, my spoken skills have improved a lot in the 3 months I have been here without much concerted effort- talking about home or something that has happened that day does not feel like “working on your spoken skills” but it is amazing how quickly you pick up the language even when you are not thinking about it. This almost subliminal work on my spoken language has also helped me write essays faster and leave more time for thinking about the structure and content of the essay instead of the way it is written, as I have developed a certain gut instinct for how things are said in Swedish.
Another thing I feel that I need to work on is my accent. This is not an easy thing to work on as the local accent in Lund (and therefore the one I encounter most often) is also the least popular Swedish regional accent and some Swedes even have trouble deciphering what the locals are saying. I have been caught in a dilemma of whether to resign myself to learning the local accent so that I at least have an accent, or whether I should try to hold out for a more sensible Stockholm or Göteborska accent. At the moment I feel like I am somewhat straddling the two- I have no idea how it sounds to a Swedish ear, but at least I am sounding a little more Swedish when I talk!
Have any experiences you have had since arriving in your host country changed you as a person? And as a student?
I think that it will take a considerable amount of time to see the effects of my experiences here in Sweden on my life. It is hard to distinguish at the moment between changes as a result of my experiences and what is merely adapting to my surroundings; I suppose that the real effects will show once I have left Sweden, although some may be more visible than others and some may be more permanent than others.
I do not know whether it is a permanent change or just an example of adapting to the surroundings, but I am aware than being in Sweden has inspired elements of self-confidence and discipline in me. The Swedish university system seems to have less class time each week and more emphasis seems to be put on private study- this means that practically students have more “free time” and a certain importance is placed on organising one’s time effectively to ensure that all topics are learnt properly and that deadlines are met. The same is also true of the work set by Hull- while Hull is certainly out of sight, it is a challenge to not let it get “out of mind” and to steadily chip away at the assignments set for us.
Being in a country with subtly different traditions, rules and methods of going about even quite mundane tasks sometimes leads to slightly embarrassing situations where you become aware that half the room/shop/office are watching you doing something “wrongly”. I feel that this has lead me to assess whether the way Swedes do things is an improvement on the English method and then be very deliberate in doing which ever seems appropriate with a little more conviction than I have done. This takes a certain presence of mind to achieve, but I feel it is also teaching me to question things that I take for granted in England, like why so many sinks have a hot and a cold tap to alternately burn or freeze your hands, instead of a convenient mixer tap.