Books

Learning to Read a Language

Many years ago, when I was at university, I studied Swedish. I even spent an academic year at Uppsala University, allegedly becoming fluent. One of the more fun courses I studied there was Old Swedish, in Swedish. (Actually, I thought us foreign exchange students probably had it easier in the exam, since we were allowed a Swedish-native language dictionary with us.)

I’m not very good at speaking languages. I don’t have the right sort of ear for listening. I have the same problem with learning music, in that I learn by reading not by ear. Just can’t hear it properly. It’s all right with music, it’s all there, and the instrument does the ‘talking’. Not so with languages. You are supposed to communicate and oral exams mean so much. Dead languages are my favourite, since no one expects you to speak them, not really. You just have to learn what tenses etc. look like, and what combinations of letters mean, and you’re good to go. You can pronounce them how you like in your head. Old Irish was great fun for that. It’s also why I like Braille so much.

Anyway, so I learnt to read Swedish reasonably well. Just can’t really hold a conversation, unless it’s with someone I’m comfortable having a conversation with.

But the intervening years – longer than I care to remember – haven’t given me much opportunity to keep my Swedish sharp, though I sometimes have conversations with myself, in my head.

The time is right, though, for me to pick it up again. By reading. When I was in Sweden, I joined the local library, since my library was left at home. Couldn’t really travel with it. There was a small selection of English-language books, few of which really grabbed me. But I was there to learn Swedish.

The book I really remember, though, was a Swedish translation of Chocolat, which I have read and love in English. Of all the books I read out there, the fact that I could read Chocolat without having to reach for the dictionary every other page was something of a revelation. Apparently, reading a book in Swedish which I already knew well in English was a really good way of picking up new vocabulary. Because I knew what it should be saying. Occasionally, yes, I had to go to the dictionary, but not nearly as often as when I tried The Hobbit, which I hadn’t already read in English. That took me a while, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

At the beginning of February, I found myself wandering Foyles’ Charing Cross branch with friends. We drifted towards the foreign language section, as one wanted something for learning Greek for a trip later this year. I found the Swedish section, and discovered really pretty editions of Harry Potter in Swedish. And couldn’t resist, though I tried very hard. So I’m learning Swedish again, through reading Harry Potter.  (I want other language-editions of Harry Potter too.)

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