Trying to be Bilingual at the Language Café

Language Trauma

The six Swedes stare at me. My cheeks burn. These eloquent Vikings wait for my response to their stream of questions, but for all I know they could be asking about my views on the endangered Chinese salamander.

“Errr …”

The young woman across the table smiles and repeats herself slowly.

Right, so they want to know why I want to write storybooks for three to five year olds. It’s a good question. I have a good answer too, only it doesn’t exist in Swedish yet.

I gawp before spluttering, “Därför … Jag älskar det.” (Because … I love it.) Oh man, that was cheesy. Maybe that giant salamander could do me a favour now and swallow me up.

My listeners raise their eyebrows.

“Err,” my cheeks get hotter, “Jag har många idéer för böker för tre till fem år.” (I have many ideas for books for three to five years.)

“Ja, okej.” They nod and lean back.

I sigh and welcome the less complex sounds of mug chinking as they start talking amongst themselves.bilingual learning coffee

I’m at språkcafé, or language café: a weekly meeting in a community hall where I can practice speaking Swedish. I don’t know why anyone else is here, I mean, they not only sound pro at Swedish but positively trilingual. So far, I’ve introduced myself five times and counted to twenty.

Kids skip over the beige lino. I squint at the blonde woman to my left. I think her name’s Ingrid.

“Har du barn?” (Do you have children?) I ask her.

Her grey eyes light up. She tells me, curls bouncing, that she is teaching English to her young son and that she lived in England once.

“Really!?” I cry. “Err … I mean … när­­­—”

“—It’s Ingrid’s and my turn to prepare fruit salad in the kitchen.” A young woman grasps our chairbacks. “You can sit here if you like, or you can come in with us.”

I ask if I can help.

“Ja!” She beams and tilts her head towards the kitchen.

Yellow Banana, Swedish Minion Style

Happy hour has come early. I start chopping away at bananas. The two women float in and out of the kitchen, bringing more people in every time. Why is there a whole army of us to make one fruit salad? And why is the army now murmuring and grinning? Ingrid glances at the flopping banana skins in my hand. Oh, it turns out that the ceremonial cutting of the fruit is an activity to help us learn Swedish. Even running to the kitchen doesn’t save you from språk at språkcafé. I do some compensatory English babbling to confirm I’m on board. We all turn to Ingrid.

“Vad är detta?” (What is this?) Ingrid holds up an unmutilated banana.

“Banan,” some clever clogs spurts.

“Ja! Och färg … gul.” (And colour… yellow)

“Gul,” we all repeat.

She picks up two. “En banan, tva …” (One banana, two…)

“Bananer,” our same clever clogs chimes.

“Tva bananer,” we all chant, like Swedish minions. I deserve a gul smiley sticker after all this.

I Meet Muhammad Ali

“Hej, vad heter du?” (Hey, what’s your name?) A tall man steps towards me.

“Est,” I reply. “Och du?” (And you)

“Ali … Muhammad Ali.” He exchanges a look and a hearty laugh with Ingrid then babbles something to her.

“Muhammad Ali …” I say, sideways glancing at Ingrid. “Is he joking?” I mean, he probably is joking, but then again, he might not be.

Ingrid’s eyes glisten. She says, “Ja!” and shakes her head at the same time. That’s not confusing at all.

Just to play safe, I start laughing too. “Ali!” I announce. “Roligt att träffas.” (Which at this moment I think means ‘nice to meet you.’)

Roligt att träffas

I later find out from a helpful old soul that you should really say ‘trevligt att träffas’. ‘Roligt’ means fun. Shame, over the evening I’d grown fond of declaring ‘Roligt att träffas’, even if I was experiencing more stress than ‘roligt’.

I call goodbyes, waving my wrist like the Queen of England. Bumping in to a doorpost prevents me from singing ‘Roligt att träffas’ one last time. Feeling very bilingual, I saunter from the building, believing that I’ll either be back every week or never again.

Here are some Language Cafés in Linköping:

Johannes Kyrkan

Beard Torp Library

Elsa’s Hus

Happy bilingual/trilingual/multilingual -ing!

Est smiley

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