Saturday, 15 September 2007

Swedish – Catalan: 4 – 0

One of the advantages of living abroad is the opportunity to learn new languages. Although possibly of a different magnitude, in this area my wife and I share an ambition for perfection. The objective is not to be a good foreign speaker but to reach the level of those who have the language as their mother tongue. If our whole family would one day speak Catalan, I believe that we will be quite unique. Is it worth the effort? And, if so, how far have we come?

Let me be honest about our background. It was not an interest in Catalan culture that made us move here. A work opportunity was what drew our attention to this place and a desire to learn Spanish combined with the nice climate were factors which made the decision easy. On the contrary to what many Catalans seem to believe, like many other Swedes we were fully aware that there existed a unique Catalan language, but felt as motivated to learn it as most Catalans feel about learning Swedish, i.e. close to zero.

This perspective changed dramatically once we arrived here. Although this is a bilingual region, I consider that learning Catalan is a necessity for anyone who is interested in what is going on and who wants to be integrated in local society. Possibly, you can avoid it if you live downtown Barcelona and get your local news through Lavanguardia - for historical reasons edited in Spanish - but not in the outskirts of the province, like here in Vilanova i la Geltrú. We have moved here with the intention to stay, to build a new home. It is Catalan, not Spanish, which our sons learn at daycare and in school. With this in mind, we have accepted the challenge to learn not one but two languages.

So here we are, a family of four, all with Swedish nationality but quite different backgrounds. In this blog, I plan to follow and share our experience in gaining access to the new language. Twice a year, I will establish which is the preferred language of each family member. At home we speak Swedish, so that language has a home ground advantage. However, it is Catalan which dominates street life here, so it will soon be given a tough match.

Swedish enjoys a strong backbone in my wife and me. We have now spent more than seven years outside our native country, but were both born, raised and educated there. In fact, I do not only believe but also hope that our mother tongue will remain our preferred language forever. Having said that, through our children Catalan will play a stronger and stronger role in our lives. Fairly soon, our sons will be given homework to write and I take it as my personal responsibility to be up to speed to help them once that day comes.

Our four-year-old is the true dark horse of the game. He was born abroad and thus has never lived in Sweden. However, Swedish is very firmly his first language, since it was the only language he brought with him when we moved here. In the future, when he starts to learn English, we will be able to tell whether his early exposure to that language has left any lasting marks. I doubt that we will ever be able to check the same thing with Thai, since the probability that he will want to learn that language is quite low.

Due to the long Spanish summer holidays, our oldest son regularly receives what I could call special injections of Swedish. For the third consecutive year, he has spent more than a month with his grandparents in Sweden. We can not help taking pride in the fact that he has such a rich vocabulary and sense of correct syntax that he is at least on par developmentwise when compared to children of the same age who have grown up in Sweden. This week he was very nervous about going back to school in Catalonia and blamed it on the language issue. However, that might well be a rationalization of a more general fear of having to leave home. My impression when talking to him after his first day back in the class room was that he enjoyed taking part in the activities, in spite of the language barrier.

It would not surprise me if he switches over and accepts the majority language as his preferred language as early as by the end of this year. He has already spent more than half of his life in here and currently is in a phase where he is actively exploring the possibilities of verbal language. If the talent which he possesses for observation and pronunciation of Swedish will be equally valid for Catalan, we can expect to see a remarkable development during the coming few months.

Finally, we have what from the perspective of the Swedish language is the weakest link of the family. Our one and a half-year old son was born here and has spent many hours in a Catalan daycare since he was only four months old. Fortunately enough for Swedish, his language development started to take off during these summer holidays. He now tries to imitate the sounds of more or less any word we repeat to him. It might well be that this interest came about once he felt that one language, in this case Swedish, started to dominate his daily life.

A special observation is that his passive understanding is far greater than his active use of words. For example, he never tells the names of animals, but happily imitates their sounds when we give him their names in Swedish. Neither does he name parts of his body, but is able to point them out when asked to do so. I believe this to be normal for children who grow up in a bilingual environment, since it must be easier to associate Swedish näsa and Catalan nas with one phenomenon, i.e. the nose, than to determine which of the two words you are select when someone asks you for them. Currently, our youngest son prefers Swedish for most basic words; nana (have a nap), godnatt (goodnight), glass (ice cream), äpple (apple), sko (shoe). However, his daycare teacher says that he is very active in repeating words after her as well. An interesting fact is that Catalan seems to have a strong grip of him at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Although he says mat in Swedish for food in general, llet and pa are the only words he has ever used actively for milk and bread, respectively.

To sum up the score, summer holidays has put a strong focus on Swedish and I trust that, to both our sons, this stability has served as a motivator in their language development. Although we have an au-pair who speaks Swedish with them at home, there will now again be a strong bias towards Catalan in their daily exposure to languages. Mid-September 2007, Swedish wins a 4 – 0 runaway victory over Catalan in our family. I doubt that we will ever see such a walkover again.

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