onsdag 4 juli 2007

Learning Swedish in Uppsala

Uppsala Sweden
Originally uploaded by lydurs.

It is strange the way things happen. We do things we never imagined we could possibly do or would ever have been likely to do.

For some reason I can't explain, after three visits to Sweden last year, the first two just passing through when I was on the way to Estonia and back, I have felt the urge to come back yet again, so I signed up for a Summer School run by the Swedish Institute and I am staying for the whole summer and learning the language.

So that is a strange experience as one does not expect to be living the life of a student when most of one's contemporaries have long been retired. I am finding I can hold my own with with classmates who are young enough to be my children.

With less than ten million speaking it, Swedish is not a language anyone would learn on account of its great utility, unlike French, Spanish or Portuguese, especially for an English-speaking person in a country where English is widely spoken. But if you want to get to know what makes a place tick, you need to know the language as you can't expect people in a group to all speak English just for your benefit.

So the whole experience prompts many reflections.

Most of the people on the course already have some kind of connection with the country, usually through family, even if the link is, like mine, a tenuous one through Estonia. Most are also here, in some sense or other, to get away from something, an issue which has brought many waves of people to Sweden over the years. That goes for me. Britain is not the country I grew up in and it has become increasingly unpleasant - a place to move away from if one can. This was a widespread view amongst contemporaries I met earlier in the year.

The student come from many countries - the largest contingents are from the US, the UK and Germany, with a few from Korea, Japan and China. A desire to get away from something is a widespread theme; this morning, when the class I am in was asked if anyone felt homesick, the overwhelming majority were emphatic that they did not.

The students from Britain are suffering because of the state of the British education system, in particular the fact that grammar is almost never taught.

Related to this is the general issue of foreign language teaching in Britain, which continues to be contentious. It used to be that French was the first foreign language to be taught, presumably on the grounds that it was a diplomatic language and that France is the nearest foreign country. The second foreign language was usually German, which was important, amongst other things, for its use in science.

In the past forty years, both languages have been declining in popularity. During the Cold War, there was a vogue for Russian, and Spanish has come up due to the number people speaking it and the growing number of people who go to Spain on holiday or to retire. Other languages which have grown in popularity include Arabic and Chinese.

The truth is, however, that one never knows what language one will need to learn, and so perhaps the most useful one is a dead one which can act as a model for many languages. On that basis, the future should be bright for Latin.

As for Uppsala, it is a clean and pleasant town with jackdaws in the main shopping street and a medieval cathedral so heavily restored that it looks like a nineteenth century building. But it suffers from the Swedish syndrome that so much built in the past seventy years looks bland, possibly as a reflection of the near-Soviet Social Democratic politics which have held sway here, with the result that much of the town looks like a post-war British New Town but without the litter and all the fat scruffy people.

"New Town aesthetic" describes the student apartment I am living it, which is hardly worth even a photograph. The place is built as solidly as a bomb shelter, the planning is very well thought-out right through to the detail design level, the amenities are superb and the rooms themselves are nice and big and I have a pleasant open view with lots of trees. But it all lacks a certain something and as so many of the buildings look much the same and there are few landmarks outside the city centre, I keep getting lost!

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