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I speak 17 languages.

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“Why Are You Learning Swedish?”: In Defence of ‘Less Useful’ Languages

When I tell people I’m learning Swedish most respond “why Swedish?” with a furrowed brow. They ask if I have Swedish ancestry or if I need to go there for work. I know what they’re getting at. They’re wondering why I don’t learn a more “useful” language for someone living in Vancouver, like Mandarin Chinese or French.

Sure it would make more sense for me to be learning one of those languages right now; it would be the practical thing to do. But is that really a good enough reason to learn a language? Will that reason alone keep me motivated on the long journey to fluency or something like it?

For me, the answer to both those questions is no. I’m more motivated to learn languages I have an interest in, and that happens to be Swedish right now. Like polyglot and LingQ co-founder Steve Kaufmann says, motivation is one of the most important things in language learning. If you don’t want to learn the language, you’re not going to.

So how do I respond to these people who look a little confused when I tell them I spend my precious spare time studying what they consider a “useless” language in a LingQ 90-Day Challenge. Here’s how…

“I’m giving my brain a workout”

You’ve probably read that activities like learning languages actually strengthen the brain and can help stave off Alzheimer’s. Scientists have even discovered that bilinguals have more grey matter than monolinguals. So really learning a language is like eating five portions of fruits and vegetables a day or quitting cigarettes.

There are other ways to get “brain fit”. Some people do crossword puzzles and sudoku, for example. At least with learning a language you end up with a skill at the end of your time spent. 

Crossword puzzle

“Swedish is my gateway language”

The language I know the best outside of my native English is Japanese. I wasn’t ever top of my language class at school, and I never had a great system or methodology for learning languages before I started using LingQ, so I approached Japanese in a bit of a disorganized way. I attended a course, worked through some textbooks and went to an informal conversation exchange group once a week. While I did learn some Japanese, the language is so different from English that I often felt discouraged, and it took such a long time to learn a little.

With Swedish, learning for a short time yields great results. The sentence structure and lots of the vocabulary are so similar to English that I found I could understand full sentences quite quickly at the very beginning. I’m not saying it’s easy by any means, but compared with learning Japanese it’s certainly easier.

This relative ease at which I can pick up some Swedish makes me feel that I can eventually become fluent, something I’m not even close to in Japanese. So, in a way, it’s a gateway language; one I will be able to (I’m hoping) converse in and that will give me the confidence I need to get to that stage in Japanese in the future. I just need to know I can do it with one language, then who’s to say how many more I can become fluent in?

“The Swedes make good movies”

Watching up to five movies a week probably makes me a bit of a movie fan, and the Swedes know how to make a good movie. From Nordic Noir movies like Män Som hatar Kvinnor (remade by Hollywood and called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Easy Money to creative dramas like Pojkarna, there are lots of great Swedish films I can practice my listening with.

There’s also the excellent TV show Bron/Broen (Bridge) on Netflix which is in both Swedish and Danish – it isn’t for the squeamish among you though!

Two people walking down a small path

“It’s widening my social circle” 

You may be interested in making friends with people who speak your target language or, like me, you might already have a friend who speaks it. Either way, friendship is a great motivator.

My Swedish friend happens to be a great listener, and I know she’ll be very encouraging and patient when I finally have enough vocabulary (and confidence) to attempt speaking with her in her native Swedish. As well as learning the language, I get to strengthen ties with a new friend and build memories. If that isn’t the best reason ever, I don’t know what is!

“I just like it, ok?!”

I love learning. There’s nothing quite like sitting down with a book or a documentary for an hour and getting up again smarter than you were before. Whether I’m learning about black holes or Swedish verbs, it’s all delicious food for my greedy brain.

Why shouldn’t I indulge in learning Swedish in my spare time for the sheer enjoyment of it? It seems that everywhere we look these days someone is telling us to be more productive (guilty) or to copy their morning routine for success (why do they always seems to involve getting up at 5 AM, taking a cold shower and eating rabbit food?)

We all need to make time to do whatever it is that brings us joy, and if that includes studying a “useless” language like Swedish, so be it!

Swedish soccer fans

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If you want to make a breakthrough in your target language, join the LingQ 90-Day Challenge! Join in February and be in with the chance of winning one or even three months of LingQ membership! More details here.

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