Monday, 24 May 2010

The most confusing night language-wise ever

(A short anecdote before I retell the journey to the fjord)

I will ever remember my astonishment upon realizing how close Scandinavian languages were to each other -- close enough to carry a discussion in all of these languages at once. Months ago, I was still assuming that the Danish and Norwegian friends of the Swedes studying in my school in Lille had had to learn Swedish from their early schooldays to be able to discuss på svenska. How strange, I thought, without yet realizing the paradoxical nature of my interrogation, that all of them had taken lessons at school to understand the very similar language of their closest neighbours... Despite the geographical proximity, a Frenchman does not understand much of what a Flemish would say, and it takes skill to understand Italian or Spanish or German or any of the languages of France's neighbouring countries. Neither does a Frenchman undertake the long process of learning most or all of the geographically close languages, generally. But be it as it may, languages have to be studied and learnt. That was a fact to me.

I witnessed more of such conversations while studying in the Swedish-speaking faculty of the university of Helsinki, and doubt crept in. Our Swedish-speaking coordinator, discussing with a Norwegian fellow; a Danish and another Norwegian chatting together, and there was no way I could guess which of their respective languages they were using in such circumstances. I had to ask, and the answer came as a shock. "Well, I am speaking Norwegian and he is speaking Danish!" "But... You do understand each other?" It challenged the very way I had ever conceived of language: a specific interface of communication, a code one could not guess but had first to decipher on one's own side in order to translate oneself into the other, the primary vessel for identity and essential tool to draw borders between countries -- and this idea, as I understand a little more every day, was nothing but the reflection of a French education on nationality and identity.

It is not so.

The bar of Kautokeino's only hotel is also the meeting point for the students and staff of the Sámi College, and it has become a surprisingly familiar place in the last few weeks, one of these obvious places you barely ever mention the name of -- at Hotel, of course! (Where else? The scarcity of bars in town certainly has something to do with it.) As I walked in last Saturday, literally all the clients were around our table, and the combination of languages spoken among the five-six of them was brain-wrenching, as there was none we were all fluent in albeit each of us could spoke two, three or four. While the three Sámi College students, Viivi, Jonne and Marina, interacted in sámegiella, the Swedish parents of Marina would not understand a word; however, they would reply in Swedish when spoken to in Norwegian. Coming from Finland, Viivi would understand Swedish much better than myself, although the few lessons I had allowed me to grasp something from the Swedish-Norwegian discussions; we'd sometimes beg for a translation and get it in sámegiella or English. Marina's father's funny explanations in broken English and Viivi throwing Finnish sentences at me without warning came only to top if off.

In such circumstances, there is little one can do to distinguish a language from the other. It is better not to try at all. After a day spent writing letters in Finnish, the relentless switching between languages swamped my brain, and it is perhaps a good thing not to think at which one is used and go instead with the flow, grasping the meaning of a sentence or a word without identifying with certainty the code beforehand. This is the kind of click one yearns for when learning a foreign language, a lift from theory to practical knowledge; it feels good, it feels free, in a way.

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