Language Barriers

Language Barriers

The taxi driver curves to the drive yard and asks me something. ‘I do not know’ is my response. In reality I have no idea what he is asking. Eventually he stops the car right in front of the main door of the building and I pay him without saying pretty much anything. He gets back to his car after leaving me to the yard with my luggage. Soon the taxi is gone and I am left alone. I shake my head feeling embarrassed. I had not been able to have a conversation as simple as that.

In the mall the lady at the counter asks me something and there is an unsure look on my face. She repeats the question with a smile on her face but since I do not give her an answer this time either, she switches into English. ‘Are you a member’, she asks and I tell her I am not. She smiles and teaches me the question in Swedish. I turn red out of shame. I had not understood a question as simple as that.

One of my roommates speaks with a very strong accent and I find it hard to understand. Usually I just end up smiling and staring at my plate. Most of the 12 people living in this dorm are native English speakers and even though I consider my English skills quite good, I sometimes feel myself an outsider. It feels like my tongue gets tangled and I can’t say things naturally. I blush and sit quietly yet again. I had not been able to say a thing as simple as this.

The cases above happened just within the first few days here. Each time I have been baffled of how hard communication can be and how saying or understanding even the simplest of things can sometimes be extremely difficult. The first wave of culture shock hits me.

During the third night here I spend the midnight lying on my bed and think whether this place is the right one for me. Am I able to pull this off? I have never been abroad completely alone and even though home is just a phone call away I am not feeling any better. The lamp on the street keeps shining through the window blinds. After thinking for a while I decide that the only way to find an answer to these questions is to try. At this point I make no bigger promises or demands to myself. Trying will be enough.

In the morning my roommates talk about a trip to local Ikea and they ask me to join. I agree to. In the bus I manage to buy a ticket albeit through very simple dialogue. While walking down the aisles in Ikea I make a sarcastic remark and my roommates laugh. Laughter and smile are a part of the international language. We all understand it. I smile too but instead of the joke I smile for being understood.

At the counter the shop assistant greets me and I respond smiling. She scans my items and tells me the total sum. I pay and she asks if I need the receipt. I take it and thank her. I pack my stuff and tell her goodbye. I would love to jump from joy. I had been able to have a conversation as simple as this.

Whereas one might have learned to appreciate larger accomplishments at home, even buying a cup of coffee successfully here feels like winning in the lottery. Perhaps that is my first lesson here. It is good to learn to appreciate also the smallest of things and accomplishments. It is good to understand that the things that are everyday matters to us can be challenges to many others. Perhaps the person behind us in the queue to the counter is feeling anxious about the upcoming conversation with the shop assistant or maybe they are afraid that their language skills are too poor to manage with the situation without feeling embarrassed.

Everyday life is a wonderful feeling when it goes on with ease. One does not even notice it. When the everyday life keeps requiring small efforts all the time it can feel like a barrier, like a wall. The wall gets higher when we build it up with our own actions. The shop assistant at the mall taught me when I did not understand her. My roommates asked me to join even though I am not the most social kind of person. Even the taxi driver dropped me off at the right address. They did not build walls. They built gates. That is what we should all do.



In my columns I will mainly describe my life as an exchange student in Uppsala, Sweden. While doing that I will also write about my studies and the everyday life of living in a shared apartment. Having learned from my previous experiences I might even mention things about my former life in Rovaniemi. My column is published in the renewed DASiaa -magazine each month.

But how do I, my writings and exchange studies relate to DAS? Well, I have been a tenant of the foundation, an active member of the tenant committee in my housing area, the tutor tenant and even worked as a Customer Advisor for the foundation. One could even crack a joke about me being DAS expert.

Med vänliga hälsingar från Sverige,

Juho K.


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