Language isn’t generally given it’s due credit as an essential dimension of personal wellbeing. After 5 days in Paris, however, I’ve been reminded that our capacity to communicate with one another easily and thereby to get past the stereotypes of one another’s cultures, is absolutely critical to how we feel about where we are.
I’ve got a bit of French buried in there somewhere after studying it for a term and I did start life in a Latin language (Portuguese). Still, I found it difficult to enjoy some of France’s greatest national monuments, arguably some of the world’s greatest, without any English translations available to read. I stood in front of the Mona Lisa only being able to offer her a smile back but unable to learn more on the spot about what makes this small, dark portrait so famous. At the world’s richest collection of items from the French Revolution, a young ’student of history supervising the museum visitors shook her head at the number of times it had been necessary to repeat that, “yes, those are the clothes worn by Marie Antoinettes’ children during their imprisonment”. It isn’t the sort of thing you want to have to say fifty times a day.
During my visit, there were displays of modesty, such as this one and very many expressions of frustration at the inability to cross linguistic borders. A woman working in the post office nearly had cardiac arrest over my inability to understand how much it cost to send a postcard to Sweden. A waitress looked like she had bitten into a dry baguette when I was unable to understand that the restaurant had run out of croissants. I ended the day feeling like Rowan Atkinson, who in his irresistible sketch of the devil, welcomes the French (and the Germans) to hell.
Sure, I should take responsibility for the fact that I cannot speak French and learn it. At the same time I seem to recall that even on the remote island of Adelsö near my summer island, the signs include English language explanations of the Viking remains. The peoples of the North have a streak of practicality in their culture which says that you can’t make visitors work that hard. Sweden is a small country and perhaps this is another explanation for the fact that you can manage in any of its cities in English language without learning a speck of Swedish. This fact has its downside because it means that there are people who can live in Sweden for years without getting past ‘kanelbullar’ (cinnamon rolls). One can argue that The Local just made this trick easier, but on balance I think it is an admirable project devoted to crossing linguistic and, with this, cultural barriers.
They say that there is no place like home. For me that is on my Swedish island(s) where I can cross in and out of English and Swedish at will without having to think too much about it. In many ways, Sweden has been at the forefront of the ongoing project to be a modern society. When it comes to language, values such as linguistic modesty and a willingness to meet visitors halfway are ones that I believe will in the future count heavily for determining whether people experience that society as a desirable one to be in.