This rite of passage every immigrant to Sweden must pass through.
Whether you shell out tons of money for fancy intensive programs or take it for free with the popular institution that is Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), your key to instantly unlocking sheltered Swedish hearts is finally differentiating and pronouncing - sjå , sjö, sjä, skå, skö, skä – correctly with your lips perfectly pursed.
Left with no choice than to put my jaw muscles to the test, I found myself at the tail end of a bitingly cold winter, sitting in my first ever SFI class.
Pushing aside rumors and horror stories, I was ready to immerse myself fully and objectively. Within a few weeks, the perfect drama quickly began to unfold around me with intriguing characters from all corners of the globe.
“G.I.S… Geographic Information Systems,” I muttered, once trying to explain my past life as a GIS consultant to a fellow student.
He met me with a blank stare. He used to be a medical doctor.
Our past lives meant nothing here. We'd all been thrust into a challenging situation and each of us had subconscious roles to play. As weeks turned into months and one SFI level blended into the next, I began to feel that I wasn't sharing a classroom with fellow students.
Rather, I had become surrounded by a cast of characters from a nameless work of fiction, each one with a specific modus operandi and an increasingly predictable set of behaviours:
The aggressor bellows in the loudest decibels known to man. Every word spoken by the teacher is punctuated by the aggressor's own experiences. Yes, the aggressor's life can't be compared to yours. My first encounter with an aggressor wasn't pretty. My 30+ years on earth were verbally chucked aside as being just a child. Yes, the aggressor has seen it all. Yes, the aggressor has been in Sweden the longest of us all. Yet, the aggressor remains in our SFI level.
The gambler is one to watch out for. They literally read the entire dictionary from A to Ö, specifically pulling out complex, difficult to understand, and often tangential words, which they then attempt to piece together in haphazard sentences even teachers can't decipher. Which means teachers are always asking gamblers “Vad sa du?!” (What did you say?). To successfully beat a gambler at their game, throw in a much simpler word as an alternative, and watch them simmer with fury.
The loyalist continually challenges prepositions. “But in English, it's written this way!” we scream, oblivious to the fact that we're already working on an 80-90 percent grammar structure advantage over Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Sino-Tibetan languages. Why must we conform to the last 10-20 percent? I plead guilty to being a loyalist in severe denial. English and German speakers fall under this group, are instantly drawn to each other, and begin to form guerilla resistance subgroups. Oh, and “på” remains our mortal archenemy.
The interrogator knows one Swedish word and knows it well…“Varför?” (Why?) The first few days, this childlike curiosity seems charming, leading us to believe they're truly interested in learning Swedish despite the bread-sized dictionary sitting in front of them. Within weeks their veil drops, revealing one true trait – laziness. The interrogator is too lazy to reach for the dictionary right in front of them.
The celebrity arrives fashionably late. Who cares about roll calls and protocol? Celebrities saunter in way behind schedule and take their sweet time shedding 7 layers of noise-making clothing while others strain to listen to the Swedish CD being played on the 1980s boombox in the corner. There are true celebrities who arrive late due to previous commitments like actual jobs, and then there are faux celebrities who are usually undercover loyalists with resistance agendas. I often slip into the latter category and often quickly realize resisting is futile. If I want to get an actual job like a true celebrity, I must make “på” my friend.
The police officer drops by once in a while and peeks into various classrooms to see if all is in order before returning to their desk upstairs as the program director. Their stealth phantom-like classroom patrols usually catch us all off guard, and we collectively slip into silent assassin mode described below.
The silent assassin never says a word in class. They usually return a dubious smile when asked a question or greeted, but no actual words are uttered. Yet, the great mystery remains that these assassins consistently churn out the highest scores on various random tests we're given. Over time, teachers learn to skip them when asking questions in class because the assassin does what he or she does best….give the silent treatment.
The double-agent will never divulge or admit to any semblance of Swedish knowledge. Their mantra remains “Jag vet inte” (I don't know) even when asked their names. They shake their heads, lower their eyes, immediately panic when pointed to and stick to their grounds of knowing absolutely nothing. Yet once class is over, they rush off to catch the bus to their Swedish-speaking job…
Watching the crew each day adds a heightened sense of drama to an otherwise boring atmosphere as we live out each Swedish lesson like a script.
I often wonder if the gambler would meet me in a back alley for daring to challenge their dictionary-like prowess or if the double agent will strike with fluent Swedish when we meet in town?
And would our resistance group of loyalists finally make ground or are we fighting a losing battle? Will the interrogator finally surprise us all by cracking open their dictionary for the very first time?
I'm not so sure, but I'll definitely be back in class next time to find out.