It took about six emails and multiple phone calls before Berit Åberg finally got the message about two weeks ago: She had been invited to Brussels as Sweden’s representative for a European language initiative.
“I was surprised more than anything else,” said the 52-year-old, explaining how she had assumed the emails were spam and the phone callers were trying to sell her something.
Åberg was one of 28 people from around the continent invited to Brussels last week as the winners in the European Union’s inaugural “Tongue Stories” competition. The Local was invited along as a guest of the EU to report on the event.
Packed full of Brussels pomp, it was the culmination of a several months-long competition meant to highlight Europe’s language diversity.
How did the Tongue Stories competition work? Last year, European residents were invited to submit short essays, videos, audio messages or photos, somehow highlighting language diversity – nearly 600 were submitted.
A round of online voting determined who from each country got the trip to Brussels. Then a panel of judges picked three continental champions, who would be awarded iPads at the European Commission in Brussels.
As a passionate advocate of the Swedish language – she has even written a children’s book that teaches Swedish basics – Åberg decided to write her submission about her love of learning.
“Language is the key to knowledge, life and the world!” she wrote in her Swedish-language essay submitted to the competition. “We must begin among the young children.”
That theme fits in well with Åberg’s passion for ensuring young Swedes and immigrants alike have access to high-quality language education.
During a brief interview in Brussels, she said she was troubled by a trend she sees in her classroom of six to seven-year-olds: Too many young people fail to grasp the language basics they’ll need in order to succeed in their future.
“In my little world, I work hard to help these children as much as I can, but there’s only so much I can do as a single educator,” she said. “Learning has to be a way of living.”
In Brussels, the European Union wined and dined the 28 contestants and gave them trophies and award certificates at a formal ceremony.
Åberg wasn’t one of the big winners, but she said was just happy she eventually answered the phone.
“I’m still shocked by this,” she said.