Thursday, July 18, 2013

Trilingual conversations

Zoe was called in for her three year check-up at the so-called "BVC", the child health center that does all the checkups, vaccinations etc. from pregnancy through the daycare years here in Sweden. I got a few questionnaires to fill in in advance but I couldn't really do that because they asked about Zoe's language skills in Swedish. I thought she was due for another shot and I explained this for her but it turned out this was purely a developmental evaluation.

Zoe was difficult to coerce into the examination room when it was our turn because of all the exciting new toys in the waiting room, but after being promised stickers she reluctantly followed. I explained in my accented Swedish that we were Danish but that she also spoke English because of her dad and because she is in English speaking Daycare. In fact I was very curious as to how much she was going to understand because it was obvious that the nurse was not about to switch language. Instead she did what many people do when encountering people not fluent in the language spoken: She slowed down and spoke oddly loudly and articulated. To me. And she continued to dumb down each piece of information as we went along, to the effect of me having to do my best to hide my irritation and put on a fake smile. "No we don't do an MMR vaccination at this point *here in Sweden*", she repeated three times after I explained why Zoe was pointing in her arm and saying "stik, stik [poke, poke]". In fact she talked a lot about how things were going on *in Sweden* as if I was fallen down from the sky just minutes earlier.

Meanwhile Zoe did an impressive job at her test. The nurse had a few picture cards and she asked in Swedish Zoe which one you can eat. Zoe quickly pointed at the apple even though eat is a different word in Danish from Swedish. She also pointed at the card with the car when asked which one you can "go/drive with" [åka med], a Swedish expression that is not translatable to neither Danish or English. When she was asked what you can do with a ball, she hesitated and did a throwing motion while mouthing "throw". I could see she knew that word was the wrong one but she couldn't find the Danish/Swedish one. She kept doing the throwing motion and looking at me for hints. I asked her in Danish and that triggered the 'correct' answer: "kaste!", which is luckily the same in Swedish.

She was excited to be measured (101 cm) and weighed (15.6 kg) and carefully picked out her sticker afterwards. I laughed when the nurse asked if I had any concerns about her language and tried to joke about how of course I was worried about her actually becoming fluent in all the languages, but the nurse took this concern to be lack of knowledge on my part and resumed to give me a long and slow lecture on the importance of me always speaking Danish to her, and her dad always speaking English (where I again tried to joke that this is the only language he knows, but merely got a snort here) and then she will easily be fluent in all three languages. I wondered how any parent of a three year old trilingual child would never have researched these things and would really consider this information as new and useful at this point. But the nurse probably sees all kinds of people and had a hard time judging education level.

But what really bothered me was the slow, enunciating talk, which I recognize from many other native speakers (of all languages) when talking to people with accents. The division between understanding and the ability to express oneself in a language is often great, particularly for Swedish/Danish. Adjusting the language ends up seeming like they think you are a bit dumb and is deeply frustrating for someone trying to learn a language. But then again, who says I'm trying to learn Swedish.

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