Sunday, February 19, 2017

How many love languages do you speak?

Joakim, Karolina, and their amazing 11 year old triplets. How I love them!
Anyone who knows me is aware that I am very proud of my Icelandic heritage. Blog on Icelandic Family Bonds One of my cherished joys is to meet and learn more about my relatives who still live in Iceland. Although we share a distant relative, a great-great grandfather, Eggert Vatnsdal, generations in time dissolve when we gather. Chapters of time fall away, and our stories, laughter, and interests intersect. We are family--no matter what side of the Atlantic Ocean we were born on.

One of my Icelandic relatives, Karolina, who currently lives in Sweden, her husband, Joakim, and their triplets came to visit us in the Middle East last fall. I took away many lessons from their visit. One of them was a fascination of how both of them effortlessly speak different languages (Joakim speaks five, and Karolina speaks six). Learning languages is a way of life--the way they show their love for one another and others they meet. In fact, they have spoken four languages to each other, in various chapters of their relationship.

Playing on the beach in Qatar

Joakim, who is from Stockholm, and Karolina, who is from Reykjavik, met in their early 20's in Munich, Germany. Each of them was there for one of their first jobs, away from home and familiarities. Both were learning German at the time. They met through friends, and continued to speak German together in the first phase of their relationship. When they got married and moved to the United States for graduate school and more employment, they spoke English to one another.

Fast forward some more years. They decided they wanted to move closer to family so both of them found a job in Reykjavik--Karolina's hometown.  Most people would be intimidated to learn to speak Icelandic, but not Joakim. After all, Icelandic is a North Germanic language, and he wanted to communicate with Karolina's Icelandic family and friends. When people spoke to him in English, instead of Icelandic, he showed his resolution to learn Icelandic. They lived and worked in Reykjavik for about ten years. While living in Iceland, Karolina gave birth to triplets--two girls and a boy (yep, she is amazing).... The children learned Icelandic at home and school, and then Swedish from their father.

Joakim with the triplets on the seashore in Qatar
When the triplets were about six years old, Karolina and Joakim decided it was time for them to move to Stockholm to be nearer to Joakim's famly. That meant that Karolina would have to learn Swedish. Although Swedish is also a North German language, it coincides more with Danish and Norwegian--not Icelandic. But just like her husband, Karolina was not daunted to learn her new country's language. They enrolled the kids in the ESL language at their their school, and Karolina and the triplets began to speak fluent Swedish with Joakim.

Recently she said to me after a business trip to Brussels, "I just love people." As I thought about her love of languages, there is a deep connection of a love for people--especially for Joakim--who was her friend, boyfriend, and now husband and father of her children. Nothing was too difficult to speak to her beloved. To be with a couple who have spoken four languages to one another, and seamlessly interweave four languages in their conversations, is nothing but remarkable. It is evident that the love they have for one another runs deep. Neither has balked at the inconvenience or challenge. Learning a language for the other is just adding another layer of love--a beautiful history that connects many chapters and periods of their lives.

Getting ready with Joakim, Karolina, and the triplets of our annual ice skating party. The triplets are, of course, learning English, to speak with their family in Qatar!
                     Lessons of Learning a Language:

1) There is an underlying friendship shown when another attempts to speak (even a few words) in someone else's mother tongue.  When I worked in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, sometimes I would call out words in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, English, Chinese, or Tagalog. Smiles erupted. Bonds of friendship were connected. Maybe not every word was pronounced absolutely correctly. But the effort was appreciated.

2) I have noticed that people who speak different languages or at least attempt to try to speak with others whose language is not their own are risk takers. The weight of fear is tossed away. The learner prefers to try to have a connection or friendship--than to be precisely, absolutely correct.

3) Learning a language is like a pleasant series of fireworks going on in the brain. Sometimes the light of learning a new word can illuminate a whole sky. As Jhumpa Lahiri says in her book, In Other Words, "What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable." 

4) Keep a notebook of expressions or vocabulary. When I would pull out of my brain a very fitting chengyu (or Chinese saying) when I lived in Taiwan or China, I would see people take a new glance at me, as if they were saying, "Ah, now I know you not only get my language, but my culture, my history, my humor. Nuances are important to you." As Lahiri states, "A notebook contains all my enthusiasm for the language. All the effort. A space where I can wander, learn, forget, fail. Where I can hope." 

5) Never let go of that rope of hope. Don't let it strangle you or don't let anyone else repress that desire to learn a language. It will open new friendships, new worlds, new connections. For those of us who are from the United States, it erases misconceptions that we do not learn languages. It gives cause for another to smile, to bond. 

6) Sooner or later, learning a language is about friendship--desperately wanting to speak to someone who you find interesting, someone you want to inspire or to laugh with. Ultimately, learning a language is about love.