Swedish isn’t my mother tongue.
It’s my great-great grandmother’s tongue.
By the time my grandmother was the family elder, she remembered one or two words her mother had taught her. (Toilet, or toalett, was one of them.) Her mother was a first generation Swedish American who likely forgot most of the Swedish she learned from her immigrant parents, Karolina and Gustav, who immigrated in the late 1800s.
These are the Swedish ancestors whose immigration story caught my attention in the years before my grandmother died and inspired a trip with my sister in 2015 back to Gotland, where they left.
I came back from that trip speaking exactly one phrase: “Tack sa mycket” or “thank you very much.”
But all these years later, my interest in Sweden has skyrocketed. I still don’t care for ABBA (sorry, not sorry), but if I get the chance to go to IKEA or catch an episode of “Welcome to Sweden,” a short-lived sitcom on NBC, I’m there.
Until my mid-30s, I’d never paid much attention to this part of myself or my family history.
Instead, I spent a decade immersing myself in Spanish, a language that offered me a lifeline when I was a teenager who was desperate to escape the monoculture of my small town Midwestern experience.
Spanish took me out of my American-centered comfort zone. Learning this second language opened up doors for travel, but more importantly, it allowed me to form friendships and have conversations with strangers many thousands of miles from my home.
Half a billion people speak Spanish, including millions in my current home state of Texas. I don’t regret learning it, but it has been a humbling realization that, no matter how much I polish those language skills and use those skills as a way to better understand a culture that is not my own, Spanish will never be mine. I will always be an outsider when I speak it.
As I have been learning how to tread lightly with Spanish — to listen more than I speak, to respect the language and those who speak it by being aware of the privilege I bring to the space — my curiosity about learning Swedish has increased.
Finally, this spring, I decided to see where Duolingo might take me.