Var blev du av Bernadette

This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

The Swedish cover of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" with a cartoon portrait of a white woman with brown hair, wearing a yellow scarf tied over her hair and oversized black sunglasses.
Image courtesy Wahström & Widstrand

Author: Maria Semple

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.91

Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)

Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.

Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.

Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor

In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!

The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.

It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

Review: Gösta Berling’s Saga

It’s a little presumptuous of me to sit down and review Selma Lagerlöf’s legendary debut novel more than 100 years after the fact, but since I want to keep a fairly accurate public record of the books I read, here we are!

 Like so many bookworms, I have a tendency to acquire  books faster than I read them. I try to make a concerted effort to focus on my book backlog whenever I can; I have a long-standing goal every year to read a certain number of books that I’ve owned for over a year. I picked up Gösta Berling’s Saga in 2008 at the very earliest and probably 2010 at the latest, so this one definitely counts. Good ol’ Dover Thrift Editions!
The Dover Thrift Edition of Gösta Berling's Saga
Image courtesy Dover

 Author: Selma Lagerlöf

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Silent film buffs; people interested in Swedish literature (who can’t read the original Swedish)
In-depth thoughts: This edition is a translation from 1894 (with a few chapters being a little later, 1918); there have since been two subsequent translations, one in the 1960s and another in 2009. I don’t know if it’s entirely the age of the translations that sometimes make this a hard slog so much as the age of the work. I don’t see why anyone who can read Swedish would prefer this edition over the original, or why anyone who prefers English to Swedish would choose this one over the later translations (except for comparison’s sake). My wallet loves Dover Thrift Editions, but I don’t know if I’d recommend this one as an introduction to Lagerlöf.
Outside the language, there are other challenges: there’s a huge cast of characters and the structure is more episodic than purely narrative so chapters can feel clunky and disconnected compared to how novels are written today. (I feel like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils holds together a little better, even if it has a similar episodic structure.) Still, once you get into it, it’s still worth reading over 100 years later. Unsurprisingly for a very feminist and pro-woman, pro-women’s rights author, there are a lot of women in this large cast of characters, well developed beyond witches, damsels, and bimbos. They do some awful things, and they also do some heroic things. Of course, most of these women have a tendency to fall in love with Gösta, but then again, he’s the hero.
 My personal favorite is the ostensible antagonist, Fru Samzelius. While she spends much of the book outcast from her farm and home, pitted against the cavaliers, she begins and ends the story with competence and dignity, and always does things on her own terms.
Doktor Glas, from around the same time period, has seen a modern re-imagining from the perspective of the antagonist, Reverend Gregorious. I want someone to do the same for Margarita Samzelius. She deserves her own book even more than Reverend Gregorious does.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius in the silent movie adaptation of Gösta Berling's Saga. Distraught and disheveled, dressed in piecemeal fur rags, she carries a torch, ready to burn her own home to the ground rather than hand it over to her enemies.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius.

Something like this just seems ripe for the miniseries pickings, to be honest. The episodic chapters would work just fine as standalone episodes, so the scripts would basically write themselves. Come on, Netflix!

Friday 5: October 6 Through 10

The first week of October is National Customer Service Week in the United States and Kenya. Where have you received especially good customer service?

Flying Scandinavian Air Services (or whatever SAS actually stands for) is always a treat. But that said, I value price over comfort in air travel, and Norwegian wins on that front. And they’re pretty good for a budget airline. Skimpy meal service (but I hate eating on planes anyway—the food is okay but it’s just so cramped), but the planes are new and comfortable.

People having a really good time at a noraebang in South Korea.
Noraebang! // PBS News Hour

Noraebangs (karaoke boxes) in Korea also are really good at customer service. One more than one occasion my friends and I received “service” items from the noraebang we were partying it up at: free beer, ice cream, or an extra half-hour of room rental.


The second Saturday in October was National Tree-Planting Day in Mongolia. When did you last do anything resembling tree-planting?

When you’re a teacher, every lesson is like planting a tree!

October 4 was World Animal Day (the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals). What’s an obscure animal you know a thing or two about?


Okapis are related to giraffes and, just like giraffes, have blue-black tongues. They’re also endangered, so maybe consider supporting okapi preservation as a holiday gift to yourself or others?

October 6 was National Poetry Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom. What’s a line of poetry that springs to mind now that you’re thinking about poetry?

I’ve been thinking about Karin Boye recently, so here:

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan  
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer
                              och det som stänger.

Ja nog är det svårt när droppar faller.
Skälvande av ängslan tungt de hänger,
klamrar sig vid kvisten, sväller, glider  -
tyngden drar dem neråt, hur de klänger.
Svårt att vara oviss, rädd och delad,
svårt att känna djupet dra och kalla,
ändå sitta kvar och bara darra  -
svårt att vilja stanna
                              och vilja falla.

Då, när det är värst och inget hjälper,
Brister som i jubel trädets knoppar.
Då, när ingen rädsla längre håller,
faller i ett glitter kvistens droppar
glömmer att de skrämdes av det nya
glömmer att de ängslades för färden  -
känner en sekund sin största trygghet,
vilar i den tillit
                              som skapar världen.

What’s in your pocket?

Nothing, because my pajamas don’t have pockets!

Book Review: Kris

It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.

This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.


Author: Karin Boye

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: N/A

Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.

Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.

In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)

Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.

ArmchairBEA, Day 1: Introduction

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!

I am . . .

Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.

Currently . . .

I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.

I love . . .

I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.

I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!

On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.

My favorite . . .

My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.

My least favorite . . .

My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.

My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.

My current read . . .

Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations:  Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.

My summer plans . . .

I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.

My buddy . . .

My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:

Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2009
Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2010

He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.

And now he’s getting married!

My blog/channel/social media . . .

The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.

The best . . .

The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.

Reflections on Stockholms Litteraturmässan, 2017

Happy Monday, everyone! I hope you had a lovely weekend. I spent mine (at least, my Saturday) at Stockholms Litteraturmässan. Last year I went alone, but this time, I managed to bring a friend along with me. This worked out for me—she very thoughtfully dropped by the panel on translation trends that I couldn’t make and picked up their rather snazzy-looking handout, so even if I missed the discussion I still have all of their data on translated literature. Not as fun as the discussion itself, but better than nothing.

The first thing I did was to hit the book market itself. While Stockholms Litteraturmässan has featured a wide range of salient conversations and presentations two years in a row now, it’s also clear that those presentations are directly tied to the promotion of at least some of the available books. Not that I want to fault them for making money; quite the opposite, actually. I grew up on a steady diet of Borders (RIP), Barnes & Noble, The Strand, and countless independent, local used bookstores all across the US: often large and almost infinitely browseable. Even in the age of they were doing well, or at least hanging on. For whatever reasons (economic, social, historical, geographical), such stores don’t exist here, by and large. (The English Book Shop and SF BokHandeln are notable exceptions and they have my undying loyalty forever.) For two days a year, the Litteraturmässan manages to fill that vacuum. Both times I’ve attended I’ve found something niche and fascinating (or just hard to come by) that I have yet to find anywhere else, and for that alone the event is worth it.

What makes Stockholms Litteraturmässan stand out, though, are the accompanying promotional-ish panels. The organization seems to cultivate an outward focus towards question of cultural intersections, politics, immigration, and global interconnectedness, both in the publishers and sellers featured in the market and in the books and writers they choose to promote. On the eve of the French election in a post-Trump milieu, these kinds of questions suddenly felt extra urgent.

The two panels I attended were the interview with Marlene Streeruwitz and the interview with Irena Brežna. Unlike last year, both of the panels I attended were conducted in English. A logical choice for an Austrian and Swiss-Slovak writer (Streeruwitz and Brežna, respectively) presenting in Sweden, but I should note that I didn’t deliberately gravitate towards the English presentations. 😉 I failed to take notes, so some general impressions.

Streeruwitz and Ihmels presented Smärtans ängel within the context of their new publishing house and organization writersreadwriters, which is coming out with other work aside from Streeruwitz’s that sounds exciting and vital. Their books are definitely going on my watch list. I failed to pick up Smärtans ängel at the event, but it looks to be available from Stockholms bibliotek. Good news for me!

The Swiss embassy seems to be very involved with this event. Their cultural liaison, Benita Funke, presented Brežna this year and was also a moderator in a discussion on contemporary women’s migrant literature from last year’s Litteraturmässan. It would be great to see other embassies join this project as well. Brežna herself was a warm and charming presenter.

Both Den otacksamma främlingen and Smärtans ängel are available from Stockholms bibliotek, so I look forward to reading them. As of yet, it appears that they lack an English translation, but I hope someone will come out with one soon! My German is a bit too rusty to tackle Austrian or Swiss German myself, alas.

Slipping, Halka, and How to Handle Ice

“Watch out! The stairs are slippery this morning.” A common refrain you hear on early winter mornings, at least in temperate climes.

Slippery and its sibilant initial consonant bring to mind (my mind, anyway) the smooth, easy (too easy) movement of feet or wheels; the squeak of rubber tires and soles on ice; the shhh-shhh of ice skate blades; the hisssss of a sneaky snake who slithers and slides on their belly. Overall, an appropriate sound for treacherous, untrustworthy conditions. Slippery invites a feeling of discomfort and the instinct to withdraw, avoid; to go on the defensive.

But in Swedish, the refrain is different. “Watch out! The stairs are halkig today.” And suddenly the half-formed images from the mists of my unconscious take an entirely different shape. It’s not the maleficent, ill-willed nature of the surface that hits me first, but the animated arm-waving of someone hailing a cab (which can be compared to the exaggerated gestures of a cartoon character on ice or an oil slick); an enthusiastic friend trying to catch my attention and yelling “halloo!”; the hearty guffaws of a “haw, haw, haw.” Suddenly, a halkig set of stairs doesn’t seem intimidating—merely comical, or at least well-meaning.

Cultural attitudes towards ice are different along similar lines, though I suspect that’s a mere accident of coincidence. In the US, sidewalks are thoroughly shoveled and salted; maybe not so much out of genuine concern for fellow beings as much as the fear of a negligence lawsuit. Whether it concerns physical or fiscal health, ice is most definitely a threat and treated as such. In Sweden, ice is a fact of life: a handful of gravel and some winter shoes with good traction (maybe paired with Nordic walking poles) is the national response to ice. Slips and slides aren’t threats, but as facts of life, mostly harmless and mostly comical.

Swedish, of course, has other near-synonyms for “slip” that also begin with a sneaky sibilant “S.” To smyga is to steal away like a creeping thief or a con artist*; to slinka is to sneak off like a guilty child hoping to avoid punishment. But it’s halkig (and its corresponding verb, att halka) that’s reserved for the trials and tribulations of trying to get anywhere after a winter storm.

Watch out! Those stairs are halkig!


*And can we all stop and appreciate smyga‘s close resemblance to Sméagol, the name of the hobbit who became Gollum? It might be mere coincidence, or it might be the result of Nordic mythology’s influence on The Lord of the Rings. (I should note, however, that Tolkien was much more enamored of Finnish, and to a lesser extent Old Norse, than he was of contemporary Swedish. So the most likely explanation is just pure chance.)

Things I Talk About With JV: Odyssey and Adventure

11I moved to Sweden to be with JV, my long-term, long-distance partner. (The agonization I have over that particular word choice [“partner”] is worth another blog post, but not today.) He’s fluent in English and Swedish, and something like conversant in Dutch and Japanese. We mostly use English together, and we talk a lot about words.


The other day the topic of 2001: A Space Odyssey came up. I forget why, or whether we were speaking English or Swedish, but he mentioned the Swedish title: 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr.

“‘Ett rymdäventyr’? That’s kind of a crummy translation. It’s not a space adventure. That’s like some Buck Rogers stuff. You couldn’t just use ‘odyssey’ in Swedish?” I thought it over for a second and hazarded a guess. “Odysseyen?”

“I don’t know. The original Odyssey is an adventure, after all.”

“Yeah, but it’s also serious? Dramatic? Epic? An adventure isn’t necessarily those things. When we call something an odyssey in English, it’s usually something epic, or at least long.”

“I guess so. Huh.”

I looked it up just now, and if Swedish Wikipedia is anything to go by, it seems that the movie is indeed called 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr, but Clarke’s novel is 2001 – En rymdodyssé.


Do you think there’s a difference between “adventure” and “odyssey”? How is 2001: A Space Odyssey translated in your native language? Is it like Swedish, where there’s more than one translation?

Translation, Editing, and Voice

I’ve written before about my secret dreams of becoming a translator. (I guess that makes them not so secret anymore.) Truthfully, there is some amount of translation that I do as an editor; many of the projects I work on are from EFL writers, and oftentimes in these cases, editing becomes the translation of the idea or concept that they’ve described into how a typical native speaker might phrase it. This is not to suggest that the manuscripts I work with are garbled messes. They are not! But there are levels of flow and idea organization that can be difficult to achieve in a foreign language–I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I look anything of at least some complexity that I’ve written in Swedish and think about how it would be translated back into English, the result is never a perfect alignment with what I originally had in mind. In fact, it’s often clunky and childish. The struggle is real.

The question is trickier when the English is not clunky or ambiguous; when it sounds like how a native or fluent speaker would actually phrase something; when not only the meaning but the stylistic intention is clear. Is this repetition of a word deliberate, or is it because the writer couldn’t quite reach for an acceptable synonym? Is this unorthodox usage intentional, or is it the result of a misunderstanding? (My Swedish friends will tell you that I default to menar (“mean” as in “intend”) instead of betyder (“mean” as in a neutral dictionary definition or logical consequence). While one could interpret this idiosyncrasy as a poetic attempt to give words or sentences souls and wills of their own, since that’s not entirely impossible to imagine, the truthful answer is that menar is just closer to “mean” and so that’s the one I hit upon when speaking.)

Generally speaking, I prefer to think of my editing as minimally invasive, especially when it comes to EFL clients. In my opinion, as long as your writing successfully communicates your intention, without ambiguity, unintended double entendre, or distracting word choices, then I will leave it untouched. I’m more than happy to recommend style guides and the like if you want to work on developing your English voice–but I want it to be your voice, not mine.

In my undergrad years, I took a fair amount of writing workshop courses. The final project in one of them was to re-read the entire corpus of work a given classmate had produced over the semester and write a little blurb on them and their style, as well as provide detailed, private feedback on their work overall (as opposed to the feedback provided publicly in workshop sessions). We didn’t get to pick our partners for this assignment; this was a mandate from the professor. To this day I’m not sure if it was a random selection or a deliberate pairing, or something in between.

I remember the classmate I was assigned fairly well, and the general tone of his work (abstract, experimental). I might have used the words “ethereal,” “dream-like,” and “otherworldly.” But what I remember really well is what he said about my writing: that I had a really distinctive voice, and that even without looking at the name on the piece he could tell which submission was mine. He phrased it as a negative, and while at the time I was a bit miffed that he thought that was a bad thing, years later I finally understand that it’s rightfully a mixed blessing, especially when editing.

(That “distinctive voice” all but disappears when blogging; apparently I can only coax it out in the privacy of work that never has to see the light of day. As a result, I rarely feel like myself online. But anyway.)

The urge to go to town on a manuscript and move things around to how I would say them would be overwhelming if I ever let it out. In that respect, I’m like an editing Hulk. Or, more appropriately, when I edit, I’m Bruce Banner: by focusing purely on meaning and (sometimes) flow, I keep the HULK REWRITE urge at bay. I stay the mild-mannered word nerd and let your writing take the spotlight, for better and for worse.

Image courtesy Eneas de Troya

I have been known to let the Hulk out, but only after people have explicitly asked me to do so. I recognize that writing, especially creative writing, is personal. There needs to be a level of trust and openness between writer and editor before those kinds of changes should even be on the table. The best creative writing comes from places of vulnerability and uncertainty; if you can’t be vulnerable and uncertain, the writing will fizzle out.

Why I Still Study Foreign Languages

I’ve always been interested in foreign languages — my electives in high school were essentially all the music and foreign language classes I could fit in my schedule — so it’s not surprising that I would fall into teaching as a career.

I’ve made oblique references to studying Russian and Swedish elsewhere; I’ve also studied, in increasing order of fluency, Korean, German, and French. If you peek at my DuoLingo profile, you can see that I’ve also dipped my toes into Turkish. (It’s been a while with that one; I wouldn’t claim any kind of proficiency or knowledge.) While I’m just plain interested in languages, I think it’s important for language teachers to keep up their own language studies throughout their careers.

Image courtesy Hans Hillewaert.
Image courtesy Hans Hillewaert.

1. You can understand your students better.

If nothing else, when you have a better understanding of your students’ mother tongue, you can better understand where there might be L1 interference or confusion. My Korean students and friends, for example, often would use the verb “play” in a manner that, while not technically wrong, sounded odd, especially coming from someone older than 10. (“How was your weekend?” “It was good, I played with some friends.”) If I didn’t know any better, I would just be confused or annoyed by this persistent pattern in Korean English. But it’s an idiosyncrasy that’s a lot easier to understand because I know (a little bit) about Korean.

As it turns out, in Korean you can use the verb “to play” for everything from schoolyard games to company dinners (놀다) to just shooting the shit in the park, whereas in English we quickly outgrow it unless it’s in the context of a sport or a musical instrument. I hope that, if I taught my teenage Korean students nothing else, I got them to start using “hang out with” instead of “play with” when talking about their weekends.

2. You can remember what it’s like to be a student.

After a few years of pedagogical training and work, it can be really easy to fall prey to teacher hubris. Being a beginner again helps foster a sense of empathy with your students and their own struggles.

3. You can learn to be a better teacher.

This one is a little tricky if you’re not actually taking a class, but you can probably still be inspired by a good textbook or workbook. While there is plenty of EFL material written by plenty of highly qualified EFL experts, English isn’t the only language out there. The more you can branch out into other languages, the greater pool of inspiration you have to draw from. Maybe the worksheet you did for French is the perfect thing to adapt to your direct object lesson next week, and so on.

4. Your students can feel more comfortable with you.

Many argue for the immersive “target language only” philosophy; this is the approach I was taught when I did my CELTA. While I agree that the immersive (or faux-immersive) environment can be exactly the challenging situation that a lot of students need, and that it sometimes is the best practical situation (e.g. a class of international students who don’t all share the same mother tongue), I don’t think it’s always entirely appropriate. Some students are shy, or not quite confident in the target language–sometimes just knowing that they can ask a clarifying question or use a word in their mother tongue is the Dumbo’s feather that they need to take productive learning risks. The more languages you know at least a little bit about, the more students you can reach.

So I study languages for all of these reasons, but also just because it’s something I’m interested in. I’m not the most diligent student, I’ll admit, but I still make an effort. I’ll get into my own study habits and schedule in another post. But for now, I’ll leave things here.