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critical failure

i had my first taste of linguistic humiliation yesterday. i. am. so. disappointed. in. myself.

yesterday was the day i finally made a trip to librairie michel fortin, a bookstore dedicated entirely to the wonder of languages and language learning. it's a mecca of instructional books of all sorts, for all levels, and on different themes. you can find exercise books, common phrase books, books with audio cds [and a couple with download codes, which is surely the way to go]. there are massive sections on french, english, spanish and italian, with chinese and arabic not far behind. but you can also find breton, basque and mongolian. and on top of that, there are books of fiction and poetry you may know only in translation. and for those who crave something a little more direct, there are also books about insulting people and making out in different languages. it is packed to the rafters with awesome.

as i was browsing, i noticed that there was a book that combined learning of romance languages [french, spanish, italian, portuguese] from english- basically, since the grammatical structure and much of the vocabulary is similar between them, you can just work them together. since i've already established a base in french, spanish and italian, i didn't feel the need to need to pick the book up just so that i could learn to insult antichrist jose mourinho in his native tongue. sadly, i'll probably never be close enough to him to act on that obsession urge.

but what did occur to me was that there might be a similar book for scandinavian languages. since i've started learning swedish, i figured maybe it would be fun to have a guide on hand to help me learn the equivalent words/ phrases/ pronunciation in danish and norwegian. after all, those languages are so close that people debate whether they're even separate languages, or a continuum, since each one breaks down into slightly different dialects within the country [norwegian on its own is basically two languages]. or, to put it more simply, the scandinavian languages are a whole lot closer to one another than the romance languages.

i did not find one, but i figured i could ask one of the friendly staff. i explained what i was looking for, and that i'd been learning swedish, at which point the man helping me flipped from french to perfect swedish "ah, du talar svenska?"

and i froze. i know the verb 'to learn: 'låra sig'. i know the word for 'little': 'litet'. i could have said things that involved those words. but instead i stood there and very slowly squeezed out the words 'ja... jag... talar...' at which point the kind gentleman switched back to french. i was devastated. this was my very first opportunity to try out one of my spiffy new languages and i failed utterly. i wanted to sink into the floor.

there was, in fact, a book just like the one that i wanted, but it was out of stock, and the publisher had a minimum order requirement, so, while they could special order it for me, they would have to wait until they were doing an order from that supplier. but they reassured me that this happened regularly, so it wouldn't be too long a wait. this whole time, i'm trying to think of something intelligent to say in swedish, so that i don't look like a complete idiot for saying that i was learning it, but all that's coming to mind is 'jag ser ut som en älg', which means 'i look like a moose'. which, i realised, was worse than saying nothing at all. so i thought it best to bite my tongue.

that is, until i left the order desk and thought that the least i could do was say thanks in the language i was supposedly able to speak. i burst out with 'dank je wel!', as confidently as i could manage. i was halfway across the floor when i realised that 'dank je wel' is dutch. swedish for 'thanks very much' is 'tack så mycket'. waves of shame.

i continued to browse, dead set on looking for books on languages i knew absolutely nothing about, so that i wouldn't be tempted to try to show off. a few minutes later, the helpful man came up to show me a box of swedish fridge poetry that they had. i guess so that i could learn at least one more word. [seriously, how awesome is the idea of swedish fridge poetry?]

reflecting on it later, part of the problem might have been that i was switching to french, which is not my native language. [earlier this week, i told a guest we were looking to move some of the furniture around in our 'foyer', which in french means 'fireplace'. i still managed the rest of the conversation, but that's the kind of mistake i still make, even though i've spoken french for years.] so maybe my brain just got overloaded trying to switch from a second language to a third. maybe if i'd switched from english- so similar to swedish in a lot of respects- it would have been easier. but that doesn't matter in the end.

i'd had my chance and i melted down.

this doesn't dim my enthusiasm, of course. i know if i keep practicing, i can do better. i mean, if i can shake off telling people i'm moving furniture around in the fireplace, i can do better than stammering out three words and choking. and the store itself is wonderful [many thanks to martin for his exceptional patience as i browsed for more than an hour], so i will definitely be returning. i just might be wearing a disguise when i do so. 

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