KemiA00: the socio-linguistic experiment

Kväve. Syre. Col. Fosfor. Selen. Väte. Brom. Volfram. And my favorite: Kviksilver.

As I like awake in bed at night, the litany of names in the Periodiska Sytemet marches through my brain. Crom. Vanadin. Järn. Zirkronium… and all of a sudden I realize I am in for the challenge of a lifetime.

I signed up for Chemistry in Swedish. Suddenly, my ability to communicate and understand the world around me was reduced to that of a one-year-old child, an adult gorilla, or a very, very smart Labrador retriever.

It has been exactly one week since I moved into Parentesen. However, to quote a blog by a former UC-Lund exchange student that has been helpful to me in figuring this whole thing out, “it feels like a month.” One week, one week, one week-and what can I say? I am doing alright, I am doing a lot, and I am realizing that Swedish isn’t as easy as it was back in Carl’s Svenska 1A. But I am stubborn, and despite all odds, all non-existent language barriers, and possibly all reason, I will learn this language. I don’t know why I am obsessed with this goal; everyone here speaks perfect, beautiful English. There happens to be an unfortunate rule that the UC Study Center only allows students to take Swedish courses through the Folkuniversitet (city college) rather than the University. And that costs $800. Which means that without a job here in Sweden, this is not really an option for me. Looks like I’m going to have to do this with my own blood and sweat and tears and awkward encounters. But mark my words, I tell you. Jag SKA lära mig svenska. Mark my words. Lyssna på vad jag säger.

That’s why I signed up for KEMIA00 ( man säger: ‘shem-ee aahhh nul-nul’). Making the decision was a sort of watershed moment for me. When I got here, none of my classes had been approved by the departments, so I spent a long time walking around LTH (Lunds teckniska högskola-you can guess what it means) in a daze, caught between Fysicum and Kemicentrum and Kårhuset, and a very bemusing statue of Tycho Brahe. Somehow, out of the grace of God or Science or both, I ended up in the office of the professor of KEMIA00. I need this class for my double-major in Geophysics, but I have been loath to take it at Berkeley because it is a lower-level course that is generally over-populated with pre-meds. So I thought: ‘Here is my chance to take Chem 1A. Here is my chance to learn Swedish’. Here goes nothing. “Hej, jag heter A….. (in Swedish I have a hard time pronouncing my own name)…jag är utbytestundent och jag läser fysik vid Berkeley i Californien. Och jag skulle vilja ta KEMIA00.”

Fast forward to this morning (and by morning I mean 12:15 pm). I sat in a class full of Swedish people. I listened to the teacher explain the syllabus, the lab schedule, and the exams in Swedish. I saw an Asian guy in the row in front of my and prayed he was an international student. He wasn’t. I spent 110 Kronor on a Lab reader. I learned about lab safety. I didn’t understand everything. That’s probably not a good thing.

But you know what: I had the time of my life.

I have been thinking a lot about this all day today (there is a lot of thinking to be done in Sweden). Being in a class where the language of instruction is not my native language is something I have never had to encounter in my academic lifetime. As some of you know, I have a strong interest in bi-lingual education. Coming from California, I have been in classes with many people whose native language is not the language of instruction-but never have I stood in their shoes. The past few years I have actually thought a lot about the way language is taught to English learners in American schools—should Spanish and English be taught simultaneously? When should English learners be integrated into classes with native speakers (or should they ever be separated?)? Why is our school system so, so, so inefficient at teaching foreign languages to native English speakers? And, how many truly brilliant kids with non-English backgrounds simply slip through the cracks?

Today, as I sat alone in lecture hall full of 150 people, struggling to understand the language (let alone the material that was actually being conveyed), I finally found myself in the position that so many children in California find themselves in every day. And it dawned on me that, perhaps, a lot of the people who designed our monster of an educational system haven’t been there.

Like I said before, this will probably be one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. Yup, right up there with the Berkeley home road race and Quantum Mechanics ($#@!). But for me at least, the things that are the most challenging are also the most rewarding. Throughout this ordeal, I hope to learn a lot. And not just about Väte or kväve or Col or even Kviksilver, but about, well, everything.


More on what I am doing in the tangible world to come later—when I am in a far less abstract mood.

Which is somewhat ironic, because “mood” is an abstraction.

I think I’ll go to sleep now.


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3 Responses to “KemiA00: the socio-linguistic experiment”

  1. Alia Says:

    Arielle, you’re ballsier than I could hope to be in my wildest monolingual fantasies; I’m so impressed. You got this — you’re a cyclist; that means you love to suffer!

    I have the same questions about California schools — at one point, the district I work for had me administer the state-standardized ESL test, and it was equal parts fascinating and tragic (long version here: Now I spend a lot of time eating lunch in the staff room and eavesdropping on all the ridiculous ways public schools classify and re-classify language learners to inflate their test scores. Lovely.

    Good luck with the chemistry. It sounds like a good opportunity to make lots of Swedish study-buddy friends!

  2. tornspira Says:

    Thanks Alia- your vote of confidence means a lot. I read your post about the language testing. Learning a language really is hard to quantify, especially in the context of public schools. It makes me wonder about the appropriateness of State standards in education. What do they really tell us about the level the kids are at, especially when in a state as huge and diverse as California, where kids come from so many different backgrounds? And, especially when teachers are inflating the scores? That seems like a clear vote of no confidence in the test.

    Anywho- I’ll keep posting about the Chem class- some days it is great and some days it is really, really hard ( I have to wake up before the sun and then ride my unintentionally fixed-gear bike through the snow to get to the building on time!*)

    *Uphill both ways.**
    **just kidding.

  3. Le lingua franca « the daily saga Says:

    […] spent the last 20 minutes speaking to me in near perfect English, pick up the phone and to order Hélium or to ask for the beam in French. I’d, personally, just like to be able to buy my bus […]

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