My Story - Lisa ‘Gitte’ Sethre-Hofstad
Published: September 24, 2017
Where in the world will your learning take you?
By Lisa Sethre-Hofstad
You never know where your learning will take you. What began for me as a glimpse into my past became a driver for my future.
Thirty years ago, as a first-year student at Concordia College, I enrolled in Norwegian 111. To be honest, my reasons for doing so weren’t grounded in academic aspirations. I took the class because I needed a language credit, and because my family’s heritage was Norwegian. How much fun would it be, I thought, to speak with my grandparents in Norwegian? As it turned out, I fell in love with learning Norwegian, and my language learning adventure turned into a job as business manager at Skogfjorden for three summers. Not only was Norwegian an influential part of my family’s past, it turned out to pave the way for my family’s future as well.
Language learning opened up a world to me in unexpected ways. First, I developed a richer understanding of the human experience through (non-shared) words. Although I had traveled and lived abroad prior to college, those experiences had been conducted in English. I was fairly confident in my ability to recognize the need to communicate with others, and I knew how to navigate and respect difference. What I failed to realize was that, until I was immersed in it, learning a new language would help me think better in my native language, help me consider the importance of words to reflect on the human experience, and help me learn empathy and compassion, all things that were related to what I was learning in my Psychology major. As I made my way through first-year Norwegian, questions about “why do we say it that way?” emerged on a daily basis, and I discovered that sometimes finding the “right” word to express an emotional experience is easier in a language other than your native one. For example, there’s no word quite like “koselig”, is there? Once I share the deep, rich meaning of koselig with my English-only speaking friends, they too love that word. One friend even named her Minnesota lake cabin “Koselig”, and it captures the essence of her space beautifully. So, first-year college-level language learning helped deepen my understanding about what it means to be human, and it gave me new words from which to draw meaning in that understanding.
But my learning didn’t end there. In fact, little did I know, it was just beginning. I ultimately studied Norwegian throughout college, added a Scandinavian Studies major to my undergraduate portfolio, and eventually went on to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology. In 2003, I packed up my family and we moved to Norway, where I was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Tromsø. My study of Norwegian AND Psychology had come together in a way that would have been hard to predict years prior. By now, it had been nearly 12 years since I had spoken very much Norwegian at all. And was I nervous! Would I remember anything? Would anyone understand me? Was all that language study in college a waste of time? The answer came soon, and was a resounding NO.
Now, learning language is one thing, but living abroad in a place where that language learning would become more real is quite another. My kids just dove right in, and quickly absorbed both vocabulary and grammatical structure in ways that astounded me. I watched their skill develop and began to think more about language fluency as we proceeded through the year. But it was a specific and profound experience that leads me to my second point. And it is this: the assumptions we make about others based on language skill is often flawed and inaccurate. And, I have come to believe that this tendency to assume is more important than ever to recognize as we navigate a world that is more (electronically) connected than ever, while simultaneously disconnected in navigating (face-to-face) difference. Children manage this quite well, actually. It’s the adults who struggle.
Allow me to illustrate with a story. Living in Norway and learning to navigate life on a daily basis, including bus drivers, grocery stores, teachers at school, and the neighbors down the street, was challenging even on my best days. Making oneself understood, in the ways you desire, without the vocabulary size you have in your native tongue, is humbling. One day in particular I struggled to find the words to speak with a physician about one of my children. In my effort to be a caring Mom, I couldn’t find the words to adequately describe what I believe was needed in this situation. I remember two things about how I felt in that moment. The first was that I was very aware my spoken words didn’t reflect the knowledge I had in my head about this topic, and it was excruciating and frustrating. The second was when the doctor became impatient with me, and I felt inadequate as a parent working to secure care for my sick child. The point of that story is this: if after you have worked and studied the language you still struggle to find the words, you become more aware of others around you who have done the same. The words coming out of one’s mouth may not reflect the knowledge in their head. This experience, painful at the time, has given me the compassion to offer grace to my worldly neighbor who struggles to find the words in a non-native tongue, to those for whom English is not a native language. I’d like to think I would have cultivated communication compassion without that experience, and perhaps I would have done so. But what is definitely true is that how I felt during that time has profoundly stayed with me for over 13 years. I never want to be the person who grows impatient and makes another person feel inadequate over the lack of words to describe a powerful circumstance. For it is through our knowledge and stories that we come together in community, even if we sometimes can’t find the right words.
To close, learning language has profoundly changed my life. What Norwegian 111 set into motion back in 1987 I could never have imagined. Originally an opportunity set on speaking with my grandparents turned into a transformational experience that I live into each and every day. My whole family speaks Norwegian. Our kids were villagers at Skogfjorden for a combined 18 years, and our daughter just completed her first year on staff. We have been back to Norway since living there, and our son is now studying abroad in his junior year of college. And, most importantly, the learning extended well beyond vocab and vafler. Learning a language enveloped me with the care and compassion needed to influence our modern world, a world defined by a common human experience, even if we use different words to communicate that experience.