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Linguistic Tourism: Starting a word log with ‘Cultural Tokens’

by Dawn Field

Have you ever travelled to a country where the language is new to you? As you started to listen and look around you, did words jump out at you? The first words we recognize and come to learn in a new culture are cultural tokens.

If you wisely take the time to collect them up in a word log, they offer a great memory of a trip, much like a photo album or a scrapbook.

A word log is what it sounds like – a log of the words you learned, recorded in the order in which they were acquired. Your word log is made by you for you and tracks your experiences and interactions along your journey.

A word log is really a a special kind of diary.

As you look back on your word log, words will trigger memories of a place or a conversation, or the time you had to stop and look up a word you saw on a sign or on a jar of something that looked tasty in a shop or on the menu of a food stall. By capturing such interesting words you also help preserve the highlights of your trip.

A word log for first-time visitors to Sweden

While the first words you run into on a trip might be different from the next person, here are a suggested set of ‘the first 20’ that if you try to learn beforehand, might help you during your stay. The exact set for any language or country will vary in detail but will be the same in general. Cultural tokens include words like greetings, signs you regularly see, or famous foods.

The word log below is for those with going to Sweden and contains Swedish words for tourists, but this template could be used to ‘collect up’ key words in any language on a visit anywhere.

These are words, as opposed to survival phrases. They won’t help you communicate, except in the sense that you are showing you are trying to show a cultural awareness and appreciation for being there as a visitor. While some you can speak, many you will want to be able to read.

The first word you should learn in any language ... and the next 19

Far and away the single most important word to learn first in any language is ... so obvious once you think about it for a second.

You might think it’s a greeting, or how to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but it’s even more useful. This one gets you the farthest of all possible word in terms of showing locals you mean well and appreciate to visit their country. It shows you are at aware of their language and culture and trying at least to fit in. When you are shopping, sightseeing or being helped by friendly locals, it is the word you must know. You just have to remember to always say it when it is deserved.

This number one word on any language learning list is: thank you

When you are learning a language, you’ll realize that it’s also important to pick up the context of any words you use.

In any language, there will be rules governing formality. While English is a quite casual language, there is still a difference between forms of thank you, and they are all situational. You don’t usually interchange thx, thanks, thank you, and thank you very much. Thx is only used in written form and the last version is an extremely formal, superlative form.

In Swedish, ‘tack’ is thanks and thank you, but the more formal, full form is tack så mycket, or thank you very much.

As you pick up more Swedish, it helps to know that mycket is very and is so. Thus, the literal translation is thank you so much, also a common variant in English.

Greetings

The next words are the greetings. At the very beginning of learning any language come hello and goodbye. In Swedish, this turns out to be very easy because one constantly hears hej and hej då for hello and goodbye. In some languages, picking up the right greetings might turn out to be a more complex set of phrases based on what time of day it is, or other cultural factors, but in Sweden, knowing these two gets you by perfectly.

Yes and No

Yes and no are two words super common in any conversational context. They, like all the ‘absolute beginner words’, go a long way towards showing you are at least trying. Saying them can make all the difference in terms of good will even though a nod or headshake will do the job just as well, and in Sweden it seems everyone speaks wonderful English. Yes and no in Swedish are ja and nej.

Country and Language

We were surprised how often the words Svenska and Sverige, the words for Swedish and Sweden, appeared around us. Sometimes the important words around you aren’t the ones you speak but the ones you read. As a visitor to a new place its super obvious to put at the top of your word log the local name of that country and its language.

Signs

We see signs everywhere and some signs are more common than others. In Sweden, signs on doors that stood out immediately were dams from herr, or ladies and mens bathrooms and tryck and drag on doors letting us know to push or pull.

Three other words we learned straight off were barn, vuxen, and här. Sweden is very family and child friendly, and so one encounters barn, or child, innumerable times. Vuxen means adult. Here is also are unusually common in signs as well.

Food

Now comes the fun part: learning words that get you the best local food. This is really about culture and trying to absorb the best and most unique aspects of it. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You’ll want to track down and eat national dish(es). In Sweden, cinnamon rolls, are a core part of the wonderful custom of fika, which means stopping for coffee and cakes. The other obvious favorite is meatballs. So, try to enjoy kanelbullar at fika and köttbullar for dinner – or perhaps both on a trip to IKEA, where kanelbullar and köttbullar are a staple on the menu.

Locations

You’ll also be dealing in place names. You’ll need to know the names of your touristic destinations and in them sometimes cultural reference crop up. One word that stood out for us in Sverige was stan, which often occurs at the end of place names. In Svenska, it means city. One of the most famous and beautiful examples is Gamla Stan found in the heart of Stockholm. Gamla Stan is the ‘Old City’, with Gamla meaning old. Gamla Stan is a must see if you visit the capital city of Sverige.

High Frequency words

Some words just appear all over. You can’t quite say what they’ll be in any given place, but once you are on the ground there, you and some words quickly will become friends. On our trip, we found bra and nu, or good and now, cropping up unexpectedly often. Being able to read bra in so many places in print and on signs just helped lend us a sense of growing familiarity with Sweden and knowing nu is what you need to get off at your tram stop.

Expanding your Word Log

These words are cultural tokens, the same bringing back a recipe for kanelbullar or köttbullar or having fika once you are back home, but they are also the start of seriously learning a language.

Once your word log is started, the sky’s the limit! Over time, the effort you make to learn the local language will show in the breadth and depth of the word log you create.

While a word list can just be a memory of a great trip, it can also be the start of seriously learning a language. Whether you set out to learn to speak it, or just to read it, your word log if your own personal reference source and learning tool.

Managing your words online in digital form means you can access them from anywhere (when you have Internet) and they are saved in perpetuity.

Spreadsheets are a superb way to keep up with all you know because having lists of words and definitions makes it easy to build and extend your whole vocabulary, making sure you don’t let any of it fade away with time. It’s been five years, and you are heading back to Spain? There’s your whole Spanish corpus ready for you, and since you learned it once, you’ll load it back up into memory in a flash.

Managing your word acquisition in a spreadsheet form also has a second big win. You can use a single click to get it working in a flashcard system, such as Quizlet to hear the pronunciation.

A third major advantage of this approach is that your words are entered on a need-to-know basis. You enter them as you need them, meaning you go from easy to harder, and they are all situational – you came into contact with them somewhere in your real activities. None of the words on an active word log are ‘theory’ – they have all been acquired for a purpose. Maybe one of your first local words is that for ‘bungee-jumping’ if that’s what you are there for!

Swedish Word Log: ‘Cultural Tokens’ (hear the words here in this Quizlet deck of flashcards). The first part of the list contains spoken words you’ll hear most frequency and the rest are words you see around you on signs or menus that you’ll want to be able to recognize.

Word Translation Contextual Notes
tack så mycket thank you very much tack is thank you more informal, and adding så mycket makes it more heartfelt and formal
hej! hello hear it all the time!
hej då goodbye hear it all the time!
ja yes hear it all the time!
nej no hear it often!hear it all the time!
svenska Swedish The language and culture
sverige Sweden The country
dam womens what you’ll see on the bathroom door for ’women’
herr mens what you’ll see on the bathroom door for ’men’
tryck push as in, what you do with doors - they swing in or out, push or pull
drag pull as in, what you do with doors - they swing in or out, push or pull
barn child see it everywhere, like barnmeny - for children’s menu, Sweden is very child friendly, so it’s more common than you might think in public spaces (on signs)
vuxen adult good to know child and adult when you are buying tickets, like on the tram
här here you’ll see this a lot on instructional signs, like open here: öppna här
köttbullar Swedish meatballs Kött is meat and bullar is ball
kanelbullar cinammon rolls Kanel is cinnamon and bullar is ball
fika fika coffee break with cakes and good things to eat - truly Swedish experience to enjoy!
stan city As in Gamla Stan the ‘Old City’ in Stockholm
bra good very commonly used
nu now for example: on the tram, the current stop will be marked ’nu’

About the writer

Dawn Field is Lamberg International Guest Professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at Göteborg University in Sweden.

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