The fact that most Swedes speak English with near-native fluency is both a blessing and a curse. It's great if you're a first-time visitor to Stockholm and can stop almost anyone between the ages of nine and 99 to ask for directions to the Old Town. But trying to learn Swedish is difficult because you can always revert to English.
Charlotte West shares her Swedish language learning experiences. Photo: Alexander Mitelman
I arrived in Sweden in August 2002 armed with Prisma's Abridged English-Swedish and Swedish-English Dictionary and an eight-week intensive Swedish course from the University of California at Berkeley behind me. Four years later, the dog eared dictionary has grammar notes scribbled in the margins and I have become a fluent Swedish speaker, more or less.
Swedish Word of the Day
The process of learning Swedish was not entirely painless. I once asked my hairdresser if she had time to put "flingor" in my hair. Turns out, the word I really wanted was "slingor," for "highlights." Instead, I had asked her to put breakfast cereal in my hair.
A big part of the reason I speak Swedish as well as I do now is that I quickly met Swedish friends who were willing to help me practice. One of our techniques was keeping track of our "Swedish Word of the Day” on a list tacked to the kitchen cupboard.
West kept a "Swedish Word of the Day" list in her kitchen — a very efficient learning technique.
I came across the list a few months ago while sorting through some old papers. It was fun not only to see how far my Swedish has progressed, but it also provided a record of the conversations we had around the dinner table in our shared apartment. The list helped me learn practical vocabulary, including portkod (door code), osthyvel (cheese slicer) and benvärmare (legwarmers).
An insider’s perspective
In Sweden it’s rare to be in a situation where you are forced to speak Swedish to be understood.
"Of non-native speakers, Swedes have one of the highest levels of fluency in English, particularly in conversation," says Bryan Mosey, a British colleague of mine in Stockholm. "It's what I as a linguist would define as a second rather than a foreign language."
Despite Swedes’ fluency in English, learning Swedish was one of my goals from the moment I stepped off the plane at Arlanda Airport. Speaking the language of my host country has been the difference between being a perpetual outsider and feeling at home. It’s not just being able to order a cup of coffee without the cashier automatically switching to English when she hears an American accent. It also means that my environment becomes comprehensible.
Language learning as cultural insight
"There's a process of automation in language learning,” Mosey says. “When we start learning a new language, we have to actively think about what we are saying. Gradually, we achieve a level of fluency that requires less effort — perhaps this enhances the perception of being 'more at home'.
Mosey explains that learning a new language adds value to your cultural experience. Photo: Charlotte West
"I know that a lot of English speakers live here a long time without learning Swedish, and you can certainly do that. But learning the language allows one to experience the culture from within."
Priceless Swedish anecdotes
Speaking Swedish has unlocked several personal and professional doors for me. On a personal level, learning a foreign language (and blunders one makes while doing so) is something to which many people can relate. The topic has more than once served as an ice breaker when meeting new people — Swedes and other foreigners alike.
The anecdotes are endless… and often priceless. A Swedish flatmate once said to me and my English friend that his brother in Lappland makes “blankets.” We both imagined his brother making handcrafted quilts. The guy then explained that his brother worked for an IT company, not for a linen manufacturer and that was how we discovered that the Swedish word for “application” is “blankett.” His brother makes online questionnaires.
Learning the language has also been a good career move. I have worked on projects translating text from Swedish to English, and as a freelance writer, speaking Swedish has allowed me to communicate with interviewees on their own terms.
But there’s still a way to go. I think it’s physically impossible for my lips to form the right shape to correctly pronounce the Swedish word for seven: sju. It sounds almost like “shoe,” but not quite. I'll let you know when I get it right.
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Charlotte West is a 26-year-old American-in-exile who recently celebrated her fourth year of living in Sweden’s capital city. When she’s not studying Swedish, she works as an editor and freelance writer.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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