Secret Code: Are Swedes trying to keep Swedish to themselves?

As I’ve mentioned many times, most Swedish people speak perfect English and they love doing it.

It’s the opposite of French people. The French can speak English with you but they don’t want to. The Swedes only want to speak English with you.

As soon as you say “hej” (hello) or “jag heter…” (my name is…) with the slightest bit of an accent, they get this surprised look on their faces and switch to English. “Oh, hello! Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”

It’s as if they’re saying to you, “Please don’t bother butchering our beloved Swedish any further. I can handle this.”

On the off chance that one could actually use any of the Swedish they know, the Swedes are exceptionally particular about pronunciation and intonation. I know this not only from my own experiences, but also from other international people here who I have heard discussing the same experiences.

“It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it.” That’s as true as it gets here.

Every language has its own accented attributes that one must learn along with syllable stressing and sentence structures. Even when someone’s pronunciation is perfect, these subtleties are the things that reveal a non-native speaker.

Swedish is not as easy as German where every letter makes a sound and you can be understood even if your emphasis or pronunciation is a little off. With Swedish, there’s an overriding, flowing rhythm of accentuation to the language. It’s like there’s a song that everything you say should be sung to.

In Swedish, everyday conversation is a gorgeous, dynamic production.

I’m not the first person to equate the Swedish language with singing. Even the stereotypical Swedes known by Americans in popular culture sing when they talk. The Swedish Chef character on The Muppet Show never stops singing and even has music playing when he’s talking.

In the movie Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis hilariously disguises herself as a “Swede” and sings her lines, including the unforgettable “I am Inga from Sweden.”

Until you know the song of the language and can really sing it, it’s almost pointless to embarrass yourself by trying.

It’s like doing karaoke to a song you don’t really know with Simon Cowell sitting right in front of you.

There might be some connection here that would explain why Swedes deliver the goods during actual karaoke and why the country can claim a disproportionately high number of musicians with gold records hanging in their studios. Singing might be in their blood as well as in their language.

A British bloke I know here named Simon (not Simon Cowell) put it this way, “This is what I hate about Swedish people: They’re so bloody good at everything!” …and they’re modest and insecure about all of it.

They speak perfect English but apologize for it not being good. They are beautiful but afraid to look at you. They’re educated and funny but apprehensive about talking out of turn. They sing drunk karaoke in a bar and it sounds exactly like the CD. How embarrassing.

The complications arise when someone who wasn’t born speaking Swedish tries to join in with the language. Swedish people act like they have no idea what you’re talking about if you’re just barely off on the intonation.

It would be like if someone said “LOO-see-ana” or “Loo-WEE-zee-anna” instead of Loo-WEE-see-ana” – of course an English-speaking person would still know they’re talking about Louisiana. Or if, instead of the hard, short way of saying “can’t” someone said it long and soft, as a British person might, “I caahn’t.”

English-speaking people understand when a Canadian pronounces “out” more like “oat” or when someone from India says “very” in a way that excuses the R sound. Some people say “Nevada” so it rhymes with “sad”, but for others it rhymes with “sod.” Nobody misses a beat because of it. We just go with the flow.

Swedes aren’t so permissive with Swedish. For some reason, Swedes are truly lost when a non-native speaker’s speech includes variations like these. I know they know what us feeble foreigners are trying to say, but I think they have some sort of secret national game going on. They’re laughing at us as soon as they’re alone.

Of course, I can’t really show you in print, but suffice it to say that what follows is not a situation isolated only to me or a handful of instances. The foreign person is in italics.

I finally tried some knäckebröd yesterday.
– You tried what?
Knäckebröd.
– I’m sorry…?
Knäkebröd… That really thin, hard, Swedish bread.
– Hmmm… I don’t think I know what that is.
Knäckebröd? Of course you know what knäckebröd is.
– Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying.
Knäckebröd? Knäääckebröd? KNĄCK-e-BR֖D. Kuh-näck-e-BR֖D? Thin, crispy bread. Knäckebröd!
– Oh! You mean Knäckebröd! Oh yeah. I’ve worked in the Wasa Knäckebröd factory for six years.

Notice in this conversation how the Swedish person makes knäckebröd for a living, but the non-native speaker had to repeat the name of it one million times before it was recognized, even resorting to all variations of stress and intonation.

After conversations like this happened to me a few dozen times, with all manner of words, I began to believe I was losing my mind. “Are these people serious? I can’t hear the difference.”

I cannot express the level of relief I felt upon hearing it happen to other people. I don’t wish anyone else to feel insane, but I also don’t want to be alone. What I also cannot express is how fascinating it is to see it happening to someone else. It goes like this:

The British person (or Canadian or German or Italian) is talking to the Swede about something. During the conversation, the name of a Swedish place or thing comes up. Everyone around who is not Swedish knows exactly what the person is talking about, but the Swede has absolutely no clue, and needs to have the word repeated. This goes on for a minute before every other foreigner standing around joins in, repeating the word. The Swede finally gets it and says “Oh, you mean Kungsholmen!” saying it exactly the same way as everyone else did.

While this phenomenon could easily be explained by saying that Swedes are more intimately familiar with their language and they can hear tiny nuances that non-native speakers are unaware of, personally, I’m totally convinced that’s not the case. I’m convinced that it is all a game the Swedes are playing to weed out the people who aren’t going to put in the serious time to learn Swedish.

I truly believe Swedes understand us the first time – or maybe the second – but they’re just trying to wear us down.

Well, it’s not gonna work on me, Sweden. I’m in this for the long haul.

Regardless of whether that theory is true, I’m starting to believe that one or two other things might be true.

1. The Swedish language is not as beloved by the younger generations as it is by the elders. The incidents of Swenglish – a hybrid of Swedish and English – are inescapable, as are the occurrences of English words in otherwise Swedish conversations. These moments are especially common among young people.

I’m fascinated by the English terms I always overhear in Swedish conversations – “whatever,” “Oh my God,” “fuck it,” “who cares?” Do these ideas of exasperation and dismissiveness not exist in Swedish?

I think it’s very possible that within a handful of generations, Swedish could become a minority language in Sweden. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this happen in Stockholm during many of our lifetimes. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but just barely.

Periodically, I go to an international meet-up group for ex-patriates living in Stockholm. I understand much more Swedish than some of the characters I’ve met who have been in the country two years or more.

I guess the more amazing part of this phenomenon is not that some people have lived in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish, it’s that people can live in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish.

In order to do business, make friends, purchase goods and services, or order food in restaurants, especially in Stockholm, knowing how to speak Swedish largely isn’t necessary. Nonetheless, I am determined to continue doing it.

There are many notable efforts afoot to celebrate, explore and preserve the Swedish language. I’ve heard a funny and entertaing radio series called Språket (“The Language”) that answers listeners’ questions about Swedish, and there is a very cool and beautifully laid-out magazine called Språk (“Language”) that addresses similar topics in equally entertaining depth.

I recently caught a television show with my roommate Erik where the well-known Swedish comedian/writer/actor Fredrik Lindström travels the country, learning about dialects and regional colloquialisms. His program Svenska Dialektmysterier (“Swedish Dialect Mysteries”) is an 8-episode series from 2006. It followed on the heels of his previous series about the Swedish language called Värsta Språket (“The Worst Language”) which ran for two full seasons in 2002 and 2003.

This enthusiasm about preserving the language and the efforts to do so in such expensive ways (magazines, radio broadcasts and television documentaries) lead me to believe that there is a need to do such a thing. However, it’s also interesting to me that all of these explorations and celebrations of the Swedish language are done in a way that is either sarcastic, comical or tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike most elephants in the room, the Swedish language is one that everyone is talking about.

That idea and my everyday experiences, however, bring me to a second possible conclusion:

2. The Swedes might be language protectionists. They want to learn perfect English so they can communicate with the world and export their musicians, actors, culture, cars, furniture, clothes, et al, but they also want to keep Swedish alive. The Swedish language is like a secret club and they want to keep the ability to speak Swedish all to themselves.

At some point in the mid-20th Century it must have become very clear that a nation of fewer people than New York City would ultimately be isolated if those people spoke a language only they understood. The opprtunities these people would have would be limited and therefore so would the economic potential of the country as a whole.

English was introduced as the primary foreign language in Sweden’s national school system in 1941.

In 1974, G.M. Anderman wrote in Oxford’s English Language Teaching Journal “in recent years, Sweden has embarked on an ambitious programme of educational reform, the ultimate aim of which is to create a nation bilingual in English and Swedish.”

For many decades, Swedish kids have started learning English in their first year of school, and even earlier than that if they watch television or listen to music at home.

Anderman would be delighted to know, 35 years after he wrote about the program, that the results are in and it worked brilliantly.

The earliest years of human life are when languages are best learned. Even though I went to private schools in America, my first experience with learning a foreign language didn’t come until I was 14. That’s just too late to start if you want a new language to be absorbed without a fight.

Back in the 80’s, we were only given three options: Spanish, German and French. I remember that all the girls took French, all the jocks took Spanish, and all the outcasts and alternative kids took German. I was in the latter group. German proved to be a good foundation for eventually learning Swedish, but not much help in communicating with America’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

The language offerings have been greatly expanded since then, especially in private schools. Just a few years after I graduated from high school, kids at the same school I attended were beginning to learn Chinese, Russian and Japanese.

Similar to my undertaking of learning Swedish as an adult (yes, I finally admit it, I’m an adult now) my Swedish friend Jenny (who I mentioned before speaks perfect “American”) has recently begun learning French. She is facing some of the same challenges.

Steve Martin said on one of his classic comedy albums, “In French, oeuf means egg. Cheese is fromage. It’s like these French have a different word for everything.” It’s true. They really do. Swenglish is probably a lot bigger than Frenglish.

Jenny grew up in a household where English was always around. She told me she felt like she never had to make an effort to learn English. It just developed in her mind with essentially the same ease as Swedish.

That’s the way to learn. When your brain is learning for the first time what things are called and how sentences are formed. After all those neurons have naturally been connected in your head, it’s an uphill battle to assemble an alternative set up there.

I can’t say for sure if the Swedes wish to keep the Swedish language all to themselves or if they are the only ones genetically disposed to use it properly, but I can say that I’m pretty sure French is not a real language. I mean, it doesn’t even sound like talking to me.

It’s perfectly fine with me if the Swedes want to protect the Secret Code. It’s their right as its owners. I just wish they’d let me know. Otherwise, I’ll just be disappointed in myself if I’m still speaking English with them after a couple years.