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?
– 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.

59 thoughts on “Secret Code: Are Swedes trying to keep Swedish to themselves?

  1. Well ti’s obvious you’ve kept back what you really feel and you’ve.. polished this.. blog/statement/article or whatever you want to call it. That makes me wonder; are we really THAT nationalistic? Why do you feel like you need to write it like that? Everyone knows that you’ve left out A LOT and that you’ve twisted a lot of what you’ve said so that it doesn’t sound that bad. That leads me back to; are we really that nationalistic? I thought that Swedes were some of the least nationalistic in the western world but things like these makes me think otherwise.

    Something more relative is that I believe it’s the second option. “The Swedish language is like a secret club and they want to keep the ability to speak Swedish all to themselves.” That in particular has a lot to do with it; it’s always fun to be able to say things in another language that other people can’t understand, as embarrassing as it is to say it I think that it is that way a lot because speaking a language that most people don’t understand makes you feel smart, exotic and even sexy.. or at least attractive.. sort of.. do you understand? Appealing instead of attractive? Eh.

    Sorry to hear you’ve had so many problems with nationalists, you shouldn’t be treated that way just because you don’t speak fluent Swedish.. I’ve never heard of that before but then again I don’t live in Stockholm (New York wannabe (which says everything you need to know about that damn place, blow it up if you want, the real Swedes won’t care too much (mostly an exaggeration))). GL!

    1. I saw on a local paper few moths ago someone proclaiming Sthlm ‘NYC’s sixth borough’ what?! Dream on Sthlmers, your lack of identity, personality and square mind is far away from the freedom ness that The city’s life style provides. Not saying that America is perfect, is just like swedes have to embrace who they are, specially living in their own country!!!!!!

  2. Well said! This should be required reading for anyone trying to learn Swedish, and for Swedes who seem to revel in bashing foreigners’ so-call mispronunciations.

    As another American living in Stockholm, I’ve always said that Swedes speaking SkÃ¥nska butcher the Swedish I know far worse than any Brit, Chilean, or Somali speaking accented Swedish of the Stockholm variety.

    But the crazy thing is, Stockholm (and I presume other) Swedes have no trouble discerning Skånska gibberish, yet keep scratching their heads when a foreigner is really speaking quite clearly.

    I also get hot under the collar when SVT and other news show put subtitles up when the “immigrant” is speaking accented Swedish, but take them away when the SkÃ¥nsk presenter or spokesperson shows up on screen. Like the latter is any more understandable!

  3. Hej Mathias, thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

    I agree that Swedes are among the least nationalistic people I’ve encountered, so I don’t think it’s nationalism at work here. There is a good dose of sarcasm in most of what I write, but I also try to be as polite as possible since I understand I am a guest in someone else’s country. Do you really think I’ve sugar-coated it and left a lot out, or were you being sarcastic also?

    If I were to be perfectly honest, I think the difficulty Swedes have in not understanding Swedish spoken by foreigners is that foreigners are missing something in reproducing it. Swedes can hear and speak sounds in their own language that others just aren’t accustomed to. There must be discernible differences that non-native speakers simply don’t pick up on.

    I’ve been instructed over and over on words like “sjö.” I can’t hear what I’m doing wrong but I still apparently don’t have it down yet. I can’t tell the difference between how I’m saying it and how I’m being told to say it. My English-speaking mouth and mind haven’t yet been trained enough in those tones.

    I think another factor with English-speaking people being able to understand wider variations of English pronunciation is that we’re more used to hearing different accents. The hundreds of millions of English-speaking people come from all over the globe and it’s simply more common to hear English with a foreign accent.

    Thanks again,

  4. Hi Mate,

    Really good article, but what do you have against french people? ;o)
    “it doesn’t even sound like talking to me”
    How does is it sound then?
    I have been in Sweden for now 2 years, I am definitly not fluent but I can understand most of what people are saying, and answer to them in Swedish, and they seem to understand, even with my french accent.

    I think that having a swedish girlfriend helps a lot in the learning process.

    However, I faced some of the issues you are writing about.
    It has been hard at the beginning to get people to speak swedish with me, but I understand, I do the same sometimes.
    If the person you are talking to doesn’t speak well enough the language, it can very quickly start to be boring.

  5. This has to be one of the funniest and more spot on missives I’ve read in a long time. Being another sarcastic American, it made perfect sense to me. It made me laugh out loud, and feel a little better about myself, i must admit. I had seriously wondered if I were just an idiot. I do agree with you – somehow, we’re just not hearing it right. I have spent hours trying to capture the correct pronunciation of one single word, with apparent little success. Oh well. There’s always English.

  6. This is sooo true! As a native English speaker who speaks passable Swedish (or so I believe…), I can’t make Swedes understand what I’m saying in Swedish, or when referring to Swedish concepts in English. For some reason I mentioned Cajsa Stina Åkerström to a Swede recently. “Stina Nordenstam?” came the reply. “No, Cajsa Stina Åkerström.” “Stina Nordenstam?” “No, Cajsa Stina Åkerström.” “Are you trying to say ‘Stina Nordenstam’?” It’s easier to just write it down, sometimes…

  7. A great read!

    I think its important to discuss these issues and I think the article uses the right amount of light hearted tone to get the point across. I find the line kinda hard because when discussing these issues I dont want to insult anyone, I just want to discuss them but sometimes its hard without sounding like a swede-bashing immigrant. Maybe its just me, in Australia we have a dicussion, it turns to an arguement, we have a punch up and then we go to the pub for a beer :)

  8. Well yes, I really do think you’re sugarcoating it. Or that you’re just leaving many bad things out. Swedes aren’t nearly as good as you make us sound; we can’t be that good as much as it stings to say it.

    Anyway I thought of a couple of other things that you might be able to take into consideration. As everyone here knows few Swedes speak perfect or even fluent English (something you sugarcoated.. with a lot of sugar, there’s a risk of getting diabetes by reading that quote form the Brit (yes, that’s a joke but it’s not an attempt to make anyone laugh, it’s not that kind of a joke)) which makes we think that there are only a few people who switch to English when they hear the accent. Those people are probably doing that, not to help you or to “preserve the language” but to show you just how great their English is, possibly fishing for a compliment.

    Or, like I do sometimes, they switch to English depending on the situation because it’s easier for them to express themselves when you talk about.. well whatever it is that makes them switch language.

    It could also be that they think it’s fun to speak another language, it’s quite boring to just hear English all day without actually being able to use it (at least for me). Some of them might switch language just so that they can feel that knowing a second language isn’t completely worthless or because they’re tired of always speaking Swedish all the time (that is reeeally boring). I’m sure that some of the people you’ve been talking to have switched language because they are bored with Swedish/because speaking English is fun. Or they just want to prove themselves to you. Or a combination of all these.

    But that’s just what I think and I forgot to say what other people here have said, it’s really a great article. I was going to say it but the more I read the more.. sugarcoating I found and that hurt my pride a bit.

    Don’t be afraid to be called a Sweden-basher. After that article you’d get away with calling us the kind of things “Beynch” (a user on TL that weirdly enough hasn’t been banned, I’m going to leave it at that, hopefully you don’t know who it is) say without earning the title.

    I’m guessing that since you live in Stockholm you’ve been denied apartments and jobs because you’re not Swedish (and I’m assuming that they’ve said that out loud to you). Come on, say something bad to balance this out a bit. I’m sure I won’t be offended.

  9. I’m Swedish with an English partner, and I really hate it when Swedes speak English to him. I actually tell them off if I am in the same room. It’s not like their English is that good, but as the previous poster said, maybe they think their Englis is excellent.

    The weird thing si that my Swedish has become worse as I am a language person and adapt to whoever is speaking hehe.

  10. I’ve heard and read a lot that Swedes like/love to speak English, but I’ve seen them always trying to avoid English conversations (at least “long” ones). It’s sometimes funny to see how quickly they gather separately to speak among them… in Swedish only.

  11. Tja!
    One piece of good writing that is  Sometimes, I get exactly the same impression. In cafe, restaurant, etc. when I try with my Swedish – I get English in response. I think it is mostly caused by the fact that Swedes like using English. Probably, they also want to be helpful. When smb just wants to be rude or unpleasant, they continue with Swedish, even though they don’t expect you to understand.
    I must say though that the better my Swedish gets the less English I get in response to it, so that now it’s mostly Swedish I speak. Still, I get to experience discouraging situations like “oh, but.. can you speak Swedish?” with an disapprobation/disbelieving tone, when smb (ex. a doctor) sees my surname (Polish) before we start talking. On the other hand, I must admit that when smb is exaggerating my language skills, it gets also a bit uneasy, as I start to feel like I get to stand up to the compliment and suddenly it gets extra difficult to avoid mistakes ;)
    BTW I experienced the same pronunciation thingy with English. First time I went to England and tried to spoke with the native, I got to repeat myself four times or so to get the answer. And my line was: “Excuse me.. Can you tell me, where mcdonald’s is?” Tell me, how anybody could mispronounce that? ;)

  12. Hej

    Hmmm….what IS annoying is that they always speak english…english english english…


  13. By the way, it’s not like Swedish disappeared in the 1700’s when French words were used mixed with Swedish. It didn’t disappear earlier on either when German words were mixed with Swedish.
    Swedish will still be around just different. That’s normal.

  14. The majority of Swedes I meet speak horrible English. Though Swedes believe they speak coherent English (delusional) most mangle the word order and have accents similar to a tone deaf child.
    I do however agree that Swedish as a language will go extinct, although, this will be due to the fact that Swedes are at “0″ population growth and dying as a species.
    I think your time would have been better spent writing about the epidemic of bleach Blondes in Sweden. Thus, illuminating the population decline and it’s subsequent denial by Swedes. But hey, you would sound like a nationalist, and we don’t want that do we?

  15. I really appreciate you writing this interesting article! I am American and have been living in Sweden for two years. My husband is Swedish and can speak English well, so that is how we communicate. I am in my 50’s, have never learned a second language, and since I was always fascinated with accents, I assumed that attempting to learn a new language would be a fun challenge…. :) Well…hmm, I have attempting learning with the “best” software programs, and books… and also have tried visual approaches…. I STILL cannot speak one line correctly! I have experienced many of the things you have mentioned, and your writing has made me have a good laugh! :) ….of relef!
    I have thought maybe it is my age that is making it difficult “to learn new tricks”, so to speak. Also, I have found the same experience of thinking I am saying the word correctly, but no matter how much I try, the Swedish person hears some sort of distinction and continues to attempt to get me to say it right. it is easy to lose confidence in my ability to ever learn it. Young children will even look at me like I am an alien from another planet when I attempt to say the simplest things. Recently, one very cute little boy ran up to me and began speaking with me. Within a few seconds he was smiling and looking much entertained, as he was saying the words “proper Svenksa?” ha :) I managed to slither away, with an embarassed smile. It is rather fascinating because no matter how many individual words I learn, when I hear Swedes speaking, it does sound like singing…. like every word runs into the next as if it is like an instrument playing. I imagine that if I ever do catch on to this mysterious ability, I will be tempted to make a CD! :D)

  16. I am an American who decided in my 30’s to learn Swedish in my spare time, I took Latin and Russian in school and learning new languages is fun. Swedish has so many similarities to English and even to Russian that it is not too hard to get the feel for it and I am enjoying my Rosetta Stone Swedish program. I don’t have any native Swedes to speak or write to regularly but it does strike me that their English in commenting on posts ranges from perfect to downright abysmal. Russians are always in my experience flattered that you have endeavored to learn even a little of their language, it is not the most practical one for an English speaker to learn. Swedes, you would think, would feel the same way! Spanish is the most practical language for Americans to learn, French or German is more practical for Brits so why not be flattered and enjoy the idea that someone is trying to learn your language. If the conversation becomes painfully slow then politely switch to English but whenever possible help out the non-Swede, we are trying to become educated and we can’t improve if we can’t use it! And don’t be smug about your English abilities either, English speakers become humble when a non-native speaker uses our language too, we flatter them about how well they’re doing and do our best to understand and not to correct, don’t let it go to your head! LOL

  17. Hmmmm. . .I can remember my mother telling me that when she met my father’s grandparents, they spoke English with heavy German accents, and said she couldn’t understand a word, even though she was still quite young and they had spent most of their lives in the U.S. As she got older her ability to ‘hear’ English through any accent, foreign or domestic, became more problematic. But my mother has heard nothing but English all her life, with few regional variations. Whereas her children have no problem picking English out , no matter how badly mangled. There really seems to be a a ‘brain’ thing going on here. Would you say that more often than not, the person giving you the look of confusion over your Swedish pronounciation, is older or younger than you? Are BOTH parties having a ‘hearing’ problem?

    From your description, Swedish sounds like the sing-song of vowel-heavy Hawaiian. It sounds lovely, if a little exhausting. Hang in there, Scott.

  18. Hello im in Denver, Colorado and im interested in learning the swedish language. How did you start learning the language im having a hard time with finding anything on it. I’ve always wanted to learn it, I am swedish.

    1. Tammy, I’m up in Greeley and trying to learn too. There\’s a Swedish meetup group ( that just started up in Boulder. It is awesome. Du måste åka med mig!

  19. This is a double edged sword. For Sweden in a global economy where english is the standard language of business, it makes them a truly competative nation. I consult for a Swedish software company that sells worldwide. It is a huge advantage that all the employees easily converse in english (and other languages). They dont have to specifically hire ‘english speaking’ candidates, it just comes naturally. It also makes it very easy for a foreigner to stay here.

    On the otherhand, in the states, because of immigration, its normal to hear people speaking english at a low level. It is not even considered. For instance 2 interviews I saw on TV, Fernando Torres of LFC and Sebastian Loeb of WRC. Both interviewed in english, not so good, but who cares, what was communicated was clear and accents just made it more interesting. However, I have never seen in person or on TV someone speaking at that level of Swedish, so I feel like its really no point in trying.

  20. @Mathias:
    The reason you don’t get it is because you ARE Swedish no? The subtleties and humour of this piece are lost on you in translation… However for native English speakers who have moved here and tried to learn the language, this blog entry is spot on with its various observations. For me an enjoyable and light-hearted take on a common situation encountered by most of us “English” speakers who move here.

  21. I have to disagree with you on the perfect Swedish of Svenskar. Their English is fine, but not perfect. But maybe it is only me that thinks that if a person speaks American TV based English then it is not considered a high level of competency in English.

  22. I’ve heard an English accent of Swedish about five times in my life and it actually is difficult to understand.

    Just about every post-70s Swede grew up listening to (and interacting with) Arabic and East European accents and they use all kinds of grammatic errors. No problem there.

    As for speaking Swedish with native English speakers.They don’t learn our language. It’s the other way around. To speak Swedish with a native English speaker is doing things backwards or upside-down. To speak Swedish with French, Italians, Arabs, Germans etc is one thing, but a natve English speaker? Nah.

  23. The author of this clever and grammatically sound article articulated thoughts I’ve had about this topic since I started learning Swedish in 95’. However, I feel that responses elicited by Swedes who communicate w/ non-native, floundering Swedish-speakers vary depending on what KIND of Swede a second-language speaker is conversing with. For instance, as always, I continue to speak English with my Swedish father b/c jag orkar inte se the wincing look on his face-as though nails are scratching on a chalkboard-during these awkward conversations. Pa andra sidan there are plenty of younger people who have been patient, helpful, and most crucially, insistent on speaking ONLY Swedish with me at ALL times. I am profoundly grateful for these people b/c they are not only loyal friends, but integrally instrumental in guiding me improve my Swedish. After nearly 15 years (14 of which I’ve lived in California), it is rewarding to watch a Swedish movie or program (Kanal 3 online rocks!) without subtitles, and be able to understand these musically inclined songbirds. A secret club? Not really, just some meatballs who have difficulty understanding non-modersmal speakers…after all, it’s rather seldom that people endeavor to learn Swedish, right?

  24. I also think you sugar-coated the swedes in this article.

    You try to make it sound like every single swede speaks perfect english, is smart, beautiful, talented, humble, funny and can sing wonderfully. What a load of bs.

    Most that I have met seem to be of average IQ. There’s alot of pretty younger ones but most don’t keep their looks after 30 or so. Talented and can sing? Not moreso than people of any other country. Funny? Most I’ve met are rather boring and have little humor. Humble? That must be why they all think the area they come from is the best and the rest of the swedes are snobs or hicks etc.

    That brings us to you wondering why they act like they can’t understand you when you speak swedish.

    I’m an immigrant to sweden, have lived here less than 2 years and have only had a swede say that can’t understand me a couple times. Those couple of times they were older swedes, so maybe not as open to people with accents. /shrugs, maybe you’ve been unlucky

    Swedes like to say they can’t understand other swedish dialects and swedish with an accent. That may be true to some extent but when they can’t it’s usually because they don’t try to. That’s part of the swedish sense of humor, saying their town / city / dialect is the right one and everyone else is wrong.

    I first started speaking swedish with my svensk friends who wanted to help me learn so that might be another reason I’ve had a different experience than you.

    My statements above aren’t meant to be harsh or speak badly about swedes and sweden. I love it here, it’s a pretty country and my best friends are here. It just sounds like you are wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to your views on swedes.

    They’re nice (after you get to know them), caring, can be fun after a few drinks, are level-headed and have a unique look.

    They can also be a little boring and uptight, drink and smoke alot and many of them don’t seem to have much of a drive to do something with their lives.

    It’s ok to be lagom, job at the local factory, move in with the person you’ve screwed a few times at parties, end up pregnant a few times, watch tv and eat meatballs during the week, drink on the weekends, then retire and go to thailand once a year. Yay! A little boring but it works for a majority of swedes.

    Again, I love swedes. I love how it’s calm here, nature is all around you, people aren’t overly dramatic etc. Just pointing out that they are not, like you seem to believe all beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyes, singing geniuses.

    I will agree with you on thinking that swedish might become a minority language in sweden. Between the children and younger swedes perferring to speak english alot of the time and the influx of arabic-speaking immigrants, swedish might be on the back burner.

  25. well i am an italian living in stockholm….
    for me it s the opposite… sometimes i would like to speak english to understand and to be understood perfectly… well….. friends, authorities, officers and boutiques always force me speaking swedish and they say : “try to speak and train ur swedish” and they start to speak in swedish and waiting a reply in swedish…
    one time i protested with an officer… he said “u must train come on…..”

    anyway not only they often ask to repeat a word or a phrase if u are foreigner…. but they do it with other swedes too!
    pay attention in the subway, the most used expression is ” vad sa du ?” and not with the intonation of saying “incredible” but with the one to say “what have u said”… (never seen such kind of intensive use in italy) in my opinion….they dont understand even other swedes and the reason is the so subtle difference in the intonation and pronunciation that it is a problem for them too….
    Anway a friends of mine told me that for them switching to englsh is not a voluntary act it s automatic…. so they are not evil…..
    and many swedes complain about skÃ¥nska .. they told me it s horrible and not possible to understand……( but obviously putting subtitles under a person from Malmö could be tagged as discrimination!!!)

    but as i do or other friends do… speak swedish and if they will reply in english, continue to speak in swedish and make strange face expressions when they speak in english.. it works out 100%… they will understant that u really want and they will be happy to help u
    (me too with some swede that wants to speak italian with me, i speak english…. it s kindness … dont waste time with my language switch to something easier for both)

    and rember it s not rude for them to say no ro yes but important to find a solution that suites everyone involved ( that is a cultural imprinting for them)….so english is obviously the best to comunicate with them and that makes the 2 parts in a comfortable situation.

    speak and dont care! ….just continue to speak in swedish… insist and dont give up :) it s the secret.

  26. Ha ha.

    Vad snackar du om?
    Du vet vad jag säger, PENSION
    Oh du menar “pan-sion”.

    It is a comercial for the lotto, soo funny and true. I thought I was crazy.

  27. Swedish is easy compared to Finnish… Now that is a tough language that regardless how many years one studies, no foreigner can master due to the extremely complicated grammar.
    Finns, though love to hear foreigners speak their language and will let you struggle until you decide to switch to English.

  28. Interesting article. Just a brief linguistic comment: mixing English words into your Swedish is not the same as actually speaking English. The underlying grammatical structure is still Swedish. For the foreseeable future, native Swedish speakers will not start speaking English among themselves. What could happen is that English rather than Swedish becomes the preferred language among immigrants, for instance if we get more immigrants from Western countries or if immigrants from non-Western countries to a higher extent have better English when they immigrate. In such cases, English could be the preferred language in “mixed company”.

    Still, it’s one thing to use English when engaging in light banter with your friends, and another thing entirely when talking to the social insurance agency. I think there is still definitely a limit to the “comfort zone” within which a Swedish speaker is comfortable using English.

    Also, if the Swedish language really were to come under pressure, its speakers would treasure it more. I live in the UK, and here I can observe how the rule that everyone speaks English in mixed company is undermined. Since we get to use the Swedish language so rarely, we take every opportunity, even if we have to risk being rude. I think something similar might happen if Swedish would be in a more vulnerable position in Sweden.

  29. I don’t mind when Swedes correct my Swedish, as long as they’re gentle about it.. what pisses me off is when you have the immigrants who have thicker accents than I do trying to correct me. I have almost no accent. When I tell Swedes I’ve been here 8 years they all say “Oh wow! You learned Swedish quickly! And you have no accent!”… so when a Czech or Arabic or whatever other immigrant whom I have trouble understanding tells me I’m saying it wrong, I have to laugh, or I’d smack them :P.

    But I do agree with you about Swedes not understanding. When I’m out with my American boyfriend, as soon as people hear us speaking English to each other they assume that neither one of us can speak Swedish and insist on doing things in English. Which is fine for the most part, I don’t mind it. It’s nice to catch a Swede off guard by answering their English is almost perfect Swedish.

    @ Mathias, you questioned whether Swedes are really that nationalistic… look around you, man! What two main colours do you see on almost everything around you? Hahaha, I have yet to go to another country that’s as subversively nationalistic as Sweden. America is nationalist, oh sure, they’re all about America this and America that. Swedes are more sneaky about it. They just put their flag on egg cups, napkins, menues, cars, even baby strollers… and of course the road signs are also blue and yellow. They’re quietly nationalistic.

    Btw, a good book to read about Swedes, written by a Swede, is called “The Xenophobe’s guide to the Swedes”. It’s funny, tongue-in-cheek and is very true on a lot of points. It’s not some major volume either, it’s small and only about 150 pages, easily read in a day. Most bookstores will have it.

  30. This made me laugh. I’m a Swede living abroad with many foreign friends living in Sweden or abroad trying to learn Swedish.
    However, I wonder if it’s not more the fact that people really aren’t expecting you to be speaking “their” language.
    I’ve studied in Spain, Japan and England and it seems this happens all over. You try and speak the local language and the natives can’t understand what you’re trying to say but all the foreigners do. The first time I encountered this I thought they were being rude and implying bad pronounciation but these days I think people just assume they won’t understand you and therefore they don’t.

  31. I believe reason #2 is the main source of the issue. The gruff but kind curtness of a general swede explains #1.

    If I start questioning in broken swedish, I get a short reply in a northern accent broadcast to a group, acknowleged by nods of approval. I’m convinced that it’s some kind of secret code.

    I try my hardest to excercise swedish while there, but I get the default english retorts. Sometimes even before I move my lips. Then, all’s I hear from my friends are “You should learn swedish better if you spend as much time here as you do”. “Uh, I’m trying, but it’s hard when people want to speak so much english”.

  32. @ Tammy Ackerman- I am also in Denver and I’m working o learning Swedish. There is a “school” located at a church at Alameda and colorado. Here is their webiste. I’m attending right now and its been great so far. The next round of classes start in early January.

  33. martin: The online translator service says this is what you just wrote:

    “Rotten good article carcass so. read and they va entirely clearly worth they”

    LOL! Rotten good article carcass???

    Oh yeah, that’s entirely clear. NOT.

    I work in a place where there is a continuous flow of visiting workers from all over the world, usually here for a year. It doesn’t matter what their language background they are all hard to understand at first. After you work with someone for a little while then their intonation starts to sound normal (for them) to your ears. If I meet them only once, I am asking them to repeat 4x.

    BTW, I can’t for the life of me understand why that first poster takes such exception to the writer praising Swedes?! If anyone wants to praise Americans in print I’ll be glad to listen/read! :D Go on, praise away!

  34. Great story! I love your writing style. I have to disagree that Swedes speak “perfect English” though. None of the Swedes I’ve met speak or write English to the point where I’d say it was “perfect”. I’d say it’s passable, and certainly much better than I speak/write/read Swedish.

    I do agree that it’s an impossible language to learn because anytime I’ve tried to practice, you’re right, they switch to English, act like they don’t understand or laugh at you. Which is a completely new experience for me. I’m fairly competent in Spanish and have never had a native Spanish speaker do any of those things, if anything they’ve always been very pleased that I’ve learned their language.

    Looking forward to reading more!

  35. Excellent writing on an interesting and relevant subject. It is great to read a The Local blog/article/posting on the discussion board which is able to communicate both positive and negative observations/experiences of interacting with Swedes and settling/assimilating here/there (I’m a Stockholmer but based in London) in a curious, intelligent, non-judgemental, open-minded, non-stereotyping style. And by the way, I’ve been following your blog since start and it is without doubt the best written highest quality written material on The Local. And that includes the editorial material which is so often incredibly biased, judgmental, presumptuous and not seldomly uninformed/intentionally sensationalised. The quality of your blog, on the other hand, is always really high! Many thanks for lots of worthwhile, amusing and interesting reading!

    Anyhow, just to give you a bit of context: I’m a Swede, Stockholmer. Extensively travelled and lived outside the country now for that last 12 years – 3 continents, 5 countries. I speak mostly Swedish and English, but have/am trying my wings in another two languages.

    I think I understand one or two things about learning another language, and how it is significantly harder doing it as an adult (I’m 40) compared to how it was absorbing English from an age of 6, or 7 perhaps.

    I believe I also know a thing or two about the excitement and challenges in moving to a new country and get acquainted and used to a new culture. And, for all you The Local reader that appear to have so much frustrations with things being “different” – well, what did you expect? I am actually quite shocked that there are so many of you out there (as indicated by blogs and discussion posts). Did you really expect things to be as they are at home? Did you even want that? Personally I am of the opinion that “different” is good! “Different” help us open up our minds and heart to the complexities, wonders and diversity of the human condition. And trust me, opening up our hearts and minds to this makes us better.

    Now, to the question at hand, there are off course many answers to this. Here are a few, from my point of view. Why do Swedes so often switch to English and sometimes having problems understanding what you are saying/trying to say?

    1) Because they can! I have tried to pick up Spanish and French and spent a lot of time in both countries. True, no one ever, or at least rarely, switch to English in either of those countries. For the simple reason: They can’t!

    2) Eagerness to speak English: Yes, I think there is indeed an eagerness for many Swedes to get an opportunity to practice their English when they can, and with a native English speaker around that is certainly the case. This is not so strange is it? After all, is that what all you non-Swedes wants from the Swedes? Problem here is that the Swedes has the upper hand as they can switch to English. Advice: Just say it. Tell them that you appreciate their effort to speak English to you, but that you really want to practice your Swedish. And here, you might have to go half way. Remember, you are in the same situation: you want to practice your Swedish, they want to practice their English. Trust me, most Swedes can deal with directness (!) so just say it as it is. Don’t do it the “polite” (or contrived/disrespectful depeding on how you look at it) British English type of way, it wont work. Just be direct about it. Say it as it is. No more. No less.

    3) Politeness: It is considered incredibly rude to speak Swedish in a group if there even is only a single person that is not native/fluent as that person will be cut of from the discussion/chat/information flow, thus excluded from the group. This is off course frustrating if you are beginning to learn Swedish and want to practice, but fact is, until you are reasonably fluent you will be cut off from the conversation if you ask people to switch back to their native Swedish, and might/will lose out on the social aspect of that situation. Perhaps miss the opportunity to get to know some really cool/interesting person. And your personality will also be hampered. I have certianly felt like a socially handicapped in many such sitations when I haven’t been at an intelligable level with my language and remember my first visit to the US many years back when there was a barberque put on in my honour and a kid came up and asked me if I was a retard (which I am not). Didn’t quite help in coming across as the super social fun animal I am. Advice: If you are in this situation just make it clear to everyone that your priority is to improve your Swedish and that you realise that you will miss parts/most of the conversation but this is ok with you and improving your language is your priority. Ta da! As simple as that!

    4) Laziness/social awareness: Yes, it can get really tiresome and slow in a social context to adopt to the person with the slowest language, least developed vocabulary and most challenging pronunciation and intonation. Anyone who has exposure to kids know this. And a person/adult learning a new language basically reverts back in to this child state in regards to their communication style. This is one of the most challenging aspects of learning a language as an adult: you don’t have the language ability to express yourself clearly or comprehensively enough to justify you level of maturity to express your intellect, humour, feelings etc. So yes, to get the social juices flowing sometimes its is just easier, and probably better for all except the non-Swede, to speak English in a social context. Advice: Arrange with your Swedish friends beforehand to have all-Swedish speaking nights out/in/dinners/museum visits/walks around DjurgÃ¥rden or whatever you fancy. Make it a special and dedicated event. They will surely feel privigued to be asked to be your Swedish tutor of the day/evening/night and it is agreed upfront that the priority for this day/evening/night is not neccesarily to have elaboarte discussions about Obama’s healthcare campaign, or Tiger Woods latest endevour, but to practice your Swedish. And you will also signal that you understand that it is an appreciated undertaking from them, because it is. Some of you seem to expect that everyone has the time, interest and energy to be your language coaches. It is inconsiderate to take that for granted. And if you don’t think it involves an effort from them, well, again, spend a day with a 3 or 4 year old and you’ll see. So, get out there, find yourself a Swedish buddy who you can make these dedicated Swedish sessions/outings with. They will make a HUGE difference to your progression!

    5) Rudeness: I understand, and agree, that it can come across as rudeness, but trust me on this: it is very seldom an intentional rudeness. You ask for their patience, well, give them the benefit of a doubt and you will experience generosity and patience! Just as your expectation that people always have the time and patience to speak/interpret baby/kids language (because that is how your emerging langauge skills come across as) for your benefit is not intentionally rude or inconsiderate on your part.

    6) Nationwide conspiracy: Are all Swedes conspiring against the non-Swedes to protect and preserve the language???!! Well, lets deal with this one quickly: No! I read something interesting in Dagens Nyheter (or actually DN.SE) recently: people that resort to conspiracy theory to explain/rationalise to themselves things they don’t understand are often deluded about their capacity to have any real/significant impact in the world (or whatever is the context) – but feel treated unfairly, pacified and helpless about their situation which they can’t really do much about after all. Rings any bells?

    7) Knäckebröd: You all seem to have picked up on the melodic aspect of the language and some of you also have an awareness about the importance of intonation. Trust me, for a native ear it can be incredibly difficult to understand if the non-native misses on the intonation. And what you think are sutble, doesn’t always sound so subtle to a native ear. They are not playing tricks with you. Challenging? Yes, off course. But just not for you, for the Swedes also. They are likely getting embarrassed that they are potentially embarrassing you. But again, IT IS DIFFICULT to learn a new language as an adult. Deal with it! Don’t blame them! Until you can say “skridsko banan” [skating rink] and “banan” [banana] correctly there will be confusion. Exactly the same spelling but very different sounding words. The only way to learn is to do the mistake and get laughed at a few times. Again, that’s how it is to pick up a new language. And don’t tell me that it is different in Sweden than anywhere else. It isn’t! I’ve experienced a lot of this in the US, UK, Australia, Spain, France, Germany…………………. You are just a little over sensitive. Yes, Swedish is challenging in the aspect that spelling often doesn’t always give away the pronunciation and/or intonation, but instead of resorting to blaming the locals for being [your choice of derogatory adjective] just go through the laborious and frustrating process of practicing and learning. Almost all Swedes will be able to relate to you on this as all/most are at the very least bilingual, so perhaps there is a little less tolerance/higher expecations. If we all can do it, why can’t you? Again, not ill intended, but if you are serious in wanting to learn the language, don’t you really want to get it right? Or would you prefer the locals to patronise you and let you get away with poor/incorrect pronounciation and initonation? Make this something you can bond with them on as they will be able to relate to you as opposed to your fellow country wo/men who perhaps are mostly mono-lingual.

    8) Unlike what many of you seem to believe, and that is partly due to Swedes’ failure to communicate this clearly with you: They do appreciate your effort to learn the language. Just hang in there! Yes, you will be able to get by life in Sweden mostly on English but you will find that an incredibly interesting, fascinating and complex cultural and social context will open up to you if you get to a level which makes you fluent in most social, and your particular professional, context. And it will be appreciated, whatever you think now. It will! If Swedes can be a little difficult to get to know (this is not the “shyness” that it is often mistaken as but something else I wont get started with here), once you are considered a friend there is a tendency for being incredibly truthful, trustful and genuine and you will have found some very good friend(s) for life.

    9) Assholes and idiots: Yes, we’ve got a few of them also, as any place. I’m embarrassed for them and for any bad treatment you have received from any of my fellow countrymen. Some of you, as it sounds, might have brought it onto yourself (intentionally or not), but most not. I personally really like that there is an increasing cultural mix and more and more expats seem to discover this weird and wonderful northern country and make the effort to learn about us, our culture and history and our language. If I was based in Stockholm now I would invite you all for a Swede bashing evening with drinks where we could battle it all out, get seriously pissed (yes, on snaps!) and then hug and kiss. All in Swedish off course! No English or other languages allowed at all! If you can’t say it/I can’t understand it we would have to resort to other means of “communication”.

    Last, I’m reading an unusually well written and good book that might interesting some of you: Modern Day Vikings. I got it at Amazon for my American partner, but I really enjoy it myself also. One of the better, if not the best, such books I’ve come across.

    Thanks for reading and hang in there, it will be worth it!

  36. Can I just add another thing?

    For all the negatives/challenges you experience in trying to learn Swedish, consider this:

    How would your experience integrating in [country of your choice] if you didn’t speak the [local language of the country of your choice]? How would your communication with legal authorities, banks, post offices, doctors, schools or perhaps just a visit down the local bar/pub or grocery store or pharmacy be? Would you survive a month?

    I agree with you and understand that the switch-to-English-tendency makes it challenging for you to learn Swedish. But it is really to other side of the same coin that you at all could move/live/work here. And most Swedes have made a quite siginficant effort learning English, which really makes your life here possible. I can’t even begin to think how life in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, for example, would be without the ability to communicate in the local language. And they are all probably some of the most multicultural countries on earth.

    So, to make your critique a little bit more palatable for the native ear I think you all should consider how to deal with this “problem”. Slag it of, as some of you do, with the locals being [your choice of derogatory adjective], well perhaps you shouldn’t expect anyone to make the effort with you. Addressing it as a “positive problem” and you will likely get anyone with half a brain to emphasise with you and make the effort.

    Not difficult. Is it?

  37. Snuggling,
    Great article!

    And Dr Watson,
    Excellent summation of the Swedish side of things.

    Like you, I caught this thread late and hope I am not writing to an empty room!
    I have seen the kn‰ckebrˆd type incomprehension in reverse many times in Australia when the intonations of migrants trying their new English have been just slightly off, so it probably happens everywhere.

    However, intonations are much more important in Swedish for the simple reason that the Swedish vocabulary is about a quarter of the size of the English one, so many identical words have to do double duty with vastly different meanings. Much of Swedish humour is based on the misunderstandings that follow!

    I can also see how the uncomprehending Stockholmare understands the garbled SkÂning simply because he KNOWS what to expect there! Its like he tunes in to the Skane wavelength to listen to that station, while the mispronouncing foreigner sounds more like the static between stations to his ears so he has to work harder to make sense of it.

    Another issue is the one of politeness in different cultures: In the English speaking world we perceive it as polite to NOT correct someone’s pronunciation. In my experience, it seems many Swedes genuinely see it as polite and helpful to correct you….

    On the issue of the increasing use of English words in Swedish, i don’t for a minute think the Swedish language is under threat of extinction. More likely, the snippets of English will either fall out of vogue or become absorbed and “Swedishised”. This is what happened with many French words in the past, and future generations are likely to not even be aware of the English roots in their enlarged vocabulary. Try referring to the plastic tub you got your Thai takeaway in as a food container and the Swede will laugh at you! The ONLY containers in this country are what we in Australia call skips or industrial bins, so this “Swedish” word already has changed meaning. Soon it will probably be kontejner.

    Just look at how quickly these words have become Swedish: mejl, sajt, dejt, sprej, fejs, fajt, tajt. Today’s slang is in tomorrow’s dictionary. How many swedes are really conscious of “fÂtˆlj” and “fˆnster” being French and German imports any more? So the language will always change but it won’t die.

    There is no point lamenting change, it keeps us flexible and that’s what life and growth is about. If I stay here too long I’ll probably have to learn a new Strine when I get back.

  38. Snuggling, Dr Watson and brissiedan,

    Being a third-language Swedish speaker myself, I have often experienced that curious phenomenon of non-native speakers perfectly understanding one another’s more or less broken Swedish. Knäckebröd. Kungsholmen. Skridskobanan. Whatever. While the puzzled native speaker sits nearby and wonders which language is being spoken. My guess is that the native speakers indeed have not developed a capability of tuning into a foreign accent. They may be used to deciphering SkÃ¥nska (pronunciation: skiäönska, by the way), Norrländish, Finnlandish or worse, but throw at them any little, yes little, brytning from elsewhere and they give up. The background to this perhaps being that the trigger to understanding any individual word is as much in the prosody as in the individual sounds of, say, k-n-ä-ck-e-b-r-ö’. A balanced average of both seems to be required for understanding, and if the prosody is too far off, the trigger is simply not activated. The weird aspect of this lies in that the prosody seems to be unreplaceable. KNÄCKEBRÖ’ KNÄCKEBRÖ’ KNÄCKEBRÖ’ and they still don’t get it. Of course it may be stubbornness, nationalism or something else, but I honestly don’t think so. The fact that many Swedes easily understand the poor English of others might confirm my thesis. Wuthering Worthington – sure, you meant wuthering Worthington, didn’t you? Would be interesting to know if any linguist has ever tackled the question from a scientific standpoint.

  39. Just wanna say great article :)

    Laughed as hell to most of it just because I recognise so much from what I do myself as a swede.

    Just that thing about not understanding swedish words in the middle of an english sentence is really hard for me. I just dont expect it to be there so i try and figure out what word in english is it that i just cant understand and when i finally understands that it is swedish i get pretty embarassed :P Was at the second time I watched Minority Report I notised that Peter Stormare actually was talking swedish and not just some gibberish. >_< Same with True Blood when Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd talks in swedish I needed to play that same part a couple of times before I understood what he actually said…. My head was just set on english mode.

    That about swedes going on about "arnt u sugercoating this?" is just how most of us are. If u havnt read about jantelagen, "the law of jante", you should :) it explains alot of how swedish ppl work, even tho pretty much noone admits it. Just for an example the first law is " You shouldnt think that you ARE anything"

    I talk to ppl from GB, Greece, Holland, Denmark and lots of other countrys everyday on english and more then once have I heard that we swedes are singing when we talk swedish. One of the greeks actually thought it sounded like elfish when i talked to a friends child. Thought that was pretty cool. I cant understand the "singing" part myself but i guess you speak another language to do that.

  40. Hi!

    I have heard that if you don’t hear certain sounds when you are little you become depf later on in life i.e you can’t hear the difference for example in a country were b and p are pronuanced exactly the same people later on in life will not hear the difference eventhought the difference for people growing up with b and p being prononced differenetly the difference is striking. maybe thats why it’s hard for us swedes to understand what you’re saying ;P

  41. I totally agree with you. It is rather discouraging sometimes when Swedes does that. My Swedes and I are speaking swedish all the time and still it is often end up with confusion from his side, like I am talking in alien language. Often I just replied that everything sounds the same for me (especially the vocals., my gosh it is difficult to hear the difference) and being 3 years here does not compare to his life time.

    I guess for us the foreigner, it is just a matter of trying and not giving up. We wont be able to have perfect swedish with perfect intonation but at least less people that questioning our tone. :D

    Lycka till!!!!

  42. Hmm… Agree and disagree:-) Firstly, being a Swede, I feel I should apologise on my countrymen’s behalf for
    A) immediately switching into English in order to make it easier for you (that’s the most probable reason), and
    B) not “sharpen their ears” in order to understand Swedish spoken with a foreign accent.

    B) is a classic unfortunately, and not only in Sweden. I live in the Czech Republic, have spent years learning Czech and still sometimes find myself in that situation… I suppose it’s the small nation syndrome – people simply aren’t used to hearing their language being spoken with a foreign accent. English speakers, on the other hand, are only too used to hearing their mother tongue being mistreated in a number of ways, every day…

    Anyway, keep up the good work and don’t let those bastards grind you down:-)

  43. Hahaha, good writing. However, being a Swede living abroad I have had my fair share of similar experiences… When I was studying in America I remember a German friend of mine asking the bus driver for Wallmart, pronouncing it with a typical German accent, sounding something like “wollmort”. I think she had to repeat it like six times before he understood where she wanted to go. Aaahhhh…you mean Waaalmaaart? Or my first months at the job here in Spain trying to order a donut with my coffee in the bar. Do not think that just because it is called donut in Spanish as well, that you can proncounce it in English and they will understand you. To make them understand you have to say something like dawnoot, and believe me, I did learn the hard way ;) Keep struggling with the Swedish, I will most definitely do the same with Spanish…

  44. I don’t know if my Swedish is pretty good, but the times I get to speak it with Swedes they always carry on in Swedish. One gentleman even asked if I was a Finlandsvensk (I had been living on Aaland and no doubt picked up the accent). Swedish is a great language to learn, surprisingly easy to pick up (reading, that is) and, for all but hard-core linguists or regular visitors to Scandinavia, utterly pointless to learn! Saying that, I’m glad I learned it, it is a most rewarding experience.

  45. I would like to react on the suggestion that ‘Swedes can hear and speak sounds in their own language that others just aren’t accustomed to’

    This can’t be the only reason. In my native language (Netherlandic aka Dutch) we have the sounds ij, ui & eu and those are distinctly different to native speakers. For some reason it is a formidable challenge for foreigners to hear any difference between those sounds at all and they normally pronounce it ay or oy.

    Still they are understood, even in a sentence with the words kijken, kuiken & keuken in it.

  46. It’s quite simple, really.
    When you guys try to speak our fine language, you botch it up more than Robert Gustafsson fucks with the English language as “the Swedish ambassador”.

    We’re polite enough that we’d be embarrassed to see you embarrass yourself – and we wouldn’t want that; would we? ;-)

  47. Dr Watson said everything I wanted to say and more.

    But hey, everyone, please try and see the humour of this article and don’t take it too seriously!

    I’m one of those swedes who’ve always loved to practice the English I learned as a child. So when my Americans cousins visit, I tend to speak English while they practice their Swedish. Problem is that it sounds awful! (Their Swedish that is, my English is naturally impeccable!) ;)

    Swedish WITHOUT an accent is bad enough: dry as sawdust to my ears, not at all musical, and certainly not sexy or cool. Swedish WITH an accent is just painful.

    This is why we LOVE English. English is “cool”, especially American English. It’s expressive, emotional, free! It liberates one’s mind from out of the flatpack chipwood box which the Swedish language normally keeps it in.

    Thus, Swedish is truly an endagered species, because we don’t want to be Swedish, we want to be cool!

    But you are mistaken about skånska. Many of us snobs from Stockholm find this half-Danish an abberation that sounds almost as much like a serious throat problem as Danish itself. ;)

    And up until the 1940s, German used to be our second language. Somehow after WWII though, it rapidly lost popularity…

  48. Well as a Swede myself, after reading this blogpost (after googling ‘how swedish sounds to foreigners’) i must admit, I HATE listening to accented Swedish mainly because of two things, if you walk up to me in the street asking for directions in crappy Swedish, i won’t likely want to spend that time with you since i have better things to do(sorry i sound so harsh) so i rather take it over with with english, so we all can get on with our day! Lol.
    The second thing is, because it sounds ugly and like im speaking with someone who is 20% after in life. But you are right, one time i was in a store that had an owner of immigrant background – i could not understand what he said at all, he spoke nice swedish, but at that day i could not grasp it at all what he was saying. even though i understood it before when i had a good day and it wasn’t late at night, i really believe that the Swedish language its more important to speak correctly because if i feel down one day, it will take me a lot of effort to understand you, like that time! But i disagree with people in the comments labeling Skånska as gibberish opposed to immigrant dialects, Skånska is a beautiful combination of sounds, listen to Edvard Persson – Jag har bott vid en landsväg / en liten vit kanin) And you’ll understand what im talking about! However, immigrant dialects just annoys me, not because im a nationalist, which i admit i am to some extent(i love the traditions and want them unchanged), i just dont like listening to it, once in a while is fine, but now its so many with it that my ears wants to bleed.

  49. But may i say, After cooling down… This blogpost really brought up my reaction to the change ive witnessed with my country (i was brought up loving & conservative by my grandma on the country side, who on her time the most common transportation was with a horse, so that gives you an idea!, and I\’m a young adult by now)

    I switch to English because i don\’t want you to bother on having a hard time speaking Swedish with me, So i happily switch to English as a favor for you! The other i said is only when im in stress or in a bad mood.

    But i know how you feel because when i was in Spain trying my new found Spanish to order ice cream she could not understand a word of what i was saying until my friend said it exactly the same and she understood, but french people always thinks I\’m french when speaking to them – which maybe isn\’t as good idea when my vocabulary runs out – which happened quite a few times which did tend to confuse people when i switched to English, and they don\’t like English!

    Great blog btw!

  50. I’ve had completely different experiences in this country. Although I do speak Swedish with a heavy (German) accent, people generally have no problem to understand me. Actually I think that Swedes are much more tolerant regarding different ways of speaking than many others. My theory has always been that they have so many dialects and accents that no matter how you pronounce a word, you will be understood. Most of them also really appreciate when one tries to speak Swedish even though English would have been the easier choice. BUT two things: 1. It can be problematic if one converses in English with a Swede and then, in between, uses a Swedish word (such as a specific item, or a place name). The same conversation in Swedish, and it wouldn’t be a problem. I think this is rather natural and happens also when you talk in other languages – sudden, unexpected uses of words in a different language are not likely to be understood. 2. The American accent really is one of the most difficult ones I have come across when non-Swedes try to speak Swedish. No problem with Arabic, Eastern European or even French accents – they might be heavy, but still easy to understand. American accents are different – there must be some phonetic explanation for this.

  51. It’s just considered to be courteous to speak another persons language if they have trouble speaking yours, or to try to find a middle-ground with a language that you both can understand.

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