Förlåt, min svenska är inte så bra…

The title of this post is Swedish for “Sorry, my Swedish isn’t that good.” This is something that I repeat constantly. Here’s why.

It will be hard for this to sound like anything other than woefully self-pitying and bitter, but this is something that has been bothering me for a while. I’ve posted about this on Facebook so this may be a bit of repetition for some of you.

I’m pretty embarrassed about the fact that even after living in Sweden for nearly six years, I still struggle with the language. My level of listening comprehension is fairly high, but carrying on a decent conversation is still difficult for me. It’s. Just. Really. Hard. I’m reminded of my shortcomings on a daily basis because all of the meetings and conferences at work are held exclusively in Swedish, and many of my Swedish colleagues speak to me only in Swedish. Fair enough, even though this is an international school that employs several teachers whose Swedish ability is mediocre at best. This uncompromising policy has really improved my Swedish immensely in the last two years.

The problem (if one could even consider it a problem) is that it’s really not essential to know Swedish to live in Sweden. Just about everyone here speaks English to some degree, and it’s usually easier to just use English with a Swede than to struggle to communicate in the native language. Most Swedes are delighted to meet a native English speaker and relish the opportunity to show off their English skills. Because of this it’s easy to become lackadaisical in learning Swedish. Therefore, English speakers tend not make any real effort to learn the language until they end up in a situation where they really need to know it.

Despite my pitiful but gradually improving ability, I must acknowledge that my colleagues have been wonderfully patient and supportive. Indeed, most teachers are.

Unfortunately, the people who make me feel really stupid are certain members of Swedish boyfriend’s family. My listening ability is actually quite good (as previously mentioned), but many of them speak way too fast. Others have the heavy guttural Gothenburg accent, which makes it hard to understand them. When they speak to me I might not give an immediate response because my brain is still trying to process what I just heard. I must have pretty confused look on my face during this pause. Then they try yelling the same thing to me thinking that’s somehow going to help. It usually just confuses and flusters me even more. When that doesn’t work they try talking to me in that patronizing “I’ve told you a thousand times” way that an adult talks to a child. It’s unpleasant.

What’s even worse is when I make a mistake and get ridiculed for it. The other day I was talking to Tobbe’s grandmother and I mispronounced one word. We were talking about his sister and what a talented photographer she is. “Hon har mycket talang” (She has a lot of talent) I said. But I had mispronounced the word ‘talang’ as ‘talång’ (pronounced ‘Ta LONG’) She laughed. And laughed. And laughed. Apparently she didn’t notice that I wasn’t laughing with her. I was mortified. Really humiliated. Being laughed at in a ridiculing way is one of the things I hate the most. I wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground and die.

Not being able to speak the language well is utterly frustrating for me because I’m a perfectionist. I really hate having to do something knowing it’s going to be a half-ass effort. Learning to speak a new language is hard enough without someone laughing at you whenever you make a mistake. I have so little confidence in my ability. Therefore, whenever I’m about to speak Swedish to someone I’ve just met, I have to apologize for the awfulness of it first. Then at least they’ve been forewarned and hopefully won’t be insulted by my hopeless but unintentional butchering of their precious language.

14 thoughts on “Förlåt, min svenska är inte så bra…

  1. I hate that you are being made to feel this way, it’s a stupid bloody impossible language to learn. I know you are a perfectionist and I totally understand the way you feel the need to apologise but shite you are really doing great and they should apologise for being so pedantic.

  2. I hear you 100%. Been here for ten years this fall, and worked in swedish full-time, every workday for 9 of those years. I speak pretty well, and write more poorly than I speak. Some days it frustrates the hell out of me, and some days I can laugh about it. I don’t mind being the source of a good chuckle for my co-workers now and again. I do hate the co-workers who feel the need to rub it in, basically saying something along the lines of “say it aain, say it again, hahahaha.” Yeah. Those are the same co-workers I diplomatically taught the english phrase acronym FOAD.
    Thing is though, we’re privileged as English speakers in a way. We are used to hearing bad and butchered English. Most of us from larger cities (I’m born and raised in the heart of Toronto) are used to understanding even the worst English. Swedes on the other hand are not used to hearing broken Swedish. I think it is a new experience for a lot of them. Maybe their nasty dark cold winter souls revel in it sometimes. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, in the big picture, when all is said and done, I figure I’m the one enriching their lives. I would never dream of moving here and not learning the language, and in fact put a hell of a lot of pressure on myself to learn it as quickly as I could. Now ten years on I figure, I do the best I can, if you don’t like it, FOAD. ;o)

  3. I completely understand what you are saying Miss Kitten. It was the same with me when I was in Paris, minus not having a French girlfriend and relatives, etc. It was frustrating, though it was also worse because nobody spoke English, so I was really up the creek without a paddle. Or 12 volt motor because Americans don’t paddle.

    • You mean you didn’t speak Francais parfait with ze Parisians? Quelle horreur! Parisians expect everyone, including other French people, to speak exactly like them, n’est-ce pas?

  4. My favorite, of course, is when I try to speak Swedish only to be dismissed as a simple moron who couldn’t possibly be a polyglot since the passport she caries clearly states that she an an American. Rather than allowing me to stumble and sort, I hear, in English, “We skip this.”

    I don’t know how much must pass between that comment and the “American’s refuse to speak anything but English comment.” I believe there is some code in some screwy EU law, however.

    While it is certainly very hospitable of the Swedes to allow us to keep speaking our dear mother tongue, it serves no benefit towards either party. They will always have duality in thought and those attempting to assimilate will never fully be able to do so.

    My contribution to the rant is this: Very. Well. But pick a fucking side. Either you’re going to practice your English and be happy about it or you are going to criticize the dirty foreigner for not picking up the language quick enough. You can have this. You can have that. You cannot have both.

  5. I grew up in Southern California, where Spanish is becoming more and more prevelant. It’s the majority language in many parts of the state and walking into certain neighborhoods in LA feels like walking into downtown Tijuana.

    While it’s tempting to get all Sverigedemocraterna on them and say that if they’re going to live in the US then they should learn the goddamn language, I know from personal experience how hard it is to adapt linguistically and other ways to life in another country. It’s totally true that Americans, Canadians, and British are used to communicating with people whose English is really poor.

    I listen to Swedes make tons of mistakes with my language all the time, but I never laugh at them or correct them because I don’t want to come off as an annoying asshole. The only thing that really matters is communication. Are they communicating what they want to say even if it’s not in perfect English?

    I wish I could be like my friend Janelle who speaks Göteborgska Swedish fluently, but I’m not and I can’t. Until the day my Swedish becomes perfect (which it probably never really will) all I ask is a little patience and tolerance.

  6. I was once at a conference where a Chinese engineer got up to speak. In slow, poorly pronounced English he opened his remarks with “First, I want to apologize for my poor English. But I think it’s probably better than your Chinese.” He’d instantly won over the room.

    Maybe the next time someone gives you crap about your Swedish pronunciation, you should respond in a heavy, rapid Valley Girl accent- “Ohmygawd, I am, like SOOOO sorry! Should I just, like, talk American from now on, would that be easierrr?”

  7. Being the only ‘proper’ Swede here at the moment (it would seem) I somehow feel I need to jump in (and the language police in me will not be still on this topic)! What your boyfriend’s relatives do isn’t OK. It’s far from OK and they should have this pointed out to them until they get it. I can come down there and make fun of their Göteborska, if that would help?

    But languages are beautiful and precious things, and as someone who has been forced to learn (but happens to love it) at least one other language to be able to communicate with the rest of the world, I fully understand the whole ‘Brits and Americans (and I suppose Canadians) are lazy-assed bastards who can’t be bothered to learn any other language and expect everyone else to just know theirs’ sentiment. This obviously doesn’t apply to any of you, but it is the general feeling. ‘We’ve had to struggle to learn English, so when you get here you better bloody well make an effort… ‘

    Most Swedes (and I suspect other nationalities are the same) also can’t grasp just how difficult it is for others to learn the language you were born into… English? Yes! German? God yes! French? You’d be mad to try… But Swedish? Not really. I’ve been in this discussion more times than I care to remember when meeting up with the non-Swedish bunch here in Stockholm and I don’t think there is a solution. If it isn’t that you get made fun of for trying, people won’t give you a chance because they switch to English (and I am very, very guilty of that myself). I think we just need to make people around us aware of how the way they react affects us. I also am extremely guilty of ‘over-correcting’ when I hear someone speak Swedish and messing up and that is not always welcomed… Then again, I do the same when I hear a Swede mess up in English.

    I just, in my usual verbose way, wanted to cheer you on for trying. Unless you say something truly hilarious (and I believe all of you would agree with me that there are those absolutely wonderful mistakes that someone who’s trying to learn to speak your language makes that have people cracking up all over the place and that you end up laughing at yourself), I won’t laugh. And we shouldn’t. I fear for the future of minute languages such as mine and anyone taking the time to try to learn it is fine in my book.

    • I’m so glad you commented Cecilia. I was hoping to get the perspective of a real Swede. In the meantime, I definitely plan on plugging away at my Swedish. It gets a little better each day and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your encouragement. ::hugs::

  8. I love to hear both sides of the story on this. I can read and write a little Swedish, and even have a Swedish friend who writes to me in nothing but Swedish, to force to me work on it. Gawd Love him. However, I know full well as long as there are people, there will be different approaches to the language barrier. I don’t expect that I will make anyone happy with my poor attempts at speaking the language. I give myself credit for trying, as I give anyone credit who is not a native English speaker. The rest, well, it’s just not important to me.

  9. Hi there,

    I lived in Stockholm way back and in the early 90’s. Your story is so similar to mine and I totally understand where you’re coming from. The best bit of advice I ever got was from a guy I was working with illegally on a building site before my visa came through – he wrote the ‘ å ‘, ‘ ä ‘ and ‘ ö ‘ on a piece of card, told me the sounds, then said to remember it was the same noise you would make if you were shot. The guy was a pedagogical genius and completely wasted fitting high density insulation. He’s probably Dean of some University faculty now – I hope so.

    On the question of Swedes laughing at you (particularly close family members who should know better) – do what I did – reverse the cards and start sniggering at their ‘Swenglish’ – you know the stuff – Vikings pronounced as ‘Weeeeekings’ etc. etc. They soon stop when you guffaw in their faces. Worked a treat for me anyway. Once you’ve done that just stop speaking English at all under any circumstances except medical emergency perhaps. I ended up in ridiculous situations where I would spend an entire evening speaking Swedish in the company of locals in Stockholm while they babbled merrily away in ‘Swenglish’. Used to give me quite a headache actually.

    By the way – have you taken a formal course in Swedish? It’s well worth it and you’ll improve incredibly quickly. That & language audios are great. Don’t feel so down either – a friend of mine lived there for 35 years and the only thing he could do was order a beer. He really didn’t care a jot either.

Words, words, glorious words! Give me all of your words!

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