Thursday, February 12, 2009

English Lessons from Swedes

The other day I had a bad Swedish day. I just couldn’t do it. I was struggling. Couldn’t find the words I wanted. My Swedish was speckled with English words. I was making grammatical errors left and right. It was bad. I felt stupid. It happens. But everyone was patient, they helped me out, and I managed to get over whatever mental block I had.

Having experienced that during the day though is what made my evening so interesting. Because I have a habit of talking to myself when I am alone. Let’s say talking out loud to myself when I’m alone. Talking to one’s self sounds borderline crazy.

Anyway, suddenly, I was talking to myself in Swedish. Without even really noticing it. It frightened me. I didn’t know what to do. So I made a conscious decision to say a few things in English. Then I just shut up. Because, remember, I was alone.

Anyway, this little episode reminded me of a few conversations I had with another English speaker after having lived here in Sweden for a while. And it has to do with my knowledge of the English language.

I believe that I have a good grasp of the English language. Grammar has never really been my thing so I couldn’t sit down with you and discuss the intricacies of past tense, future perfect. But for the most part, I feel comfortable with English. Reading. Writing. Speaking. I can do it all. One might even describe me as a native speaker of English. Which would be an accurate description.

It is because of this self proclaimed description however, that I get a bit annoyed with some Swedes. In general, Swedes also have a good grasp of the English language. It’s been a long time since I’ve come across any Swede under the age of 40 who can’t hold a very lucid and educated conversation in English. It’s impressive.

But it is not their native language. And it shows sometimes. Just like I still find myself making horrible Swedish grammatical errors, especially with prepositions, Swedes do similar things. They translate word for word in their head and it comes out in English. So when you want to say “Jag ska lära dig…” it comes out as “I will learn you to...” It’s close. Everyone pretty much understands, but it’s not quite there. It happens. Trust me. I know. Because I do it every day I live here while speaking Swedish.

I think it is because I do it in Swedish that I sometimes get so frustrated with some Swedes. Or at least a special breed of Swedes. Usually the self-assured university type who rant about the imperialistic evil of America. If you’ve ever been to Europe, you know the type. They’re intelligent people, but exhausting.

Anyway, it tends to be these people that want to argue about English. On the whole, I don’t really go around correcting people in English. In fact, unless I just don’t understand what the person is trying to say, I keep the conversation going. Mostly because I believe the best way to learn a language is to just speak it as much as possible. While I might keep the conversation going, I have been argued with. I have had people argue with me about my choice of words in a given situation. I have heard stories of native English speakers taking classes here and writing group papers. As the only native English speaker they tend to be the ones who are at the keyboard typing away. And it seems that, inevitably, it devolves into some sort of discussion about syntax, grammar, punctuation use. It’s mind boggling to me that hours can be wasted away on this subject. At some point it is ok to defer to the person that has the most knowledge of a given subject. Or language in this case.

The interesting thing to me is that this is not at all a widespread phenomenon. Most Swedes are happy to try out their Swedish but often apologize for their lack of English skills. Of course, their English skills are amazing and their apologies tend to be of the humble Swedish sort. But once you find yourself in a university setting, a sort of academic pretentiousness seems to take over. Of course, that may not be unique to Sweden. It is frustrating though.

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  1. A very interesting discourse. I haven't been in contact with Swedes enough to confirm or deny your observations but I tend to believe that those "direct translations" happen mostly when Swedes are in their country and speak Swedish most of the time. Their mind thinks in Swedish constructions. It happens to me in Spanish now. Sometimes I translate a phrase word by word from Spanish even to my own language! Then I realize it doesn't sound right and look for the proper equivalent. However, since I mostly write and barely have anyone to speak to in my language, it passes unnoticed.

    But very, very interesting this observation of yours.

  2. oh I think youre absolutely right. its so easy to fall into the straight translation trap. Ive done it too many tmes to count. its tricky. but I think its interesting too because it really demonsrates how your native language works.

  3. The best way to keep both languages flowing fluently is to speak both languages as much as possible. I have done it for many years, and everything is fine until you have a few snappsar
    Hairy, keep on practicing wether it is talking to yourself or speaking out loud

  4. I think youre exactly right. just let them both flow. although Im going to try to stick to speaking with other people rather than outloud to myself.

  5. Yeah, in that way you will also avoid your neighbours thinking you are nuts. :)

  6. These days they don't think you're nuts. They think that you have a wireless hands-free on and you're online or something. So basically you're safe :)

  7. A friend once told me something very accurate: The moment you stop saying you're sorry for not speaking the language, your skills get 90% better.

    People surely see you're not a native swedish speaker, but so what? I think it is impossible to develop a second mother tongue.

    What do you think is my first language? :)

  8. Sure, I'd use "your" instead of "you're".

  9. What? Anonymous sounds like a native English speaker to me. And it is you're and not your. Your is for're = you are....

    I think you can develop a second mother tongue after enough years and full immersion. Example: Swedes are so damn good at English without ever even leaving Sweden. I've known Swedes to spend a short time even among native-English speakers and their English becomes nearly perfect.....

  10. Floridian in FinlandFebruary 14, 2009 at 1:59 AM

    The other annoying thing for me is the presence of British English among those certain types of know-it-alls. I didn't know much about the differences until I came here. We say things differently and what sounds common to Americans, might not be in the UK. Then people would try to undermine me by challenging me to Wikipedia, google or dictionary 'fights'. Ugh.

    The scary thing about this direct translation from another language is how normal it starts to sound after years of hearing it. I also don't tend to correct as *no one* really seems to remember. Sometimes it surprises me that people can talk with me all day long at work for years and they still don't notice their mistakes and learn from how I speak.

    Actually, in general, I think native speakers have a difficult time understanding foreigners speak our language. You have to really tune your ear to it and as you learn their language and culture better, you understand more what they mean. For example, when I speak Finnish, my husband understands perfectly what I'm trying to say. However, someone who doesn't speak English often or has not spoken much with foreigners might take what I say too literally.

  11. You're probably right, maybe part of the reason that I think they (non-English natives) get better is really just that I learn their speech patters so well. I no longer am confused by their particular pronunciation or grammatical errors. Knowing someone well definitely increases the ability to understand the.

  12. I don't think you're crazy just because you're speaking to yourself. I don't even think that it's that weird that you'll eventually will speak in Swedish.

    As a Swede myself I tend to speak to myself in Swedish, but a lot of the times I do think and speak in English. And then sometimes with a fake Scottish accent. But that's not madness, it's just practising. However, the Scottish part is a bit weird.

  13. This discussion was an interesting one for me because I remember exactly what Hairy was talking about in the university setting--people arguing about the proper use of word choice and syntax/grammer with you when you're the only native speaker in the group. It was never a question either, such as, "Is such-and-such the best word choice? but most often an absolute like "That's not right".

    Also, and this was something that just came up the other day between some friends, the use of 'mother tongue' is one of those words that tends to give away that you're not a native speaker of English--at least american English. It seems like the prefered way to ask what your mother tongue is here is to ask what the person's first language is. When I was taking swedish courses in Sweden, my professor asked what my "modersmål" was. I studdered for a second, finally asking what that word meant and to my suprise he switched to english and said, "mother tongue". Even in English I still didn't know what he meant. I had never even heard the phrase before that. It might be more common in British English, but as for here on the west coast of the USA it doesn't seem to be all that common.

  14. I think there are plenty of Swedes who, besides their English grammar lessons from school, have had plenty enough exposure to English (TV, movies, heavy college textbooks, travel...) to develop an opinion about what looks and sound like good English to them.

    In and of itself, it is an accomplishment to reach a level where one has the self-confidence to have an opinion about what looks good or bad in a foreign language. But they are not always right ;-)

  15. Hear hear!

    I'd never defer to a native English speaker regarding the English language simply because they're native English speakers. Especially not if I knew I was right and he/she was not.

    Are you native English speakers out there saying that you've never met a countryman with a poor vocabulary and a poor grasp of grammar?

    Still, I wouldn't try to correct such a person during a conversation. That would just be rude - whatever the language. It's sometimes hard to say what is correct English (or Swedish) these days though. Someone like Swedish Linguist Fredrik Lindström would probably say that the only thing that matters is that it's understandable. He is wrong of course, but that's one "school".

  16. @costarossa – and that is always a plus!

    @smek – that’s very true… I still get tricked by those things sometimes.

    @anonymous – I would agree with that about not apologizing and just going for it. always good for the self-esteem I would imagine also.

    @anonymous – probably agree

    @anonymous – then you would use the wrong word

    @m8surf – also agreed. And a good explanation.

    But I do think it really takes years and years before yu can truly end up with a second mother tongue. You can become damn good. And you can become fluent. But to call it your second mother tongue takes a long time.

    @floridian – its true, sometimes that does cause problems. And its something that I think is interesting just because of the amount of American movies, tv shows, and music. But still that british English dominates. I blame the fact that the UK is in Europe…

    @m8surf – speech patterns are really important. That’s why Im a big fan of letting people just talk though. Because if you follow the speech pattern and the gist of the conversation, chances are you can have a very good one without needing to stop and correct people or try to understand what they are saying.

    @anonymous – oh I love it. especially the Scottish accent!

    @the good Dr. – and that’s the thing that gets me. not the suggestion or question but the statement.

    I also think youre right about the mother tongue thing. The more I think about it you just don’t say that in Colorado either. You say native language. Good catch.

    @eklandisk – youre absolutely right, Swedes are inundated with English. And most of the time they are damn good at it. and willing to ask questions. Willing to try it out. But as you say at the end… sometimes they just aren’t right. Which is fine. It’s the arguing about appoint that gets to me after a while.

    @Jacob – there are plenty of people who struggle with grammar and aren’t very well spoken. Most of the time though, those who have those problems aren’t in a university setting abroad. And I think that’s where part of my problem arises… that there is this attitude in that setting that they know best.

  17. Mastering Swedish

    Funny Swedish language course.

    (downloadable mp3's)

  18. Though they aren't always right, I'd hazard a guess that Swedish college students have received many more hours of English grammar lessons throughout their school years than American college students at the same level.

    It may be humbling for Americans to be corrected by a non-native English speaker. But temper your ego for a sec and ask if they aren't actually correct.

    What might seem to them like an "I know best" attitude might actually have a different motive: That Swedish student might have had similar expressions marked as errors by their English teacher and simply don't want to commit the same error again. Lots of training in formal grammar often leads to an overly formal attitude towards writing.

    Lots of well-educated Americans without otherwise apparent dyslexia make silly/looking mistakes with homonyms daily: affect/effect, due/do, to/too/two, there/their.

    If that appears in informal writing, I won't usually mention it. But if I'm writing a formal text together with someone, I sure won't let something like that pass without speaking up.

    The "word verification" made me smile: "prickle".

  19. Im not sure that most Swedes have more grammar training than most americans by the time college comes around, but it is possible I suppose solely because of what goes into learning a new language.

    and you're right, sometimes there are going to be mistakes like that. and in that case someone should most definitely speak up. my problem is not with those issues. its the attitude that certain words should be used, certain styles should be used, certain ways of presenting an idea in english should be used, and it is done in such a way to suggest that there is no other way. its the arguing that takes so much time that gets to me.

  20. (First I need to correct myself above: homonym should have been homophone.)

    I think English lessons in Sweden focus more on grammar and vocabulary. It's simply a requirement for learning a second language.

    In an English-speaking country, the English subject will also need to cover literature (unless that is taught separately - not common?). So, there may be less time for English grammar.

    A teacher in California who teaches high school French that I know (of) says her students have very little concept of grammar at all. She has to first explain English grammar ("This is how it works in English") before she can even begin to teach them French grammar.

    Oops, I didn't mean to write so much about that. Anyway, maybe you happen to be working with some really stubborn and inflexible minds there. The best and the brightest travel abroad - you did, I did.

    Word verification: "ratode" - a rodent version of a "catode"?

  21. I suppose thats fair enough. having to study everything else would leave less time for the rest of it.

    I ended up with a lot of grammar in school. luckily I hated it and tried to forget as much as possible.

  22. But, but, but America is the imperialistic evil in the world. Just pointing out the obvious.
    @Knightfish, I agree mother tongue is peculiar. Since you live in the USA native language isn't quite right.

  23. aaah... so you're one of those people.

    as an aside, the US doesnt actually have an official language. just an interesting litte tid bit if you will.

  24. I must say that often in the US, in the university setting in particular where foreign students are common, Americans frequently comment on the overt grammatical perfection of international students. In a country the natives tend to use slang, sayings, and "cool speech." Natives are also exposed daily to local, uneducated people speaking incorrectly and that is filling your memory each day. Given this, it is definately possible that A PARTICULAR non-native speaker who has had many years of intensive study without exposure to local (incorrect) speakers may know A PARTICULAR word or grammar rule that A PARTICULAR native speaker does not. Additionally, don't forget that English is spoken all around the globe, not in one place like Swedish. The norms in UK, US, South Africa, Carri bean, Australia, etc made not be the same.

    @ anon - Imperialistic evil of the world? Oh yeah? Well you're a big, ugly bugger butt! I'll match you childish and stupid for childish and stupid any old day.

  25. @m8sufr - youre right, it is more than possible, it happens. I admit that freely. but the amount of time and energy that is so often spent on such endeavors is ridiculous. and the one that really gets me is when people question my vocabulary and whether i am using the correct word or not. for some reaon that is even more annoying than the grammatical thing.

  26. HairySwede, jag tror det är såhär. Om du är i en grupp av universitetsstudenter så vill alla känna att de bidrar. Det du beskriver påminner mig om när jag pluggade, massor av år sedan. Jag hade rätt lätt för mig och kunde snabbt lösa uppgifterna vi fick som grupparbete, och göra det på egen hand. Jag hade på den tiden en tendens att trycka på min lösning (som oftast var korrekt och rätt) på de andra, för att snabbt bli klar, men det visade sig vara en mindre lyckad strategi. En dag tog mina studiekompisar ett snack med mig, de var jättearga, och sade att de ville ha tid att tänka ut svaren själva - annars skulle de inte lära sig nåogt - och få vara med att bidra. Att jag så lätt och snabbt kunde ge det korrekta svaret var inte en tillgång, i det här fallet, eftersom det förstörde för dem. Så hade jag dittills inte sett det, för mig hade det bara varit att bli klar så snabbt som möjligt. De sa att antingen fick jag tåla att de kom med sina förslag, kanske felaktiga, eller så fick jag inte vara med alls i gruppen. Kanske är det något liknande som är förklaringen till att det uppstår diskussioner om ordval när du samarbetar med svenskar om en engelsk text. De vill helt enkelt pröva sin egen kompetens, och inte bara nöja sig med att den som har engelska som modersmål snabbt ger det korrekta svaret. Uppgiften blir då rätt och korrekt besvarad, men de övriga har inte lärt sig någonting alls.

    Apropå det, är det inte dags för dig att börja skriva ett inlägg då och då också på svenska? Eller har du ytterligare en blogg, en svenskspråkig blogg?

    Två tips: 1) När du känner att du vill gå omkring och prata för dig själv, på svenska, sätt då in mobiltelefonens öronmussla i örat, då tror alla att du talar i telefonen. 2) När du känner att det är jobbigt med dina grammatiska fel, tänk då på Tony Irving, som inte alls verkar bekymra sig men ändå är så oändligt populär genom "Let's Dance".

  27. That is an excellent point. And something I didn’t think about at all actually. I suppose just being able to discuss the proper grammar and use of words is helpful.

    It probably is time to start writing a bit in Swedish. But I’m a much more entertaining person in English. I would probably describe myself as pretty boring in Swedish actually. But a Swedish post every now and again would be damn good for me. We’ll see…

    I love the advice too. Both the talking to myself thing and using Tony Irving. Because you’re right on both I think.

  28. I identify myself with what you say about being able to write in English better than Swedish. I have a blog in Russian and I see myself as a much more entertaining person there too, than in my Spanish blog, but I make an effort because I see it as a challenge and part of my integration process. Good luck.

  29. oh man... you guys are killing me. I might actually have to do the swedish thing.

    We'll see...

  30. i felt bored so said let's read hairy swede's blog . boy when you say one might describe you as a native English speaker it just got me hysteric haha .
    discussing punctuation and language related issues, why it's that way why this is this way ,why why why sure is frustrating. i mean it's language you can't argue why why, because sky is high! but you have to keep in mid that you Mom would wake you up with "wake up my dear hairy, it's cow milking time" (hopefully a few times) and this is why you're a native english speaker, swedes though use to get up with an alarm clock, so they're not native English speakers. lol
    hope you understand i'm just kidding. and thanks man for this blog, in a word it's phenomenon.
    just now a Swede said "get a life" to her friend perhaps because of my presence. now i'm not a native English speaker but my understanding of the expression is "what the hell you're talking about! It's totally stupid or very informal cut the crap". or the other day someone told me he " kick my ass" as a joke while i think of it as really strong language.

  31. language is pretty interesting. and youre right. the rules. they suck. sometimes it doesnt help to ask why. thats just the way they are. but that can sure be frustrating sometimes.

  32. Well, I also have some observations about the strength of some words in a foreign language. Actually, English isn't my first language and when I'm swearing it never sounds so bad to me. Normally, I barely use bad words in my mother tongue, but when I do it always hurt my ears and I excuse people afterwards (for using them).
    So I have had a few misunderstandings on this field, for instance when I was telling an Irish coach driver that our excursion "sucks". He became really angry at me.

  33. there does seem to be a disconnect when using certain words in a different language. I think that is one of the reason that English curse words are used so frequently by Swedes. They dont carry the same weight as the Swedish words.

  34. very interesting blog! After living in an other country for a year, when i came back to sweden, I got a cultural shock!!! who are these weird people? I think Swedish people are strange- and Ive been living here all of my life, almost!!!

    My dad is a native english speaker- so I kind of grew up with it, although i feel more fluent in swedish... But the "direct translation" thing works both ways for me: swedish to english and english to swedish.

    Ive started to say "vänta en minut", from wait a minute, which is not a typically swedish phrase (or is it?), yes or yes please or mhm instead of ja and lots of other annoying things... =)

    But being in an english speaking country, if i was tired, sometimes i would throw in a swedish word in an english sentence.

    And I had to be taught the differnce between learn/teach and borrow/lend!since they are the same word in swedish...

    And I was laughed at for my constant use of "eeehm"...

    Haha, well languages, and learning them are an interesting process =)
    good luck

  35. yeah being tired or drunk really can mess with the words.

    I notice when I go back to the US, sometimes there are certain Swedish words that just fit the situation better. The same can obviously be said when over here.

    But it is an interesting process like you said.

  36. I apprerciate you blog very much. It is insightful, witty, of course educational, and I appreciate very much your good English grammar and compositional skills. I spent my primary and high school years hating English studies but now, out of neccessity, I have gained an appreciation because of learning my second language. I learned some hard lessons honing skill in be Spanish. But my 2nd language has become Swedish (I'm married to a Swede). I live in Tennessee and while i still do not profess to have mastered English skills, I do recognize when someone misspeaks such as "I don't have none..." (a profound double negative). This coming from individuals whom often possess a colleage degree. I do the e-mail thing pretty heavy esp at work and often see then (for than), there (instead of their), etc.

    My Swedish is really broken but I do OK. I have my study courses, mp3 files from Berlitz and other useful non-berlitz resources where I listen to both repetition and dialogue between two native speakers. As well, I try to read alot of Swedish. My wife is busy working, otherwise we would spend much more time between ourselves in our own dialogue. On visits, my relative tolerate me. One svägerska really has patience since she was a teacher to special needs individuals (hmm, this is where my witty daughter would say "how appropriate for you papa").

    Anyway I'm stoked that I found your blog and receive frequent e-mail updates. Keep it up.

    Thanks, Marcel

  37. glad to hear it marcel, and Im quite impressed by all the different languages you have going. well done!

  38. An interesting article. I hate it that somehow I find myself in it, but on the other side than you (the exhausting people). I don't usually correct English mistakes, but they never ever go unnoticed in my head. Exhausting.
    That's what language studies do to you. So, as much as you find it exhausting to listen to the ppl, I find it exhausting to process every mistake in my mind.

    I might want to add English's not my mother tongue.


  39. it is exhausting. agreed. but I think it also needs to be remembered that language is never flawless. written or spoken. although it can be frustrating when you notice all of those mistakes along the way.

  40. Just a thought about the whole Swedish people correcting native English speakers. I think it could have something to do with you (and perhaps the other native speakers you refer to?) being an American English speaker, and that we, in Sweden, generally learn British English in schools. Of course, we watch a lot of American tv and such, but the formal grammatical rules we learn in school are the British ones, which, as I suppose you are aware of, aren't always the same as the American ones. Basically, you use your grammar, we use British grammar, and I think that could be a reason for these "correcting situations". Låter det troligt?

  41. It seems to me that in general most people have less grammatical training in their native language, than (good) foreign speakers of that language do.

    It happens ever so often that I get asked for the grammatical reason behind some English expression, and can only affirm that I know it to be correct, but don't know WHY.

    Similarly, I have often enough asked Italian or French people why something in their language is said as it is, and they just don't know why. But they do know if it's wrong or right.

    I suppose that at school some aspects of the mother tongue are just taken for granted, and no one ever bothers to explain them. Teacher immediately start on other, not-so-obvious subjects.

  42. both good points in terms of British vs. American English and the grammar issue for native speakers. I don't really know, to be honest. I have a lot of thoughts about grammar in general though and constant correcting of grammar is a huge pet peeve of mine.