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.
Welcome to Sweden.