Pratar du engelska? The truth about Sweden’s (non) language barrier
Language barriers often serve as a concern for students who choose to do an exchange year. However, as Sam discusses, this language barrier can pose some awkward incidents
Sweden, and the Nordic countries in general, are well known to have excellent command of the English language. This is a stereotype that has turned out to actually be very true. I was fairly confident before coming to Sweden that I would get by just knowing English, but I honestly didn’t expect that the average level of English is as good as it is.
When looking at how Swedes interact with English when learning it, then everything does start to make a lot more sense. Swedes growing up start with their English very early on as they consume a lot of British and American media. Harry Potter and Friends are main staples of a Swede’s English diet. Harry Potter specifically is used as an opportunity for children to try and watch something in English without subtitles. Furthermore, for Swedish stars to break onto the international scene then singing or writing in English is a much more effective medium; ABBA Tovelo, and Zara Larsson are some examples here.
So as a native English speaker, adapting to my new Nordic surroundings has been made much easier than if I went to other countries who either have less English proficiency or a non-latin alphabet. I could freely speak to anyone in my native tongue with absolutely no problems whatsoever. If anything, Swedes (and other internationals) are very pleased to be given an opportunity to practice their English with a native speaker and I am always bombarded with questions about the language. Admittedly, I do not hold the answers to many of these questions as many of the quirks of the English language are taken for granted by us natives. One prevalent example is the order of adjectives and why it’s a ‘big blue house’ and not a ‘blue big house’. These unwritten rules are second nature for natives but have to be meticulously studied and memorised by others.
The Swedish language is very akin to German but might just be one of the most useless languages to learn if you don’t live here. It is literally just Sweden that speak it as neighbours Norway, Finland and Denmark all have their own unique languages too. Most people will go through their lives without interacting with Swedish at all. Even if you go to IKEA, many of the names of products aren’t actually real words but just regular names or real-life Swedish places.
Not knowing Swedish hasn’t caused many problems for me whilst I’ve been here, just a usual extra step of asking “Pratar du engelska?” (Do you speak English) (yes) when ordering a coffee or beer. However when in a majority Swedish setting such as a gasque or sexa (formal and informal dinners) and you are sat on a table of Swedes all speaking Swedish – then it can feel a bit exclusionary. Of course, I do not blame them for this – as they are Swedes, speaking Swedish in Sweden. Furthermore, Swedes are not used to hearing poorly pronounced Swedish as Sweden is fairly demographically homogenous. So they will entertain the idea of you trying to speak their language, but if you give the slightest incorrect pronunciation, then the listener will have next to no idea what you are on about. Annoyingly, this inevitably leads to the conversation switching to English. I say annoyingly because a country’s language is baked into the cultural DNA, so learning and getting to grips with the language is all a part of getting the Swedish experience. And constantly having to rely on my English means that I am somewhat missing out on the whole experience.
Overall, I am extremely grateful that I am a native speaker. Several international students that I have met struggle a lot with English, but because it’s the universal, they are forced to adapt. I have not been forced in the same way. The aim is to have a good grasp of the language before the year ends, but this is only attainable by seeking situations of discomfort and forcing the use of Swedish over the much easier English.
Editor: Ryan Gerrett