Tuesday, 6 September 2011

På svenska, tack

Sorry for the recent silence.  Life got a bit busy, and such periods are likely in my life.  I am hoping for things to settle down around October, so until then just bear with me.  I am not actually going to talk about any Icelandic grammar in this post, so if that is really the only reason you are here, you need read no further.  Otherwise, read on.

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Stockholm.  The trip as a whole was great, and everyone is welcome too peruse my photos.  Being the language nuts you are, though, I thought I would instead tell you about my experiences with Swedish.

 I began learning Swedish less than a year ago, after I came back from Iceland.  I wanted to learn another Nordic language so that I could communicate with the rest of Scandinavia, and Swedish was both my favourite and the one for which I had access to a native and willing speaker.   This trip was my first experience using Swedish in the wild, and I have to say that it was rather positive.  I restricted myself to using it at shops, restaurants, and cafés, this time, as that is mostly the extent of my ability. Most of the time, it was simply to order coffee or a bit of food.  Even this felt extremely silly at first; Swedish still feels heavy on my tongue and the pitch accent of Swedish can make one feel a bit ridiculous.  (The pitch accent, btw, is the rules governing the rising and falling of pitch when you pronounce Swedish. Yes, there are rules, they don't just speak like that because it's more fun).  

Compared to my attempts to use Icelandic the first time I went, this went much better.  Not only is my command of Swedish better (though not that good ;) than my Icelandic was, but the attitude of the Swedes I communicated with was much more positive.  Nearly every time I attempted Swedish, people responded in Swedish even if it was bad Swedish (which I like to think it wasn't all the time, but some of the time).  The few times people switched to English, they usually apologised and switched back to Swedish immediately.  This happened a handful of times, and they were so apologetic that I think I must have broadcast my disapproval on my face when they did it.  Either way, it got me what I wanted!

Nevertheless, I didn't get to use Swedish as much as I wanted, and I wasn't as persistent as I might have been, especially if Fiancé and I were both ordering and he used English.  The reason is that, as it often does, it felt highly uncomfortable using Swedish in such contexts, as it did when first learning Icelandic.  I think I finally put my finger on why:  In Sweden, when someone has offered to use English, and you switch to Swedish, you are both making an obvious effort to change and asking them to do the same.  After you make this sort of implicit request, the last thing you want to do is make them have to switch back the moment they say anything that you don't understand.  Many people might recognise this phase in their language learning; they can mostly ask for what they want, but they don't always understand what they get in return.  In a situation where you don't have another common language, this doesn't feel as silly.  After all, you need to communicate somehow, even if imperfectly, and it's quite nice that you are making the effort to do it in their language.  If the other party speaks your language better than you speak theirs, though, it feels very weird to make them switch back and forth for you.  Consequently, having such a safety net actually increases my anxiety, because now I feel I have to justify my use of Swedish when the whole mess would have just been easier if we had used English.

I can now recall that this is the same anxiety I felt when I first went to use Icelandic; it had to not only be Icelandic, but good Icelandic.  Otherwise, the entire exchange would be a failure that devolved into English, and if I asked them to switch back to Icelandic, I really didn't want to mess up, then.  This pressure, more than any difficulty with the mechanics of the language, probably keeps many a learner from progressing in Nordic languages or others where the native speakers are very, very good at English.  They never reach a point where they feel they can force their bad language skills on the other party, even though this is essential to progress in the language.  I can remember the exact opposite feeling in Italy.  I speak almost no Italian, and when I do, it is usually littered with guesses based on my Spanish.  Nevertheless, I feel far less anxiety; the people usually appreciate it, and it is actually necessary in many cases, as the other party's English is no better (or even worse).

Despite this pressure hanging over my head, I had some very fun experiences.  First there were some very patient service people who were willing to be very patient and kind in helping me muddle through in Swedish when the conversation confused me.  This was especially true for the first woman I spoke to.  I wasn't "planning" on speaking Swedish when I ordered dinner for Fiancé and myself, but she started in Swedish and I just thought, "Screw it".  And screw it, I did. And  when she said the price, I had no idea, and just handed her all my money in a clump. Without even a hint of amusement, she counted it out for me, saying the numbers slowly so I knew what she said and what they all were.  If I ever go back to Gamla Stan, I'm bringing her a present.  Second, there were two older people who ran some shops and spoke minimal English, meaning they enjoyed having me speak Swedish (one of them didn't know what a reading lamp was in English, and my useless explanation, translated meaning "it's something that one uses to read...", was accompanied by Fiancé making a pinching gesture to simulate the clip, and it turns out the word was simply boklampa).

The small practice I did have, along with hearing Swedish all around me (i.e. eavesdropping), gave me a huge boost up.  I understood a lot more and spoke much more confidently at the end of my week than at the beginning.  It also helped seeing all signs, hearing all announcements, etc, in the language.  I strongly believe that the brain absorbs a lot more of the language from such an environment than we assume, especially in really developing an ear for the phonology of a language.  It has also left me with a stronger resolve to improve my Swedish, and helps me see the light at the end of Awkward Tunnel (which is a term I will now use to describe the period when you want to use the language but can't always understand responses).  It may come as no surprise to many people, but I highly recommend to anyone learning a language that they subject themselves to such immersive situations as much as possible.  They can be painful, but they are also extremely rewarding.


  1. Awkward Tunnel. I like that.

    You are so right about immersing yourself in a language. That helped me when I was "switching" from Danish to Swedish and I needed to get a pretty good pronunciation very fast.

  2. I'm terrible at the motivation to keep up projects, including learning languages, but one of the things I'd love to do sometime (need a job first >< ) is go to Germany for a bit - it's the one language I know vaguely enough to even start getting by in. Personal mission, set!

  3. I had a go at learning Swedish a while ago, but you can only go so far with a book and a CD. I've done that for quite a few languages, and it means I falter after learning the basics simply because I have no opportunity actually to speak the language with real people. I can still read easy-ish Swedish OK, but God help me if I tried to have a conversation in it!

  4. I really identify with the 'Awkward Tunnel.' I am at that stage with my Finnish (after 8 months living in Finland). Here's to coming out the other end ;)