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Stockholm Syndrome: It’s not what you say…

The first teacher to grapple with our class after our beloved Stefan left was a disaster.

Bounding eagerly into the drowsy classroom, all beads and plaits, she set out her stall early on: the world language expert.

First we all gave our names and where we came from. Then she nodded knowingly, as if to say, “Aha, I suspected it might be like this”.

Accents. That was what we would work on, she said, because we all sounded like foreigners when we spoke Swedish.

Yarg kawmer frawn Englend,” she said dramatically, sounding like a cross between Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins and Queen Elizabeth. “I come from England.”

I cringed. But when it comes to jokes about nationalities, the English seem to be one of the world’s few remaining fair targets.

“You see?” she said.

Yeahg karma frahn Yoo E-es Ay,” she continued, warming to her theme with a raising of an imaginary stetson. Now she comes from Texas.

Garry, our class American, bellowed loudly. Unfortunately our teacher mistook his disbelief for appreciation and launched into her full repertoire.

The French were given the nasal aw-ee-aw-ee-aw treatment. Chinese speak Swedish with a “chingchong” at the end of every sentence, she revealed. But she saved her best cultural faux pas till last.

Stamping her foot our new teacher stared furiously at the class.

Jag! Kom! Fron! Toosk! Land!

She stamped her foot again, and marched stiffly across the room with an ill-concealed hint of goose in her step. Luckily, there are no Germans in our class.

“You see,” she said, in normal Swedish again. “We all have our different ways of speaking.”

About half the class failed to find their way back to the room after the coffee break and the following week we had a new teacher.

As she welcomed us for the first time, I began to wonder if she had also come from the Basil Fawlty School of Teaching.

She had a very strong Eastern European accent. It reminded me of Omid Djalili, a British stand-up comedian of Iranian descent, who used to do half his act in a thick immigrant accent before completely throwing the audience by switching to his own London accent.

Alas, Rositza, who came to Sweden from Bulgaria ten years ago, had started as she meant to go on.

Now, being a foreigner, I tend to find myself backing the immigrant when it comes to getting a job, but if there’s one job I want to see a Swede doing, it’s teaching me and my immigrant friends Swedish and Swedish culture.

Rositza speaks excellent Swedish and, no doubt, has a solid grasp of the grammar. But having discovered the previous week how ludicrous our accents sounded in the ears of Swedes, we at least want to hear how to pronounce words correctly. Natively.

Learning Swedish with a Bulgarian accent is not what I and my classmates are paying for (OK, we’re not paying for our lessons at all but that’s not the point). I was sure that there would be some dissenting voices in our coffee break. As usual, when I’ve tried to second-guess people from different countries, I was wrong.

The thing is, as well as being, it turns out, an undeniably skilled teacher, Rositza is quite a charmer. And during our break a clear shift had taken place in the spirit of the class.

The women, usually quieter, seemed to have a little more confidence: here was a young immigrant woman who was running the show. And the men had been softened.

But the main difference was not between the genders but between nationalities. A shy Greek guy who once lived in Sofia was chatting away with Rositza at the coffee machine. Walking back to the classroom, Gregor the Russian student flirted with her while a Bosnian girl brought her up to date with our studies.

It made me realise how Anglo-American our classes with Stefan had been. How shameful it was that we slipped so easily into English whenever the Swedish was too tricky. How excluded the others must have felt when we chatted with Stefan about when he lived in London, or his US road trips.

We’re not all like Garry, who, against type, is a sponge for other cultures and languages. (He has already asked Rositza about private Bulgarian lessons, although I suspect that his motives are not entirely academic.)

Most of us grasp for the familiar and suddenly, when words are not understood, it’s not English that’s the fallback tongue but one of several Slavic languages. The jokes and side references are about people I’ve never heard of and places I’ve never been to.

The class hierarchy has changed – and that’s a lesson in itself.

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