Head-on collisions with the real language barrier

René Rice
René Rice - [email protected]
Head-on collisions with the real language barrier

Columnist René Rice wonders why it is that Swedes feel the need to reply to him in English when all he wants is the learn the lingo and order a fiskburgare.


Learning a new language can be a pretty daunting task for most of us. One of the most common pieces of advice to achieve the best (and quickest) results is to actually live in the country itself and totally immerse yourself in the vernacular.

For the most part, I'm inclined to agree - unless of course virtually all the natives of that country already speak your language fluently and would clearly much rather kidnap your mother tongue than communicate via their own. I'm referring of course to our beloved Sweden.

Now don't get me wrong - if you're a native English speaker who wants to learn Swedish then living here will still be highly beneficial; you'll be able to take Swedish courses, eavesdrop on conversations, read Swedish books and newspapers, watch Swedish television and movies with optional subtitles and have unparalleled access to a veritable smorgasbord of all things, well, Swedish really.

Just try however, to spark up a conversation in their language and you'll soon be chatting away in English again before you know it.

I'll be the first to admit that my Swedish isn't perfect yet, and there are times when I prefer to use English - at the bank, dentist, doctor and so on, but I can pretty much hold my own when it comes to shops, restaurants and hotels, among other things.

So why is it that when I ask - in fluent Swedish - for a fiskburgare (yep, you guessed it - a fish burger) in my local Max hamburger joint, the response I am given is a polite but decidedly English: "Yes, sir. It will just be a few minutes if you don't mind waiting..."

The most baffling part of all of this is that I have been told by many Swedes that I don't even have an accent when I speak the language, so unless I simply look like a native English speaker (your guess is as good as mine here), then I really have no idea why so many shop assistants, waiters and bartenders feel the need to reply to me in English.

No matter how enjoyable and personally fulfilling it may be for these Swedes to communicate in their second language as opposed to their first, I do wish that the culprits could spare a thought for people like myself who are still learning Swedish and basically need all the practice we can get.

I find being continually answered in English when you're doing your best to interact in Swedish not only extremely frustrating but also quite condescending - Aah, he's trying to speak my language, bless his little cotton socks. I'll answer him in perfect English to show him just how little he really knows.

I suppose many Swedes relish the prospect of showing off their heightened language skills, and quite rightly so. After all, my few years of elementary French at school doesn't really compare, especially when all I can remember now are some random swear words and the obligatory phrase: "Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the train station please?"

Fortunately, as every Brit knows, the French understand English a lot better if you simply shout the words repeatedly at them...



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