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Swedes and English: when things go wrong

Joel Linde · 21 Nov 2011, 13:15

Published: 21 Nov 2011 13:15 GMT+01:00

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Below, The Local has compiled a number of YouTube clips to visualize things that can go terribly wrong in the meshing of the two very different languages.

This Swedish gentleman is trying his best to explain his political convictions in English. One wonders whether it's merely the language, or the views themselves that are muddled.

This next clip, from 2010, is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a language foul-up due to a small blunder by Swede Carl-Henric Svanberg, chair of energy giant BP, as he tried in vain to give voice to his company's compassionate side following a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

For many Swedes, being British is strongly associated with being polite. At least it was when English was first introduced in Swedish schools in the 1940s, and it’s easy to see that conception sticking after clips like this.

One might think that an accomplished news anchor with Sveriges Television (SVT) would have no trouble using English when interviewing people outside of Sweden. But as anchor Rikard Palm demonstrates, even people who speak out loud for a living can get tripped up by tricky words.

Story continues below…

The clip is from SVT talk show Robins during which Palm is talking about a call he made to hotel in Tokyo to get news about a recent earthquake because the Swedish embassy wouldn't pick up.

Joel Linde (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

15:42 November 21, 2011 by occassional
"They must back to Europe and .... gimme job, gimme job".
16:32 November 21, 2011 by Opinionfool
There's an old English saying "hoist on their own petard". Me thinks how appropriate for The Local to be pointing other people's infelicity with English when they are one of the worse perpetrators themselves. Well done The Local.
16:57 November 21, 2011 by zircon
Maybe it's me, but it sounds perfectly clear to me, all three video clips what the message is. Phonetics is something else. "Regain and of whom," this is good grammar. (Clip CH Svanberg) Old man: "this invasion of foreigners..." And cutting a long story short to gimme job, gimme job (back home). Just brush up your conversation in English & practice more phonetics. Yes, I like it and Yes, please, both good English. What's the problem here? What's the misunderstanding here?
19:41 November 21, 2011 by Lukestar1991

20:57 November 21, 2011 by skogsbo
A person makes an error, whilst under pressure on camera, speaking in a 2nd language, it's quite forgivable. An editor or their sub of a news website makes page after page of errors, despite being under no pressure and almost certainly in their first language. Tragic, appalling, hypocritical... Not sure what to say about the locals attempts to edit articles!
21:48 November 21, 2011 by Evrin
I came to Sweden hoping learn Swedish. I improved my English.

even though these blows, their English is just good :)
01:10 November 22, 2011 by thinkaboutit
I think they did just fine. Give them a break already. How many languages are you fluent in?
12:22 November 22, 2011 by zircon
PS Yes, I like it & Yes, please, videoclip- the cold smile was also a good translation of what is real English. Politeness has nothing to do with emotional reflexes.
20:39 November 22, 2011 by Social Hypocrisy
How can you expect anyone to be able to speak a second language with 5 years school tuition as well as someone who has been living with the language for 30 years. Bit of a no brainer too me.

The question is can you speak a seconds language well enough after 5 years tuition to be able to get a job and integrate with your new home.

For the thousands of swedes living in other countries, this seems not to be a probelm... Why then is it a problem for immigrants who have been speaking swedish for 5 years.

Communication is a two way process, but in sweden well meaned attempts fall on deaf ears.

Swedes should be flattered that others take the time to learn their language... or are they trying to use language as a barrier to opportunity.
08:13 November 23, 2011 by Marc the Texan
01:23 November 25, 2011 by BritVik
Svanberg making a mistake? Well, well. Wasn't he the one who sat back and let Tony Hayward take the rap. As to his English, the less said about it the better. The same can be said for the TV man. But SVT is not renowned for its English.

As a teacher I told my evening group people to 'have a go' as mostly Brits, at least, would do their best to listen to what you had to say, and not how you said it, and would more often than not understand you quite well. The same can not be said of Swedes, however. Whether they are not aware of the difficulty for foreigners to master their å, ä or ö or not is a moot point. Try asking your way here in Munkedal to Bruddassvargen and see the reaction. They only know it as Brudåsvägen.

Intolerance, lack of patience or imagination, or simply sheer disrespect. I don't know which, but something is there that forms a barrier. If we, as foreigners, are to be understood, it is we who have to make the effort since they seldom will. And after 43 years here, I still come up against it, despite being relatively fluent in Swedish.
19:03 November 25, 2011 by tadchem
@Opinionfool: "infelicity"? Do you mean "infacility"?

English is a very cumbersome language. People who speak *only* English often have trouble making themselves understood by others who also speak only English.

I am a scientist and *highly* skilled with English, but I don't understand insurance salesmen or economists at all.

The problem is as old as Babel, and there is no shame attached to it.

Anyone who makes the effort to use a second language is to be praised. Skill comes with practice.
19:53 November 25, 2011 by muzammilh
i agree with the commentators expressing general discontent to this article -- i must say while most commentaries on thelocal are informative and enlightening, at best the goal of this article leans more towards unintelligible and pointless. at worst, this article suffers from an anti-swedish pro-english ethnocentrism, using cultural-defined language competency as a weapon of mockery

communication is a two-way process, and this point should not be lost in multilingual multicultural settings -- in my experience and knowledge, scandinavians have done a spectacular job mastering the english language. it's high time native-english-speaking parties in this communicative setting meet them half-way...preferably (in my opinion) by getting-over-it
12:44 November 28, 2011 by james_g
@ tadchem - cumbersome isn't the word I would use. The 'problem' (or one of them) with English is that because it's developed from so many different sources it has a huge vocabulary; one can not only use different words for exactly the same thing (which is also true, though perhaps to a lesser extent, of Swedish) but also different words for not QUITE the same thing! Shades of meaning, lots of 'em...
18:12 December 9, 2011 by grr
Americans speaking Swedish...I recently posted, in Swedish, that there were two owls hooting, up and down the creek, in my back yard. Wondered whether the they were nature's weatherman warning of the coming snow storm.

It came out to be that I actually said there were two owls who were in and out of the creek and that a poll taker (voting) might predict the storm.

"Back and forth", spoken in English, has nothing to do with a spine or the fourth occurrence of something. All we can do is smile and keep trying...forgiveness on both sides.
23:16 October 13, 2012 by ray.stretch
You are two hard on yourselves. A Swedish family visited me some years ago in the UK. The seven year old Swedish boy held every ones attention while he spoke in perfect "BBC" English and then changed to Italian when asked. A English boy aged 12 who was present could not complete a sentence in his own (English) language.
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