Swedes are good at English. Some of the best, in fact. And as an expat wandering the streets of Stockholm, you have to force Swedes to speak Swedish – they’re thrilled to practice their favourite second-language.
But even the Swedish capital has its blind spots, and there are times when we’re left longing for a little clarification.
Here they are, in no particular order, the top nine places we wish we could find English.
1. Food packaging
Photo: Antonio Campos Domínguez/Flickr
Fil, anyone? Gräddfil? Grädde? Långfil? Mellanmjölk?
Several of our readers said grocery shopping is a chore, even without a particular diet. Add in allergies or personal preferences and it’s even worse. And don’t even get us started on the dairy section.
But perhaps the strangest bit of all is that food packaging usually does have descriptions in not just Swedish, but also Danish, Finnish, and/or Norwegian.
“Only Nordic translations, seriously?” remarked American expat Tricia Hartmann. “Swedes and Norwegians need separate translations?”
2. Public transportation announcements
No pasta? Photo: Ingolf/Flickr
Sig-nahl what now? Fel like filmjölk?
“When the bus driver mumbles something in Swedish and half the people get off, I’m always left thinking ‘Um…was that important?’” says reader Jennifer Feenstra. “If it was, I’m in trouble”
And while Stochkholm public transit operator SL has made improvements recently, multiple readers got in touch to note that SJ, Sweden’s national rail, usually only does announcements in Swedish. Destinations and the call for tickets are in English, sure – “make sure you pay for your ticket to Arlanda” – but if something goes wrong, good luck figuring it out.
Photo: Frisno Boström/Flickr
Hooray for Swedish healthcare! When you can understand what they’re saying, that is.
“My greatest frustration is communication regarding healthcare,” reader Diane Lively said. “Whether it's slogging through a webpage, figuring out which button to press while listening to a phone menu, or making an appointment, English choices are practically non-existent.”
Even once you make it to the doctor things can be messy.
“All of our doctors have started in English but after two minutes, switch over to Swedish,” Lisa Ferland says. “So I’m left wondering, ‘Ok, I know I have to get my blood drawn, but for what purpose exactly?’”
It’s not that we don’t want to learn Swedish, but these things take time – shouldn’t basic healthcare communication be offered in other languages?
“When I called Vårdcentralen the first time, I cried because I didn’t understand which button to push just to see a nurse,” another reader agreed.
4. Parking and road signs
Photo: Let Ideas Compete/Flickr
“Utfart and infart. It goes without saying,” Mark Sulkowski pitches in.
Add farthinder to that list. (“Buttplug?” one reader wondered.)
That’s right, foreigners don’t necessarily realize that you can only enter and exit one way when you use terminology that we associate more with eating too many beans.
We want to drive well, we do – but tell us where you want us. In English. Please.
5. Driving schools
Photo: Let Ideas Compete/Flickr
Speaking of driving. Those of us who aren’t from the EU have to retake our driver’s license from scratch after living in Sweden for more than a year.
Okay, fairly reasonable, maybe. We’re willing. But why make it so complicated linguistically?
“When I had to start doing all that, my wife called everyone and finally found a school which did the ‘Risk 1’ class in English,” says Dax Balladares. “Or so they said…”
After the two hour trip to the school, it turned out that no, it wasn’t in English.
“The guy said, ‘Well, I do speak some English, so I can try to answer questions you have’. His English was OK at best.”
“I found a driving school that could do everything in English except the introductory course, which is obligatory to get a learner’s permit,” another reader said. “Isn’t that strange?”
Yes. Yes, we think so.
6. Fire extinguishers, alarms, and safety gear
Photo: Erik Wilde/Flickr
Safety comes first, right? Not if you don’t speak Swedish.
“I study Biomedicine and spend a lot of time in a lab setting, and I noticed that all the fire extinguishers, all the safety gear and safety instructions, are in Swedish – even though it is an English programme,” Cassandra Zakrisson remarks.
“I’ve informed them repeatedly that having the safety gear doesn’t help if we can’t use it in an emergency.”
The same goes for fire alarms and safety announcements in many locations. Not all hotels and restaurants make such announcements in English, although there may be plenty of expats and tourists on the premises.
7. Banking and taxes
Photo: Peter Gibson/Flickr
“I remember struggling with getting settled with bank matters and payments,” Gabriella Prado says. “Although we get around pretty well with English in Stockholm, I think it’s often in the bureaucratic and administrative matters that things get complicated.”
Another reader pointed out that mobile banking and bank apps are only available in Swedish.
And how about taxes?
“Skatteverket has English forms but not online, and it’s impossible to file online in English,” Tricia Hartmann says. “I had to have two extensions and will have to pay an accountant to file for me.”
Here at The Local we’ve noticed the same thing. There is loads of information about how to fill your tax form online in English, but the form itself is in Swedish. Hm.
It’s not just Vårdcentralen and Skatteverket which complicate matters on the World Wide Web.
“Information on municipal websites can be a challenge,” says Melissa Kinsey.
“Google translate can only take you so far. Many of the government websites have an ‘English’ section, but the information is only partial at best.”
Even worse, some websites have the English section hidden away under a subheading entitled ‘Om Oss’. And if you don’t know that’s Swedish for “About us”, there’s little chance of finding that English content.
Photo: Håkan Dahlström/Flickr
Not speaking the language doesn’t mean you’re not interested, and doesn’t mean you don’t want a say in your own community.
We’re not saying that politicians should carry out all debates in English, but maybe there should be English transcripts available online.
We’re talking about everything from the city to the parliament. Who is my local representative? When are council meetings? Where is the nearest park? How do I vote?
Expats have chosen a new country for a reason. We’re not just visiting; we want to engage.
This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce