The day I learned how to squeeze a Swedish elephant

The day I learned how to squeeze a Swedish elephant
Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf saying hello to an elephant. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
Is making yourself understood more important than correct grammar? Stockholm-based English teacher David Ashby ponders that question.

I had an interesting chat with one of my students today. She was telling me about something that had happened at work, and she suddenly used the phrase “We had to squeeze the elephant into pieces”. Well, as you can imagine, that pulled me up short. She hadn't, up until that point, been saying anything about trunk-swinging, tusk-thrusting beasts and certainly nothing about squeezing any parts of their anatomy.

“Sorry,” I asked, “What did you just say about elephants? Something about squeezing them?”

She looked at me and smiled. “Ah,” she said, “I suppose you cannot say that in English.”

“Well, if you have been squeezing an elephant, into pieces even, then you can certainly say it, but I don't think you have, have you?”

“No,” she said, “In Swedish we have a saying, 'att stycka elefanten', and we use it when we are talking about having a big job to do, and you can't do it all in one go so you have to split it up into small steps.”

“Okay, splitting things up into manageable steps I understand, but where does the elephant come in?”

“You cannot eat a whole elephant right away. You have to cut it up and eat it bit by bit, and that is what 'stycka elefanten' means, pulling apart the elephant. Do you understand now?”

“Well, yes, but do you eat many elephants in Sweden?”

“No, mainly herring, but we don't get so big herrings, so 'att stycka sill' sounds silly.”

And then my English teacher-side kicked in and I had to tell her that it was “such big herrings” and not “so big herrings”. But then we spoke about this idiomatic expression, and it seemed that in her company, which operates in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway, when they use English to communicate they often drop in this sort of phrase, translated literally from Swedish into English, and they all understand it. Even though to a native English speaker like me it would sound very odd.

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So here we have an example of where non-native English speakers, in a closed community (the Nordic company) use a special type of English that they all understand, but wouldn't easily be understood by a native speaker. What does that mean? Does that mean that they are using English in a wrong way, that they are making a mistake?

Or does it mean that they are using English as something other than just a “second language”, they are using it as a communication tool and if it works for them, then I, as an English teacher, have no right to tell them that it is wrong? That I – and other native speakers – have to accept that English is a fluid and flexible language and that just because someone says something that I don't easily understand it doesn't make it wrong?

It's an interesting thought, that maybe what I see as a mistake isn't a mistake, it's just “their” English, and if the people they communicate with understand them then that is all that matters. What about mistakes with grammar?

Hmm. There's lots to think about there. And I think that the next time my brother tells me on the phone that he has too much to do and not enough time to do it I'm going to say: “You'll just have to learn to squeeze the elephant Phil.” That'll shut him up.

David Ashby, from Brighton, moved to Gothenburg in 2002. He is a certified English as a Foreign Language teacher who today teaches business English in Stockholm. Read more about him here.

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