Are you as Swedish as a four-year-old? The battle to integrate as quickly as your kid

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Are you as Swedish as a four-year-old? The battle to integrate as quickly as your kid
Victoria Martínez and her two kids. Photo: Victoria Martínez

In a new parenting and family life column for The Local, Victoria Martínez explains how she is being outdone in the race to integrate in Sweden by her young daughter.


I have recently realized that, after only six months in Sweden, my four-year-old daughter is possibly the most Swedish person I know. Except for actual native Swedes, of course. I’m guessing she could challenge most recently-immigrated adults to a test of "Swedishness" and probably come out on top. She certainly has me beat, in any case.

It has become common in our house to hear her say things like, "No, Mommy, that’s not how you say it in Swedish." On occasion, she has even stated matter-of-factly, "They don't do it that way here [in Sweden]." Initially, I thought comments like this were merely adorable. I unabashedly paraded her recitations of ordinal numbers and nursery rhymes in Swedish to her grandparents via Skype.

Now, I look at her like a pool of Swedish knowledge and find myself dipping into that pool regularly. I admit, for instance, to having her count out coins in Swedish when making small purchases, not so much to reinforce her knowledge as to increase my own. Say what you will, but when you find yourself struggling to count past fyra (four), not to mention pronounce it properly, it really helps to have someone that age on hand to rescue you.

I also find her extremely helpful with her two-year-old brother who, though not quite at her master level of Swedishness, is doing pretty well for himself. Her help as an interpreter is invaluable when he’s trying unsuccessfully to communicate something to me in Swedish. There has been more than one occasion where I've been alerted to a dirty diaper or some other situation when I merely thought he was babbling incoherently. And when he demands that Pino (a series of Swedish books for toddlers) must be read to him this instant, his big sister saves me every time. Yes, she has memorized all the Pino books in Swedish.

Her knowledge, or at least perception, of Swedish "ways" has even led me to modify certain routines and initiate new devices into our lives to smooth our transition and help us integrate. Not that I haven’t done this while living in other countries, it just wasn't guided in part by a four-year-old.

Dressing like Pippi Longstocking. A true sign of Swedishness. Photo: Victoria Martínez

It’s not that I begrudge her this facility of adaptation (well, maybe just a little). One of the reasons my husband and I have always loved to travel and live around the world is the tremendous personal enrichment it provides. We want that for our children, as much as for ourselves. It's just that I wish my acculturation process were going as smoothly as hers.

While I am putting great effort into integration, her greatest effort includes going to förskola (pre-school) half a day, five days a week. I spend my days clumsily picking up bits and pieces of Swedish by participating in the mundane aspects of adult life, while she rapidly gains fluency in Swedish by singing songs and playing. Clearly, I’m doing it wrong, and even she seems to disapprove of my progress. More than once while studying SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) online or using the Duolingo app on my phone, she has asked me why I must listen to the same word so many times. Good question, kid. Good question.

I am starting to think förskola is a magical place and maybe I should start attending. In all seriousness, I have not placed myself above using the same devices my children are using to learn for myself. The only problem with that method when you're an adult is it's not always practical for everyday use. I'm still trying to figure out, for instance, how exactly I can parlay the nursery song, "Lilla snigel akta dig" ("Little snail beware"), into something useful for an adult conversation. So far, I’ve drawn a blank.

On the bright side, there is a chink in the armor of my daughter's seemingly solid, newfound Swedishness. Perhaps I shouldn't take so much pleasure in writing this, but she is without a doubt NOT that which is perhaps considered the most Swedish characteristic of all: lagom, or moderate in all things. She is, after all, four years old. The "American" side of her is not moderate. The "Spanish" side of her is not moderate. And, without a doubt, as much as she has managed to model herself as Swedish in so many other ways, she is most certainly not what Swedes would consider lagom.

So, if you are a recent immigrant to Sweden who also happens to be lagom, then congratulations! You may indeed be as Swedish as a four-year-old. If you're like me, however, then beware, little snail, you have some serious catching up to do.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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