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When speaking Swedish isn't so obvious in Sweden

Idil Tuysuzoglu
Idil Tuysuzoglu - [email protected]
When speaking Swedish isn't so obvious in Sweden
How do you convince Swedes to speak Swedish rather than English? Photo: Simon Paulin/

Having learned Swedish in the US, The Local contributor Idil Tuysuzoglu expected that a semester in Stockholm would give her ample opportunity to speak the language. But this was not the case, she writes.


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My first clue that speaking Swedish in Sweden might not be as straightforward as you'd imagine came in the supermarket.

My day's purchases – two bags of Ahlgren's bilar candy, three rolls of Ballerina cookies and one Kex bar – inched closer to my anticipatory fingers on the other side of the conveyor belt. Neither my snack drawer nor my sugar levels was in need of replenishment, but the ceiling-to-floor vastness of the candy aisle has encouraged my sweet tooth since arriving in Sweden.

But most importantly, I beam at the cashier, anticipating small-talk in Swedish.

I've had close to two years of preparing for this moment: taking Swedish classes at my home university, watching Swedish movies and TV frequently and listening to Abba's Swedish songs. My purchases are typically Swedish, and I feel sure that the cashier will speak to me in the language I've been learning. 

When she scans the last item, it's go-time.

Except it's not. When the cashier tells me to insert my card into the reader in English, my brain can hardly comprehend the language I've been speaking for nineteen years. Regaining my senses, I comply, also asking her in Swedish if she can also factor in the cost of a paper bag.

"There," I think, "that'll set her straight."


But sure enough, the move is too prideful. The credit card I'm using is American, the flag's insignia winking back at me in the fluorescent lighting. My sweatshirt, I suddenly realize, boasts the word BOSTON, in none other than red, white, and blue stitching.

My behavior, too, is dizzyingly fast and characteristically American, earning a "Take it easy!" from the pensioner behind me. And before I know it, an announcement is made asking how to find a personnummer on an American driver's licence, and a troupe of cashiers are speaking to me – in clear English.

I gather my belongings, popping a gummy into my mouth in an attempt to assuage my disappointment. Indeed, it seems like I travelled 4,000 miles not to learn Swedish – a language that makes up a big chunk of my undergraduate studies – but instead, to speak English.

Swedes are indisputably proficient at English, and Sweden is frequently recognized as one of the world's best non-native English-speaking countries. A friend doing an exchange semester here even referred to Swedish as "useless", and while that's perhaps an exaggeration, she was not wrong in that one could easily get by in Sweden without a word of the local language.

Walking home after the supermarket incident, and replaying the exchange in my head with frustration, I thought about what I could do differently to make sure that I could use Swedish as much as possible. Getting a Swedish credit card and losing the American paraphernalia would be a start.


But there is something also to be said about what Swedes can do.

Just as important as it is for foreigners to be persistent in using Swedish (even when the replies keep coming in English), it is equally as important for a Swede to be patient with a foreigner.

For example, it's common and logical to form compound words in Swedish – like sjukhus, meaning hospital or literally 'sick house'. But though these come naturally to native speakers, they're hard to pronounce for those still learning the language. Some syllables – like sjuk (pronounced something like 'hwook') —are articulated differently than they are spelled, and then there's the question of which syllable to stress in longer words.

Faced with these unfamiliar sounds, it takes a while for my lips to curl and flatten accordingly, especially in such fast intervals. And because it does take time, I will concede that it is more efficient to speak in English, but it is certainly not the desired option for anyone who wishes to learn more than "Hej".

So until I can flawlessly and quickly pronounce such multisyllabic words, I will need some more patience on the recipient's end in order to practice my Swedish.

Either that, or I need to buy more Ballerina biscuits.

NOW READ: Nine odd things that happen when you (try to) learn Swedish

Nine odd things that happen when you (try to) learn Swedish
Photo: Simon Paulin/

Have you had a similar experience in Sweden? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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