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When speaking Swedish isn’t so obvious in Sweden

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.

When speaking Swedish isn't so obvious in Sweden
How do you convince Swedes to speak Swedish rather than English? Photo: Simon Paulin/

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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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For members


The Swedish words you need to understand Sweden’s cost of living crisis

Households in Sweden, as elsewhere around the world, are feeling the economic squeeze right now as prices rise, but wages don’t. Here's a vocabulary list from Anneli Beronius Haake to help you understand the cost of living crisis.

The Swedish words you need to understand Sweden's cost of living crisis

The Local reached out to Anneli Beronius Haake (Swedish Made Easy), Swedish teacher and author of Teach Yourself Complete Swedish, to put together a list of words you might hear and read in the upcoming weeks as prices continue to soar.

(ett) elprisstöd – literally, electricity price support. The government may choose to provide support to both individuals and businesses, to help cope with high electric costs.

(ett) högkostnadsskydd – high cost protection. There have previously been discussions about high cost protections to cap electricity prices or agreements for the government to cover everything over a certain amount, but following the recent elections, the status of this proposal is unclear.

(en) amortering vs (en) ränta – if you own your own house or apartment, then you already know that these words refer to payments on your mortgage (noun: amortering, verb: att amortera) and payments against the interest on your mortgage. If you’re thinking about buying, keep an eye on these two – and on interest rates (ränta)!

(en) varmhyra vs (en) kallhyra – if you’re on the market for a new rental apartment, you might see these two words pop up. Varmhyra (literally: “warm rent”) means heating is included in the rental price. Kallhyra (literally, “cold rent”) means that the rental price does not include heating costs.

(en) uppvärmning – heating, or heating costs. If your heating costs are included in your rent, you don’t have to worry about this. Instead, you only need to keep an eye on:

(en) hushållsel – or household electricity. This covers the electricity you use for everything in your home, from charging your mobile phone to using your oven.

Energisnål – energy efficient. You might see this word stuck on a dishwasher or fridge if you’re shopping for new household appliances, signalling that it will help cut down on your electric costs. Similarly, you may see the word att snåla (to scrimp or save) used in the phrases att snåla med energi (to save on energy) or att snåla med pengar (to save money).

(en) energikris – an energy crisis. 

privatekonomi – personal finances. You may see this not only referring to individuals, but also to households, where it will be written as hushållens privatekonomi.

hushållskostnader – household costs, again, linked to hushållens privatekonomi, this usually refers to gemensamma kostnader (shared costs), such as water and electricity bills, insurance and internet, but can also cover other costs such as food, hygiene products such as toilet paper, and even mobile phone contracts.

(ett) energibolag, (en) elproducent – an energy company, an energy producer.

(en) elområde – an energy zone. Sweden is split into four energy zones, with the most expensive energy prices in the south of the country, covering the three largest cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö (zones 3 and 4), and the cheapest prices in the north (zones 1 and 2).

Att spara – to save. This can be in the sense of att spara pengar (to save money), or att spara på kostnader/el (to save on costs/electricity).

Att stiga/öka/höja – these three verbs all relate to increases, but with their own nuances.

Att stiga, or stiger in the present tense means ‘rises’, and can be used to describe rising petrol prices.

Att öka, or ökar in the present tense means ‘increases’, and can be used to describe how the price of groceries are increasing.

Finally, att höja, or höjer in the present tense means ‘raises’ – when you can point out that something or someone has raised the price of something, for example, when describing how banks are raising interest rates.

Att sjunka/minska – these two verbs both relate to decreases, again with their own nuances.

Att sjunka, or sjunker in the present tense (literally sinking) means fall/slump/drop, and can be used to refer to price falls.

Att minska, or minskar, on the other hand, is like ökar, because it is used when describing how something has decreased, like your electricity usage might decrease this winter in light of rising prices.

Similarly to sjunka, you may see the verb att sänka (to lower), in the sense of lowering the heating (att sänka värmen) or lowering household costs (att sänka hushållskostnader).

(en) utgift – an expense, plural utgifter – expenses.

(en) inkomst – income. A source of income would be (en) inkomstskälla.

(en) plånbok – literally, this means wallet. Figuratively, it also means your bank account and its contents. Headlines about money leaving your plånbok don’t mean money is vanishing from your wallet, but from your bank account. During the recent Swedish election, for example, politicians spoke about plånboksfrågor (literally “wallet issues”), issues affecting people’s income and spending power.

Att dra ner på utgifterna – to cut down on your expenses. This is related to the phrase att se över utgifterna: to take a look at your expenses, for example to see if there are any areas you can cut down.

Att dra åt svångremmen – to tighten one’s belt.