Saturday, 21 July 2007

Note On The Swedish Language

After four months of living here, it’s time to evaluate my Swedish. While I’m gradually picking it up, progress has been very slow.
Part of the problem is that everyone speaks excellent English. A couple of times now I’ve tried to memorise a few questions or requests when I’m buying something. But more often then not, after clumsily muttering my request, I get the reply “Sorry, what do you want?” in perfect English.
Native English speakers also speak Swedish with a distinct accent, which Swedes find hilarious. It doesn’t do much for your confidence when everyone you talk to starts giggling.

As far as learning a second language goes, I suspect Swedish is easier than a lot of other languages. There are lots of words which are either the same or very similar to their English equivalents. This is mainly because of the close relationship between the two languages, but other English terms have creped in over recent years. As far as I can tell, any new word or term that has come into existence since WWII has just entered the Swedish vocabulary exactly as it is in English. No one has bothered updating the language or invented any new words. (Only one Swedish word has managed to make the journey in the opposite direction and become an English word: Smorgasbord. In Swedish it means Sandwich-table.)
Although while the spelling of many words might be identical to English, pronunciation can be very different. Swedish has more pitch and tone, and some letters symbolise completely different sounds. For example, many Christian names used in English are used here too, with the same spelling, but again pronounced differently. Jonathan is pronounced ‘yun-a-tan’, and David is ‘Dar-vid’.

Consequently I’ve found it much easier learning to read Swedish. When I can see the words, and go at my own pace, I can often work it out. But when people talk, I can barely catch a single word. Often a term will register in my mind, but by the time I can recall what it means, the person talking is already 10 words ahead.
Whenever I attempt Swedish in shops and cafes I’m worried about what I’ll do if the person serving me asks a question or attempts a conversation. One factor working in my favour is that Swedes are typically very reserved and uncommunicative. So I can go into a shop, ask for what I’m after in Swedish, receive, and leave. No small talk or chitchat: just the bare minimum service.
Conveniently for reserved Swedes, Swedish happens to be a very economical language with a comparatively small vocabulary. Some terms can be used in place of three or four English terms. Sentences are also very short, and direct. If I’m watching an English-speaking show on TV, the Swedish subtitles will often use two or three words to translate a whole sentence. A whole passage of dialogue can be condensed into a few sentences. This of course can really kill any poetic artistry in film or literature. It's hard to capture the same emotion and feeling of a well-thought out piece of writing when it has been reduced to the minimum number of words needed to convey its literal meaning. Someone once told me that Shakespeare doesn’t work when translated into German. I can now understand why.
I'm not sure if Swedes are reserved because of their language, or their language is economical because Swedes are reserved.

As a migrant, I am entitled to free Swedish lessons. However the first level of classes are only offered on weekday mornings, making it difficult to work as well. Only after 23 weeks can I qualify for evening classes. Many expats I’ve meet enrolled for the first few weeks, but dropped out soon afterwards. They all complained about classes moving at a very slow pace, and most claim they’ve learnt more Swedish in their jobs anyway.
So instead of taking classes, I’m been reading Pippi Longstocking books in their original language. Soon I’m planning on moving on to Tintin. He helped me read English, so maybe he can help me read Swedish.


Dreck said...

Oh boy.
Just as well most Swedes are proficient in English, eh?
Sounds like it's really tough.
But imagine being significantly cut off from the majority of a community because of a lack of comprehension.

Sofie said...

i came across your blog while trying to find how many words are in the swedish language...i grew up in sweden 10 years and have for 20 years been living in the US. swedish is my 1st language. i'm proud that swedes ARE so good at speaking english. we are an educated group and luckily for english-speakers, don't have a thick accent (like for ex indians, mexicans or asians.) however, learning english for me in 5th grade took a mere few months. learning swedish (all my friends), NONE of them have mastered more than perhaps 50 words. more power to you that you are THERE doing your best. we have an extreme number of tonal and phonemical variations from small city to small city. in fact, southern swedes i can barely understand (skane). good luck and great to hear your story!

Devon said...

I've been in Sweden for 4 months and could have written this blog. I can read and write some, but listening to a Swede speak at roller coaster speed while running all their words together is impossible. I catch a word here or there, like a radio being tuned, except my radio only gets two stations. I skipped ahead to your "18 months in Sweden blog" and was dismayed to discover what I had predicted, that even after 18 months the Swedish language is difficult to master. I love speaking English anyway so it doesn't break my heart if Swedes want to speak English to me. Keep writing and I'll keep reading!