The other week I had this dream. Basically I’m in a large room with all my friends and family…and for some reason Mick Jagger is there too. Naturally everyone in the room is asking about life in Sweden and the topic of language comes up. Someone (I can’t remember who exactly) asks if I can speak Swedish yet. I reply by saying something like “Not really but I’m learning, and I’m slowly getting there”. Then Mick Jagger starts laughing and shouts at me “What do you mean? You hardly speak any Swedish!’ To illustrate his point he then bombards with a tirade of Swedish and I can only respond with a blank vacant stare. “See? He doesn’t understand anything,” he shouts to everyone in the room. He then proceeds to ridicule and humiliate me in front of everyone I know.
When I woke up I didn’t need to delve too deeply into psychoanalysis theories to interpret what this dream meant (except for maybe the Mick Jagger part. That confuses me; I don’t even like the Rolling Stones.) Subconsciously I feel guilty and ashamed that after 18 months I still don’t speak or understand enough Swedish to confidently say, “Yes, I speak Swedish!” or more accurately “Ja! Jag pratar Svenska!”
The common retort from native English speakers living in Sweden is to bemoan the lack of opportunity to practice. This is in fact true and the majority of Swedes will switch straight to English without blinking an eyelid if they detect just the slightest accent. It doesn’t help either that all my friends are English speakers, as are my work colleagues. And now that she’s back in Sweden A is more concerned about the possibility she might forget how to speak English than how much progress I make in learning Swedish (and I also suspect she enjoys having her own language and being able to talk without me being able to understand.) So I’m only speaking English at home too.
However while I’m in process of deflecting blame and absolving myself of any responsibility for my poor linguistic skills, I would also like to point an accusing finger at SFI.
SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) is the government-funded program designed to, as the name suggests, provide free Swedish lessons to immigrants. Two evenings a week, for close to a year now, I’ve been going to such classes. Having paid good money for a beginner’s course in Melbourne I was pretty rapt when I learnt that my visa entitled me to learn here for free. But unfortunately, like a lot of initiatives from the Swedish welfare state, the ideal doesn’t match up to the reality and SFI has a pretty poor reputation.
The most common complaint I hear is the quality of the teachers. The few people I have meet who have been happy with their SFI education are adamant that it came down to having a good teacher. But such people are in the minority. One of my work colleagues has a teacher so bad that currently the whole class are officially boycotting classes until she is replaced. According to my colleague lessons don’t get any more taxing then passing a ball around the room and saying “Hello, My name is …” in Swedish when the ball lands in your lap.
I’m pleased to say my teacher isn’t quite as apathetic but she’s no Mr Chips either. She’ll typically turn up 20-30 minutes late. Half way through our 2 hour lesson she’ll stop for a 30 minute coffee break, and it is not unusual for her to let us all go early either. And that’s when she turns up. Often she’ll let us into the computer room and let us play around with Swedish educational computer programmes. Although I don’t complain too much when this happens because I often end up learning more then I would if our teacher ran her usual lesson.
As far as I can tell there is no standardised curriculum or class plan. Teachers are given textbooks and learning aides but beyond that it seems they’re free to run the class anyway they like, hence the inconsistency in standards between classes. My teacher chooses to move through things at a comically slow pace, and through class exercises that are as helpful and stimulating as dot-to-dot puzzles are to an aspiring artist.
One of her favourite tasks involves handing out cards with pictures of various fruit and vegetables, and corresponding cards with their names in Swedish. We then take it in turns, in pairs, to match the words with the pictures. It isn’t until everyone in the class has done it 50 times over that our teacher is convinced we understand and we’re ready to move onto something else. We can spend weeks working on things that I’ve managed to pick up within the first half hour.
The last class I attended we went though adjectives. Basically an adjective can be slightly different depending on the category of word it is being applied to, and whether it is singular or plural. When we first covered this in a class last month, I had it down pat by the end of the lesson. Not because I’m a fast learner (quite the opposite when it comes to languages) but because it just isn’t that hard. A month later we’re still on adjectives, and I’m getting a good idea how Bill Murray felt in Groundhog Day.
Another problem with SFI, which I’m sure adds to teachers’ apathy, are the large class sizes and lack of resources. Due to a large influx of immigrants there is a long waiting list to enrol, and the SFI schools obviously can’t cope. At the start of every semester my class will typically have 30-40 students. After three or four weeks this will drop down to 20, but then it won’t be long before another 20 students from the waiting list are rushed in.
The running joke amongst expats is that you can pass SFI without learning a single word of Swedish. A lot of people I know say they’ve passed two levels of SFI when on every occasion they’ve had a test they’ve been convinced they had failed. Because of the high demand, it’s suspected that students are passed just to churn them out and ease the workload.
So there you are Mick, an educated cosmopolitan population combined with an under funded education program, and I’m left speaking Swedish at the level of a 2 year-old.
Maybe I should take a leaf out of the Steve McLaren School of learning languages. For those not in the know, Steve McClaren is an English football manager who recently accepted a job coaching FC Twente in Holland. Below is a video of him being interviewed by a Dutch journalist. Despite the fact she speaks excellent English, McClaren does his best to pass himself off as a native Dutchman. Obviously he can’t speak Dutch, so he does the next best thing…
…He speaks English with a Dutch accent. I like the way he needs to pause and think before he says long words or add in phrases like ‘it is like…how you say...” thus adding further to the impression that English is his second language. Swedish people often make such pauses, but it’s because they’re thinking of the Swedish word in their mind and need a moment to search through their English vocabulary to find its equivalent. Seeing as McClaren is speaking his native tongue, it makes you wonder what’s going through his mind when he stops and pauses.
To be fair I do have a friend who, when stuck for a Swedish work, will resort to using the English word but in a Swenglish accent. But he can often get away with it because Swedish people do in fact talk this way: add in an English phrase in Swenglish midsentence while talking Swedish. Although even he wouldn’t try and do it for a whole conversation!