Thursday, March 24, 2011

When Languages Collide: Learning Swedish and Speaking Swenglish

Learning another language as an adult is never easy – it's frustrating, nonsensical and a bit like discovering a new, dumber, slower side of yourself. Suddenly the person who you've always been is gone, and they've been replaced by someone who has a hard time stringing a simple sentence together.

I want to write a little bit about language on this blog – both non-natives speaking Swedish and Swedes speaking English – so I thought I would start by hanging my self out there before I start making fun of or pointing out other peoples mistakes.

There are 2 memorable 'early speaker' mistakes I've made that I will never forget.

  1. I was watching a friend's kid and took him to a soccer game. At the time I must have been about 22. The kid was 7. One woman, as we were leaving, after several strange looks asked me 'Ar du hans mamma?'
'Nej', I answered proudly 'Jag är hans barnmorska.'

Let me explain: Barnvakt – is the word for babysitter, barnmorska – is the word for midwife.
I was so happy that I had understood the question and answered in Swedish it took me about 1 minute before I realized that my answer made no sense what so ever. By that point I was almost to my car. I'm sure she wondered about that for awhile, too.

    1. A member of my husband's Swedish family called me up after I'd only been in Sweden a year or so and we were chatting in Swedish on the phone for awhile. After about ten minutes he says something that I interpret to be 'Oh and me and my girlfriend got married this weekend at city hall.' Now remember, I don't speak great Swedish after only a year and this is on the phone. Also, we speak to this family member regularly and I am friends with his girlfriend – I should have known they were getting married, so I am super unsure.
'Gratis?' I say – not sure if I have understood this correctly.

'No, it wasn't 'gratis' he says, it actually costs money to get married at the town hall and we went out for a really expensive dinner.

Let me explain: One of the things that still stumps me in Swedish is the double consonants. There are two words in Swedish – Gratis (pronounced 'Gratis' meaning free) and Grattis (pronounced grat-tis meaning 'Congratulations). I still screw this one up in various forms – flyta vs flytta etc.

I had to have the Swede call the relative and double check that A) They really had gotten married and B) He wasn't totally insulted

The best thing about both of these mistakes? I remember them clear as day and I learned a lot from them! Making mistakes when learning a language = positive!


  1. Swedish is a difficult language and it is hard to learn a whole new language when you are an adult. Of course mistakes happen. I admire you and everyone else for struggling with a difficult language as Swedish that is also a small language that not many people speak except for the Swedes. I think the first mistake about you saying that you were the boys midwife was really funny. I think we have all made mistakes in our attempts to speak in a new language. Thanks for sharing your mistakes :-)

  2. Svenska är jätte svart. I think...;)

  3. I totally know how you feel...and you've gotta be able to laugh at yourself when you make mistakes, otherwise you'll never get anywhere. Luckily yours were pretty tame compared to my Aussie friend who asked her BOSS if he wanted a "knulle bulle" instead of a "kanel bulle!" ;)

  4. Thanks for this really funny post! :D I love to read "new swedes" perception of swedish.

    But I thought you'd bring up some examples where swedes use weird english too!

    @Rebecca: what was the boss's reaction then? :P