SwedenSweden is a great place in so many ways – excellent social system, great on gender equality, generally happy population… Plenty of positives can be found in the Sweden & Swedish category.

But this blog has today been linked by a couple of blogs (here and here) of Swedish right wingers to complain about the English spoken by a Swede, Jytte Guteland, now President of SSU, in a film in my website here. This really highlights my main gripe as someone who speaks some Swedish but cannot conduct political discussions in that language: a common unwillingness of people to speak to me in English about anything important. I’m often introduced to new people when I’m in Stockholm, they reply in perfect English, and then switch back to Swedish knowing full well I don’t comprehend. I presume this is motivated by the wish to speak perfect English, and maybe the fear of ridicule so clearly shown on the two right wing blogs. It’s really different to the attitude I have always come across in Germany: a determination to speak English to me whatever the circumstances, even though I speak decent German.

Trust me, I don’t care what English anyone speaks to me. Or German, French, Italian or even slow Swedish for that matter. I’ve been there in the demeaning situations where you’re in a place where you cannot get your point across due to language difficulties; there’s no way I will ridicule anyone for how they speak English. I’m very happy that Jytte was willing to conduct an interview in English – she deserves credit for that.


  1. Gregory tudor

    Hi I’m from Kent England -and i know that if i were living in beautifull sweden or norway i would do my best to learn the language and not be afraid to make mistakes along the way

  2. Sorry, but you’ve missed the point. I have no problem learning Swedish (or whatever). I speak French and German already, and also some Swedish and Italian. It’s not as if I’m afraid of languages. But when you are introduced to someone in English, they speak perfect English to you, and then carry on in another language knowing you don’t understand I thing, that’s something else altogether.

  3. ::jose::

    It’s very easy, if you live in Sweden you have to learn Swedish. If nobody speaks in Swedish to you, you will never learn. You are actually lucky to live in a country where most of people can understand your English (probably because Swedish is not exactly a popular language outside Sweden).

    I’m from Spain and there we speak in Spanish (or Gallego, Catalan or Euskera which are also official). You’d find really difficult to manage in Spain speaking only in English, but that’s normal because you are abroad and you are one who has to adapt.

    Good luck with your Swedish!

  4. It’s my American experience that right-wingers will use whatever lame thing they can scrounge up to try to convince themselves that people aren’t right wing because they’re stupid or debased. It’s all about stroking their own insecurities and stoking up their own competitive juices. But I appreciated this little blog piece, because what was frustrating for me in Sweden is how adamant Swedes are to speak the everyday English in trivial situations. You feel ashamed to use your crappy Swedish. Then, when you want to talk about something that matters or you want to socialize at a party, Swedes won’t speak English at all. It’s understandable and it’s about trust, but you never learn to speak Swedish with ease (unless you have a Swedish love interest) and it’s very difficult to form friendships. Yes, it’s a cheap generalization, but I think the French are a lot more interested in helping you learn to speak with them.

  5. I’m sure being left out of a conversation like that can feel very demeaning , but I don’t think it’s always for the same reasons. The desire to speak perfect English may have something to do with it, but another reason which one shouldn’t underestimate is that it is incredibly awkward for two native speakers of another language to talk to each other in English when they feel much more comfortable speaking Swedish or Swahili or what have you. Maybe this is particular to Scandinavia, I don’t know.. We’re a bit isolated up here, kind of a “peninsula mentality” 🙂

    That being said, knowingly leaving someone out of a conversation does strike me as quite rude, but I think a lot of people just don’t understand what they’re doing.

  6. But speaking some English is not anything special among young Europeans. Refusing to speak it and then criticising others seems far more elitist to me…

  7. A bilingual French-English friend who has just moved to Norway with her Norwegian husband recently made very similar remarks. She said she was finding it almost impossible to make friends outside of the expat community because although for now she only speaks basic Norwegian even her husband’s friends – all of whom speak excellent English – would routinely continue conversations in Norwegian that they knew she couldn’t follow. I find this attitude hard to understand. I have seen groups of French people with often really very bad English make an effort to include a non-French speaker. Is it underpinned by some sort of collective national insecurity I wonder? Baffling.

  8. Mary, I think you are right about the collective national insecurity. An important part of Scandinavian culture is the Jante Law which basically says that you should not think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us. So if one dares using rusty school English someone else will soon remark on the grammatical mistakes and bad pronunciation so that you don’t think you are special. One is expected to say “oh, my English is so bad it’s embarrassing” instead of just communicating with whatever means you have.

  9. giacomodorigo

    Oh, my English is quite odd but I try anyway to write using it. This is just because if I write in Italian more or less only Italians will understand me. If I write in Chinese, only Chinese people will understand me, and so on, but if I write in English not only English people will understand me, but also many Italians, Chinese, and so on…

    The only complain I have to do toward English is the spelling 😀
    I hate this topic, it’s so puzzling, without Firefox built-in spell-checking device I will become crazy! 😀

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