When in Sweden…

Knäckerbröd. Staple of most Swedish households. Dry, unappetising, rectangle shaped cardboard. Yet, despite this, since my return to Sweden last week, I can’t get enough of them (admittedly, slathered in Sweet Chilli Philadelphia – come on, cardboard, after all). When not in Sweden, crisp-breads were avoided unless on a strict 100 a day calorie diet, so why the big about turn? Who knows? Maybe I am trying to dive in this time with a completely different attitude: embracing Swedish life rather than fighting tooth and nail against it. I can either accept that we will live in Sweden for the rest of our lives (that’s the plan, on last count we’ve lived in 10 different places together and are quite literally all moved out) and immerse myself or, alternatively, allow negative thoughts about everything Swedish to fester.

Last time we lived in Sweden was hard. I put a lot of pressure on myself (and felt pressure put upon me by the in laws) to learn Swedish fast and to integrate quickly. I did very well at school and sailed through my SFI, progressing onto SAS (Swedish as a second language), however, I always lacked confidence in my abilities. It didn’t help that my written Swedish was so good – whenever I had a test to decide which class to be put into, I would always be placed at a level I felt uncomfortable with. All nonsense really. I could do it and wasn’t out of my depth at all, just felt as though I was.

I also developed a weird thing whereby I felt I had to speak Swedish wherever I went and to whomever I encountered. It was almost as if I had a huge, neon sign above my head proclaiming “she can speak Swedish, she can. Don’t let her pretend she can’t”. It got so bad that it almost developed phobia like qualities. I would go to the supermarket and be literally terrified that the check out operator would suddenly need to speak to me in Swedish. Hmm, like I couldn’t just say “sorry, I don’t understand” in English. But, I really couldn’t. It was as though I knew I could speak Swedish and therefore, had to. I would try to explain this to H and he would be incredulous. He would remind me that I had worked in several different foreign countries and had never been remotely bothered about speaking English to people. He was right. I couldn’t (and still can’t) explain why I felt as I did. The in-laws didn’t help. Whenever I showed any worry over speaking Swedish, they would mutter the magic mantra “practice. You must practice”. So, I think that I felt no choice but to practice. Even when I didn’t need to. That’s some kind of pressure. Mostly in my own head, but still pressure.

    speaking swedish

This time around, I plan on things being different. But old habits die hard. If you’ve read my previous posts, you will see that having to interact in Swedish really does turn me into a jibbering wreck. I need to learn that it is okay to speak English (while I am learning, of course. Don’t plan on being 80 and still can’t speak Swedish fluently) when struggling. Here lies the problem: by doing that, I will be failing. I will be a failure. That’s the crux of it. It’s all about me, you see. But, I am 5 years older and wiser, now have two beautiful little things that are way more important than any of this stuff will ever be and I have learnt by my mistakes. This time around, things are going to be different. And if they aren’t? Then I only have myself to blame.

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16 thoughts on “When in Sweden…

  1. I had the same feeling about learning Swedish! I could speak a lot more than I understood, so when I initiated conversation (in those instances where I had to practice), people thought I understood full speed, slang Swedish, when the reality was, slow, simple Swedish was barely within my grasp.

  2. Hej,
    I’m Swedish but I don’t live there now. It’s kind of interesting to me, as an expat, to read about other people’s experiences in my native land. Don’t you encounter a lot of Swedes that want to speak English with you?

    After ten years away … living in English … I still have moments when I feel awkward, and it’s all in my head. I’ve put the bar too high.

    • Yes, Rebekah, that’s exactly the problem with me. I think I put way too much pressure on myself. As for Swedes wanting to speak English, it depends. Friends of ours will be polite and speak English for 5 minutes and then return, naturally to Swedish, others point blank refuse! One friend would never speak to me in English until he got drunk one night and spoke the best ever English! So, I took it as a confidence thing rather than a not wanting to speak English thing!

      • The one who got drunk and spoke was definitely a confidence thing.
        It’s funny though … I’ve heard so many English-speakers, trying to practice their newly won Swedish-skills, almost finding it hard because all the Swedes want to speak English with them. It might depend on where you are … this could be a phenomenon in the cities, even though I noticed it very much when my husband visited me in my little town up north … All of them wanted to speak to HIM in English… 🙂

      • That is strange, because I have certainly not encountered that at all. If that was the case for me, my life would feel a whole lot easier and so much less stressed!

      • My friend from Australia, she was totally isolated at first, in the little village she lived with her Swedish husband. Then she started to learn Swedish, wanted to practice on Swedes, in the neighbouring town Eskilstuna but found it difficult … most of the Swedes wanted to take the chance and pratice their English! I’ve oodles of examples .. 🙂

        I was totally isolated myself, in Quebec, as I don’t speak French. I sat through so many dinner parties, so I acquired some kind of technique to just shut off and think about something else…

  3. Pingback: Thoughtful Thursday: Swedish Proverbs | EF Foundation for Foreign Study Mid-Atlantic

  4. Hello to the ladies trying to adapt to Sweden. My son is trying to adapt to Norway and experiencing many of the same issues. And … struggling to keep his head above water financially. Norway is so expensive! 37 years ago, I myself had to adapt to living to Mexico and yes, I too had in-law issues Wherever you are, it is a question of attitude. One can learn the language and accustom oneself to the culture but it is best not to force the issue… All things come in good time. Good luck to you!

  5. Oh how familiar this is to me, too! I’m a New Yorker that moved to Sweden (Stockholm) last year and when I was in SFI/SAS every day I tried so hard to practice my newly-learnt Swedish but it seems EVERYONE in Stockholm speaks English so no matter that I began conversations in Swedish with a Swede, they’d respond to me in English and I’d switch to my native language because…well who wants to listen to me blunder along in Swedish? 😉

    (Just found your blog and reading some of the earlier posts!)

    • Hello! Sorry it has taken me so long to reply – my time blogging is taken up with my food blog and I rarely come over here. I should make more of an effort, really! Glad that our experiences are similar – it can often feel like you are totally alone!

  6. Oh how familiar this is to me, too! I’m a New Yorker that moved to Sweden (Stockholm) last year and when I was in SFI/SAS every day I tried so hard to practice my newly-learnt Swedish but it seems EVERYONE in Stockholm speaks English so no matter that I began conversations in Swedish with a Swede, they’d respond to me in English and I’d switch to my native language because…well who wants to listen to me blunder along in Swedish? 😉

    (Just found your blog and reading some of the earlier posts!)

    (( And sorry, think this posted twice!))

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