Things I can’t talk about in Swedish

As I near the two-year anniversary of moving to Uppsala I’ve started to reflect a little. After a tumultuous first year as an immigrant in Sweden it feels like I’ve moved into a period of consolidation and stabilisation. There is still progress and change happening, but at a much slower pace, and sometimes it’s hard to see. But language is one of the areas where I can really track and recognise that change happening.

I can now say pretty confidently that I speak Swedish. I have “normal” conversations in Swedish every day, I can read books in Swedish, I can spend a whole working day listening to someone explain Google AdWords in Swedish, I can do a job interview in Swedish, I am even spending much of next week running workshops and training in Swedish. (That last one does make me want to run away and hide, though.)

But when people ask me whether I’m fluent in Swedish I still have to say no.

I still get anxious about answering the door at work because “small talk”-y phrases don’t come to me easily. I live in fear of being asked a question spontaneously in case I don’t understand what’s being asked. I hate phone calls because you lose a lot of those little subconscious clues we use in person – lip reading, body language. And there are still scenarios that I’m a long way off from being able to handle in Swedish.

For example: getting my hair cut, which I did this week. It seems I am fundamentally incapable of explaining in Swedish that I want a long, sleek-looking bob, or that I have had layers for ages and want to get rid of them, or that I want a fuller, more defined fringe. I can’t identify exactly what the obstacle is, I just know it’s not doable. It’s awkward to go into a situation like that where you start off by saying “can we do this in English?” and then go on to explain, when they ask about you and your life, that you CAN speak Swedish, you just… aren’t.

The limits to my languge proficiency also occurred to me when I saw that, as part of Uppsala’s annual Kulturnatten (culture night), a ukulele group is hosting a public performance anyone can go along and join in with. This was so exciting to me as I’ve had vague intentions of finding or trying to set up a ukulele group ever since I moved here, and made zero progress. So I’m definitely planning on trying to take part – but the realisation soon hit me that I can’t talk about music in Swedish. I don’t know the words for “major” or “minor”, or even “string” or “note”. So it could be an interesting challenge.

Learning a new language as a foreigner you’re given a certain set of tools. In a way it’s like a survival kit. Someone has identified what the most crucial parts of the language are: what do you really need to get by? That’s what goes in your textbook. And it can be interesting to look at what gets left out.

Some of those gaps get filled by your everyday life and experiences. (For example, working in social media marketing, I can talk about concepts like audience targeting and advertising auctions in Swedish without too much trouble, while others at the same language level as me might struggle.) But the things you only rarely have to address take much longer.

Numbers bother me. I can obviously handle the basics, but using numbers in conversation isn’t always so simple. What is the correct way to group the digits of my phone number when I say it out loud? Do I say the last 4 digits of my personnummer individually or in double-digit pairs? When I wanted to refer to the cost of something as being 1,200 kronor recently I knew “ett tusen två hundra” (one thousand two hundred) sounded clunky and laboured, but I wasn’t sure what the right way to say it in casual conversation was either.

Probably, without my knowing it, those gaps are getting smaller all the time. Not a day goes by without asking what a certain word means and trying to commit it to my mental vocabulary list. It’s slow going, but I imagine that at this point I can eventually become fluent without actively seeking out a new language course or a tutor. (Although that’s still something I sometimes consider doing.)

Of course, it also depends on your definition of fluency. While writing this post I started to google the concept of language fluency and found this page. An extract:

What is “fluency”?

Speaking perfectly? Indistinguishable from a native? Being able to participate in intense philosophical debates in the language? Not quite! Here’s what the Oxford English dictionary has to say about the word:

1 speaking or writing in an articulate and natural manner. 2 (of a language) used easily and accurately.

Do you see anything like my previous sentence in this? Of course not; “accurately” and “natural manner” do not necessarily mean perfect, just that you do indeed speak very well. My own definition of fluency is very simply that I’m socially equivalent, i.e. I can function in social situations pretty much the same in my target language as I would in my native one.

So when will I start answering “yes” when people ask whether I am fluent in Swedish? I don’t know, but I guess it has something to do with going to the hairdresser.


3 thoughts on “Things I can’t talk about in Swedish

  1. Thank you for this! My daughter and her young family are living in Gothenbörg for the past three years and I miss them so much! I dream of someday being able to live nearby them for better closer interactions with my now 2-year old grandson, and two issues are the most challenging: steady visa status, and language! I will continue to monitor your post!


  2. Bravo! It’s 1:49am in Stockholm…a sleepless night. I happily discovered your blog a small while back, and thoroughly enjoy it.

    My husband, a Swedish-Finn, and I will come to live in a bit over a year (we plan on country living in Småland), so it’s time to get serious about some basic language “fiddling.”

    I love languages studied a good deal of linguistics, and am intrigued by your besutifully-related experiences.

    Much more to write, but sleep finally calls, and I shall continue this tomorrow, or soon! My main goal tonight was just to offer an enormous “thumbs-up!”

    May you week continue pleasantly!

    Cheers, Joana
    (From the lush coastal forest of Northern California)


  3. Helen – what a great blog! You write about the things I think about ALL the time. So, my background is I’m a native Swedish-speaker, but I’ve lived in the UK these past 13 years (virtually my whole adult life) and I can talk about all sorts of things in English, but not, for example, sailing (because I only sail in Scandinavia). I don’t know any sailing terms in English. It also applies the other way around. I can talk about various legal, technology and yoga terms in English (because that’s where I started working with/doing those things), but I just don’t know them in Swedish.

    I also REALLY loved your “10 things you need to know before moving to Sweden” post. I’m now spending more time in Stockholm and my reverse culture shock is ginormous. Especially relating to the “oh so quiet” (or, as I like to call it, rude) way of things – people who just stare when really what they mean is “excuse me” or people who just don’t acknowledge you when you hold up a door. My (Swedish) boyfriend mocks me all the time when I get disproportionately peeved at this phenomenon! 🙂

    Thanks and keep up the great blogging!


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