Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute

Stories about Learning Swedish

When Jean Phillips-Martinsson first published her thoughts on how outsiders view Swedish culture, her work was welcomed by no less than a vice president at Swedish communications giant Ericsson. "I am convinced that we have been able to avoid a number of stumbling blocks in our contacts with other cultures by reading this book," he surmised.

Full of engaging observations about Swedish cultural characteristics and their international consequences, Swedes as Others See Them: Facts, Myths, or a Communication Complex also contained well-meaning advice for Swedes themselves, to save them from unintentionally appearing conflict averse to a fault, slow to apologize, and generally difficult to get to know.

It's worth noting that the book was originally published more than 40 years ago. Despite this, it has some evergreen stories about the challenges of learning a new language, two of which we'll share here.

A foreigner living and working in Sweden, Jean was keen to learn the language of her hosts. "You don't need to learn Swedish; everyone speaks English," her friends assured her, while relishing this new opportunity to practice their English.

Armed with this knowledge, and without a single word of Swedish in her vocabulary, Jean set off to do her shopping.

I chose the easy way out and went to a supermarket where a variety of unfamiliar-looking packages, all neatly labeled and priced, looked down on me. Blessing the American influence, I thought, "even an idiot could shop here."

It was soon to be put to the test. Despite frantic searchings, nowhere could I find, or recognize, either flour or breadcrumbs. I needed both for the "wienerschnitzel" which I had promised to cook.

Full of confidence in the knowledge that "everyone speaks English," I hurried over to one of the salesgirls and, clearly and concisely, explained my quandary. Looking like a frightened rabbit, she scurried away into the depths of the store to fetch a handful of colleagues. Pandemonium broke loose. They all stared at me as though I were something the car had brought in and then proceeded to discuss my problem, gesticulating wildly and pointing to one sad-looking package after another. Finally, a shy Nordic-looking beauty eased herself out of the group and came uncertainly towards me.

"I speak a little English," she explained modestly.

"Flour?" I asked and smiled reassuringly at her. A light of recognition shone in her eyes as she pointed out the packet.

"Breadcrumbs?" I continued hopefully. This obviously completely confounded her. But she was not to give in so easily.

"Breadcrumbs?" she screeched shrilly, addressing all the customers in the shop. Everyone stopped shopping and twenty pairs of eyes stared at me while complete shocked silence descended. Suddenly the cry appeared to be "action stations." Everyone began talking at once and their helpfulness and kindness overwhelmed me. Nobody knew what breadcrumbs were, but they would jolly well find out even if it killed them, and myself, in the attempt. Most Englishmen and Americans talk louder and louder when they are not understood. Perhaps they hope that the words will eventually force themselves into the foreigner's head. In my case, this is not so. I carry on a kind of mime. People stood transfixed—paralyzed, watching my expressive movements.

"Ah," cried a young man. "Yes! Yes!" and proudly presented me with a packet of figs. I dare not think what he guessed I was doing! In desperation, I bought a loaf of bread, which I did not need, and began crumbling it. Twenty willing hands then drowned me in breadcrumbs.

I returned home to my friends exhausted but proud. Proud until I dished up the "wienerschnitzel" coated with the packet of flour, clearly marked "florsocker"—icing sugar!

Taken by Jean's enduring desire to learn Swedish, her employer presented her with a Swedish Linguaphone Course on cassette. Among the first things she learned was that the language, as do many others, differentiates between maternal and paternal grandparents.

I shall never forget my Swedish Linguaphone Course, which taught me that grandmother was both a "mormor" and a "farmor;" that grandfather was both a "morfar" and a "farfar;" that uncle was "farbror" and "morbror," and that aunt was "faster" and "moster." I used to practice on the poor chauffeur of the company where I worked. I would sit in the back seat of his car and try it out.

"Herr Olsson, hur mår din mormor?" (Mr. Olsson, how is your mother's mother?)

And poor Herr Olsson! A red blush creeping up the back of his neck brightening up his grey uniform, replied, "Bra, tack, Fröken Phillips." (Fine, thank you, Miss Phillips.)

The next day, I had advanced to: "Herr Olsson, hur mår din morfar?" (How is your mother's father?)

And he replied somberly, "Tuvärr, han är död!" (Unfortunately, he's dead!)

My Swedish Linguaphone Course paid so much attention to teaching foreigners the importance of relationships and titles, that it neglected the emotional necessities of life, and I was therefore unable to say how sorry I was!

As Jean concludes, learning a language is not just learning words. You must know how, when, and where to use them.

Further reading

  • Swedes as others see them: Facts, myths, or a communication complex?
    Jean Phillips-Martinsson
    Affärsförl (1981)
    Find the book on Amazon

Tue 02 Jul 24

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