It’s embarrassing how little Swedish you need to know


Because everybody here speaks English. Perfectly.

Sometimes they’ll speak English to me even before I say anything. (My comparative silence probably gives me away as a non-native.) Other times they’ll notice that I’m speaking with a bad accent and switch to English. Some humor me by speaking Swedish until I finally break down and ask (in English), “I’m sorry, could you say that again?” because they’re speaking Swedish too fast for me to keep up.

When dealing with non-Swedes, the default language is English. Not because people from English-speaking countries are so prevalent, but because English is everybody’s second language. If a German and a Russian meet, they’ll talk in English.

In other language news: On the flight out of Seattle, a variety of newspapers were available and I grabbed what turned out to be a Norwegian paper by mistake. But it turns out that if you know Swedish, you can read a Norwegian paper anyway; it’s no big deal.

Yesterday, one of Jonathan’s corridormates listened patiently as I said “sju” (“seven”) over and over again until I could get the sj-sound right. It went like this:

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “Sju.”

Peter: “Nope.”

Me: “I give up.”

Peter: “That’s okay.”

Comments (27)
  1. Argh. That sju/sjo sound is just impossible for me, and it pops up everywhere. I worked at Ellemtel in Alvsjo for a while and every day for the first couple of weeks (before I had a transit pass) I had to ask for a ticket to:

    Alvshu

    Alvsfu

    Elvshu

    Elvwhoo

    Which usually took about a minute. According to friends, I finally got to the point where I sounded like an American trying to pronounce the word – so I considered that a small victory. Had the same experience try to pick up Swedish though – I’d usually get two words out of my mouth, and we’d be back in English ;)

  2. Raymond Chen says:

    I came to my realization about the position of English when I went on two English-language guided tours and most of the people on the tours didn’t speak English as their native language. My friend Jonathan likes to say that English is the new lingua franca.

  3. Ben Hutchings says:

    Re the German and the Russian, if the German grew up in the DDR he/she should be able to speak Russian since that was the standard foreign language in DDR schools.

  4. Mike Dunn says:

    What sound does "sj" represent? Approximate IPA if you like :)

    It is [s] followed by [j], or something else entirely?

  5. Truss me, I lived almost 9 years in Sweden and I gotta say the most difficult word of all is that sju.

    I remember having that same repeating session with one my friends… ohh yeah, it was painful.

  6. Jan Söderback says:

    Sju is pronounced like shoe, except it’s not ;)

    I think everyone learning a new language has such difficulties. The English "th" sound is a common problem for Swedish speakers, for instance. Apart from alien sounds, different spelling throws me off too–I’m always forgetting W and V are different in English.

  7. Raymond Chen says:

    The Swedish "sj" sound can be badly described as "a breathy /h/, somewhere between the two German /ch/ sounds (not quite frontal, not quite back), yet not really." Since I can’t do it, it’s kind of wrong of me to try to describe it…

    And I wouldn’t get too excited about getting the English /th/ sound perfect. Native English speakers have no trouble figuring out that you’re "trying" to say /th/, and it makes for a pleasant foreign accent.

  8. Mike Dunn says:

    Sounds like the IPA symbol ? (U+0267 if that didn’t paste properly). My Phonetic Symbol Guide says it’s used for a "combination of [x] and [?] (U+0283), one variety of Swedish tj, kj, etc."

    If that’s accurate, then you pretty much have to articulate at two places at once… yeah I could see how that would be tricky ;)

  9. JCAB says:

    I don’t know Sweeden much, but I did live one year in Denmark, and I can definitely understand what you mean: You know something is terribly wrong when you try to practice your knowledge of Danish at the bakery and they just automatically switch to English without giving it a second thought.

    Really fiendish pronounciation, what with 12-odd distinct vowel sounds and all. I’m from Spain, and we have a grand total of five. :-)

  10. Louis Parks says:

    Regarding your "sj" experience, I had a similar one with the Russian soft l.

    On the Russian subject, I never met too many Russians that spoke English. When renewing my visa in Finland, however, everyone spoke English. It was a bit of a shock for me.

  11. Michael C. says:

    Having lived in Israel since age 10, I speak both English (I’m from the US) and Hebrew fluently. Plus I have many many international friends here, from literally all over the world.

    Usually the first experience I have with pronouncing something that would be considered "foreign" is with the name of a new aquaintance. However, probably due to my bi-lingual experience, I usually don’t have much trouble at all pronouncing "foreign" sounds – it’s actually remembering the names that I trip over.

    I’ll have to have a Swedish friend say "sju" for me so I can try it. ;)

  12. mikew says:

    Ditto Chinese tones.

    Me: They sound the same!

    My wife: No, one is "ma" the other is "ma"

    Me: Like I said — they sound the same!

  13. Gernot says:

    For those that have lived in Southern California, the news people on both radio and TV speak English and then also pronounce Hispanic words with a very Hispanic flair (at least to a Gringo).

  14. ATZ Man says:

    Gernot,

    But there is "be-chica" and "be-grande" (‘v’ and ‘b’ if I recall correctly) which sound more similar than you’d think.

    To hear "Spanish" Spanish you need to watch the Mexican TV networks. To my ear, the news presenters often sound relatively European.

    I’ve never ordered food in Spanish from a shop in Tijuana without the other speaker switching to English, yet in Cancún native speakers were happy to indulge Gringo efforts to practice Spanish.

  15. Robert Morris says:

    ATZ, I believe that Spanish "v" and "b" are pronounced the exact same–even their names, sometimes.

    I always learned that both were "be"/"ve" (pronounced roughly like Enlgish "bay" or the imaginary rhyming word "vay" or something in between the two or something that sounds something like any of the three–depending on regional accent and the position of the letter in the word). However, my Spanish teacher, a native speaker from Spain, calles B "be" and V "uve". I suppose that could still be confusing though, as "u" is U and "v" is V (or B…), so when asking for "uve" I suppose someone might mistake it for UB or UV instead of V.

    ::faints::

    ::recovers::

    Anyway … I’m definitely not a native and I’m not quite fluent, so don’t trust me too much. :)

    But, like you, I’ve heard the "chica" and "grande" things for differentiating between them–and also "v como vaca" and "b como…" … err, I forgot what that one goes with. Anyway, for those who don’t know Spanish, the last two are kinda like Enlgish "c as in cat" or something.

    And while we’re on V/B, I’ve heard some natives getting "A ver si" (rough translation: Let’s see if) mixed up with the incorrect "haber si", since they’re pronounced the same. (Again, for those that don’t know Spanish, the "h" is silent in modern Spanish. And this expression would mean "to have if"–and, at that, this "to have" would be not like "to have/possess something" but "to have (done something)"–i.e., the form used with participles.)

    Wheew, sorry a little lengthy, and I got carried off on some tangents. Hope y’all can still understand me. :-)

  16. Keith Moore [exmsft] says:

    I’m trying to learn Polish, and I’m having similar problems with some of their "unusual" (for me) sounds. For example:

    "sz" sounds something like "shh"

    "si" sounds something like "shh"

    "s" (s with diacritic mark) sounds something like "shh"

    Except, of course, they’re all slightly different. They sound *exactly* the same to my uneducated ear.

    "cz", "ci", "c" (c with diacritic mark) also sound almost like English "ch". Sometimes. Except when they don’t.

  17. Steve Smyth says:

    Great thread! I simply love this stuff. For anyone who may be interested, I’d like to nominate Irish Gaelic for the honor of ultimate linguistic nightmare. It’s a quadruple whammy of spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and reliance on idiom. Check it out and you’ll swear it came from another planet.

    Some reactions I’ve had while learning:

    1. "Kevin" is actually spelled "Caoimhin"?!

    2. "Gheobhaidh" is pronounced HOW?!

    3. How the hell can a word have that many consecutive silent letters?

    4. Aaarrrggghhh!!!

  18. I’ve heard the Czech combination of "rz" (except w/ a circle above the r) is just about as hard they come. Roll the R once, then a sharp, yet soft "zh" sound right after that. Side note; Bjarne Stroustrop (sp) instructions on how to pronounce his name still cracks me (just google his name for his site).

  19. Florian says:

    Your "sju" episode reminds me very much of my attempt to memorize and be able to pronounce the numbers one to ten in Mandarin. One major problem was that I, as a westerner, would go up with the voice at the end of a sentence indicating a question but in Mandarin that will, of course, completely change the meaning of a word. It went like this:

    Him: "gao"

    Me: "gao?"

    Him: "no, gao"

    Me "gao?"

    Him: "No, gao"

    Me: "gao?!"

    It took me a while until I realized my error and stopped repeating the word while at the same time asking for confirmation. Which resulted in an unexpected turn in my lesson:

    Him: "gao"

    Me: "gao"

    Him: "Oh god, no, don’t say that!"

    Me: "why, what’s wrong now?"

    Him: "Uhm, I can’t tell you, it’s, uhm, just don’t say that".

    The girls around us starting giggling told me I must have said something pretty dirty, so I tried to avoid saying that again, only that I had no idea how since it sounded all the same to me. So we continued until I was able to do it right three times in a row at which point I gave up.

  20. Peter Lund says:

    Try 777 seasick sailors next ;)

    Or try to get a Dane to say bønner and bønder (beans/prayers and farmers, respectively)…

  21. Johann Gerell says:

    For Raymond:

    "777 sjösjuka sjömän skeppade själva skötsamma sjuksköterskor"

  22. Karol Adamiec says:

    To Keith :

    Wow. Thats awesome :). I’m Polish, so you know, it’s kinda personal :)

    so i’ll help you out here :

    >"sz" sounds something like "shh"

    yes. thats right.

    >"si" sounds something like "shh"

    nope, sorry :)

    its long softened

    >"s" (s with diacritic mark) sounds something >like "shh"

    s (s diacritic )is short softened.

    i cant describe it, but it soo different :)

    >They sound *exactly* the same to my >uneducated ear.

    just practice them more :)

    whats more funny, the ni and n (n diacritic) have the same story. but the word female elephants in polish is "slonice" while "slonce" is sun :)

    theres even more

    the ch and h were spoken differently , but nowadays only some old people are able to pronouce it with difference. its just a historical backwards compatibility we have to deal while writing words which contain sound ‘h’ :)

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