A week or so before I came to Sweden my aunt sent me a very nice email letting me know that the family had talked and they had all “reserved a couple of dates” in their calendars for family dinners. Some were related to the upcoming holiday season and some to family birthdays. I put this list of dates into my electronic calendar like everything else and hoped I would be able to make the one on November 10th, which was to be a celebration of my farmor’s birthday, the fact that my cousin sold his house/his sambo (which translates directly to attached, but means girlfriend/fiancée/significant romantic partner…one of my favorite Swedish words) sold her house/they got a bigger house together, and my PhD graduation. One of my favorite things about visiting my family in Sweden is they have these big family dinners with good food, lots of wine, and exciting conversation. When I lived here a for a summer in college my Swedish was quite good and these dinners were a real test, many people talking at the same time, talking over each other, some people have fairly strong accents (and more so with alcohol) but right now my Swedish is not so good…
Growing up many friends would say “your going on vacation to Sweden…cool!” While going to Sweden was cool: my parents often gave us a treat on the plane ride over and we always did something fun an touristy, looking back my mother worked really hard to make going to Sweden fun, because honestly it was going to your grandparent’s house and sitting around all day and bonus they didn’t even speak the same language….so is it any wonder that my cousins often remind me how I was so “bored” all the time.
First, I would like to dis-spell the common American myth that everyone in Sweden speaks English and especially the myth that everyone in Sweden likes to speak English…it is my experience that everyone in Sweden understands English, normally very well via listening (they don’t dub their movies or TV but instead use subtitles) but just like all other European countries lots of Swedes are self concious about their English, or like me right now with Swedish, they don’t use it that often and therefore it is rusty and they have a hard time making whole sentences. What to play a trick on an unsuspecting everyday Swede? walk into a random store (not in Stockholm) or in a tourist museum and speak to them in English…9 times out of 10 they get flustered…now this is decreasing as the workers are younger and spend more time interacting online in English. So if you are traveling to common travel areas in Sweden, yes everyone will speak English and all of the tourist sites with have information in English; if however you are riding the bus between two small kommunen in Sweden…ask the high school or college kids riding the bus to help you if you need something.
Now when my whole family was in Sweden lots of the conversation at family dinners was in English. My cousins liked to practice their English (plus it was all my brother and I spoke) and my aunt used English often in her job and while my uncle always is a little uncomfortable speaking in English (and as he told me a this most recent family dinner at some point someone told him he wasn’t that good in English…which honestly compared to my cousin’s and my aunt his English isn’t as perfect…but I make fun of one of my cousins about when he mixes up good and well (like all the stupid Americans) …these are people who speak and pronounce English like native speakers…so really not as good as them is better than most others) his English is very good and the only errors he makes often are common non-native pronunciation (or pro-nounce-ciation) issues. Then I lived in Sweden and was trying to practice my Swedish. I would go out to dinner with my aunt and uncle and only speak Swedish for practice. The last few times my whole family was here I noticed that they spoke much more often in Swedish at the dinner table, switching from English to Swedish when the opportunity arose I spent a lot of meals trying to translate what was going on to my brother who still doesn’t speak any Swedish. So how do you get through a whole day of family activities where 90% is in another language you don’t totally understand? You use your brain resources wisely!
That’s right: you can’t translate everything, you can’t follow every conversation, you can’t ask them to translate everything you don’t hear or don’t understand…So I used my most clean uncluttered brain to have 20min with my farmor before the masses arrived. Just the two of us talking about everyday things where I could talk in broken Swedish and talk around the words I couldn’t remember….I told her about how I was, my new job, my new desk at my new job, how my family in the states was, I asked her about how she was feeling about her upcoming birthday…It was great…then came everyone else. I listened for the most part, I participated somewhat, I nodded my head when I wanted to agree, and I sat quietly and ate my food. A few times they switched to English deliberately when asking me a direct question or describing the food, or one person would turn to me and give a break by having a private conversation in English for a few minutes. Trust me it was all appreciated. But sometimes after a long conversation in Swedish a cousin would asked me if I had understood the conversation or not…probably not…probably I wasn’t listening because you were talking too quickly or too loudly or too many people were talking…honestly, probably I was making a list of what of the night I should blog about :). But I wasn’t not listening because I don’t like you or don’t care…I was just saving my resources for when the conversation was important or when they would be most useful.
So big family dinner number 1 down, my cousin (actually my cousin’s husband=my cousin) cooked an interesting meal that was really fabulous and I got to see everyone and give them all hugs..I officially feel like I am in Sweden. Goal for next dinner…speak up in Swedish more, don’t always switch back to English when responding.