“Why do you need to learn Swedish? Everyone speaks English here…”
That’s what a librarian at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm told me when I was doing research and told her that I was learning the language.
The irony of this statement is that I was, at that same moment, surrounded by books that were written in Swedish and Danish magazines that were obviously not going to translate themselves.
I’ve gotten a good deal of encouragement by my desire to study the Nordic Languages in detail (Nordic comes to include Finnish, whereas Scandinavian does not). Interestingly, I entered the “high gear” for this study while living in Germany (and after having been to Stockholm not once but twice!), and not while living in Scandinavia.
Alongside some encouragement, I’ve also met some puzzled people who wonder why I don’t study something more “useful” like French or Chinese.
I have read too many Language blogs that haven’t addressed the ideas that I’ve come up with, so I’m going to have to write them here:
- “They All Speak English” is NOT true!
I, like many people, came to Stockholm during the first week expecting everyone to be fluent in English. To be fair, there were many people who spoke with extraordinary skill to the degree that I would have guessed they were Midwestern American rather than Swedish.
But now comes the bubble bursting: Yes, English is widely spoken, but not by all.
Some people are surprised when I tell them the fact that I encountered not one but TWO people who didn’t speak English in Stockholm (but who did speak Swedish)—and that was only during my first week! Both of them did not appear to be ethnically Swedish, but it should be known that if you are expecting everyone in Scandinavia to be fluent in English (or even to have some knowledge of it), expect to be disappointed.
I remember going to a big supermarket in a far-flung corner of the city. I remember asking something about asking a staff member where carrots could be found. He didn’t speak a word of English, despite numerous hand-gestures.
Only across the street from where I studied there was a newspaper store, with ice cream and other treats, and the owner didn’t speak any English at all, responding to me in Swedish which I did not yet understand.
By no means do I intend to detract from the very good English skills that I have heard. But what needs to be said is that “most” does NOT equal “all”
- You will speak closely related languages better
Many people do not understand how, thanks to the Norse Invaders, the surrounding languages were accordingly impacted. Knowing a Scandinavian Language will help you with English, German, and the West Germanic Language family as a whole, and even more so with the other two members of the Scandinavian trifecta.
You may also learn how to speak English with a Scandinavian accent, which is something that many people actually really like (and you are likely to sound smart while using it).
Reference points for remembering words in the other languages come more easily. If you speak English as your first language, the Scandinavian Languages will help demystify German and make it seem more “normal”. If you learn Danish, expect to learn secrets of English pronunciation that may get you mistaken for a native.
And once you have one of the three, the other two may come to you with little effort.
- The Scandinavian Languages enable you to study other languages that cannot be readily accessed only with English
If you want to learn any of the Sami Languages, it is necessary that you know Norwegian, Finnish, or Swedish—or preferably all three. If you want to find English-language resources for Sami Languages, you’re out of luck, although no doubt you will find something.
If you want to learn Greenlandic, know that every number higher than twelve is expressed exactly as it is in Danish, not also to mention many Danish import words in the language—more than English import words.
For learning both of these, English itself will not suffice, and neither will German. The technology and the databases are in other languages, the ones of which I’ve been talking about this whole time.
- The Signs are Not Translated, and it helps to be able to Pronounce Street Names Correctly
Never will I forget a student project in Copenhagen (featured in the Economist, I believe) in which there were non-Danish speakers who had such trouble pronouncing the main street names that they affixed machines nearby that would read the names out loud to them.
That was when I was entering my honeymoon phase with the Danish Language, and I figured, “my, wouldn’t that be useful?” Now, I know that I need no such thing. Yes, Danish pronunciation takes a while to get used to, but it is nowhere near the level of confusion that English pronunciation endows upon the average learner.
If you learn the languages, then you will remember street and place names more easily, and even if you ask for directions in English, if you can’t pronounce the names, you are most definitely out of luck.
- An extraordinary Confidence Builder for an English Speaker learning his/her first foreign language!
If you think that the Romance Languages will come easy to you—well, the Scandinavian trifecta offers simpler grammar and more English cognates than can be found in Spanish. The only real drawback can be the fact that the pronunciation and the rhythms can take some time to get used to (and this is true with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish alike).
Swedish in particular has a perplexing “sj” sound that may require some adjustment time, and the Danish “stød” is purported to be the stuff of nightmares. Rest assured that you will unlock the mysteries of both with enough willpower, confidence and commitment, should you so desire.
In the event that you might be convinced that “they will just speak to me in English anyway”, try this:
Use complicated sentence structure, spice it up with some colloquialisms, and, of course, speak confidently and firmly. Sometimes you may need to make it clear that you have progressed beyond phrasebook material, but most of the time just speaking with fortitude will work.
Even in the worst case situations, you will definitely find friends who will be willing to help you and speak the languages you want.
If you are interested in any of the three (or all of them), there are so many ways to get started!
Endless television programs for kids have been dubbed into the Scandinavian Languages (don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!), and you can prepare for media exposure very quickly after a handful of exercises, worksheets, or textbook chapters.
Lycka till, allihopa! (SE)
Lykke til, alle sammen! (DK/NO)