27 October, 2017

To Learn Swedish Or Not To Learn Swedish


In the first few weeks that I lived in Stockholm, I started every conversation the same way: with a perplexed look while uttering the phrase I’m sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.

From sales clerks to receptionists, I have apologized to pretty much everyone in the city.

After my one-millionth apology in a three-week span (a record for even the most apologetic of Canadians), I sat down and asked myself the question any newbie in Sweden will inevitably ask themselves: To learn Swedish or not to learn Swedish?

Most Swedes Speak English

A full year before I moved, I was sitting in a pub in the UK meeting my partner’s Swedish colleagues. We were sharing the basic pleasantries and talking about the upcoming three years we’d all be spending together. When the topic switched to the time their project would require us to live in Sweden, one colleague blurted out: You’ll have a really hard time learning Swedish because everyone speaks English.

I was shocked and at first, a little offended: You don’t know my life and language learning abilities.

But it’s true. With the exception of a small handful of people, everyone I’ve met here has spoken near-fluent English.

With such a high proficiency of English amongst Swedes, it’s easy to see how one could live, survive and even thrive here without ever learning the local language.

But, Most Isn’t All

While it’s true that most people speak English most isn’t all. There are still many people in Sweden who don’t know English or don’t feel comfortable speaking it.

It’s in these times that I feel helpless. I have to resort to hand gestures, miming and essentially playing charades to get my point across.

And trust me, playing charades in a packed grocery store isn’t as much fun as it sounds.

To Learn Swedish Or Not To Learn Swedish?

In the end, I have chosen to learn Swedish, or at least try to learn the basics. In just a few weeks of classes, I’ve already noticed a difference. Slowly, I am starting to understand more of what’s going on around me.

Learning even just the basics has helped me feel less I feel like an outsider, visitor or tourist.

I’m slowly developing a better understanding of Swedish culture, and it’s been nice to feel even more at home in this beautiful city.

But most importantly, it’s been nice not start every conversation with a perplexed look, a feeling of guilt and the phrase: I’m sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.

Written by: Kate Slean

Kate Slean is a Canadian freelance writer and graphic designer who has spent the last three years living throughout Europe. She moved to Stockholm in 2017 and has since been indulging her inner Scandophile and immersing herself in Swedish culture. 

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