superigel (superigel) wrote in linguaphiles,

That Damn Lingua Franca English - Opinions on an Editorial Piece Please!

As a German language student in Germany for the first time I was frequently frustrated when I tried out my German in a store or museum just to have the natives talk back to me in English 90% of the time. I'm sure other people in here have similar stories, but I would like your reaction to this topic and this article...

Swedes: Please let us speak Swedish with you

The Local's Oliver Gee wonders why Swedish people insist on replying to foreigners in English when we have tried to start a conversation in Swedish.

Dear Swedes,

Why do you always speak to us Swedish learners in English?

I know you're very, very good at English, and I know my Swedish is far from perfect. But surely if I could only practise my Swedish a little then you wouldn't need to be doing me any more language favours.

I remember when I was new to Sweden and I'd prepared all night for a shopping exchange. I had my eye on some red trousers and I was going to buy them - in Swedish - from a hipster hangout in Stockholm. My accent was questionable but my grammar was flawless.

I went in and said "Hello, I'd like to buy these trousers, please".

"Splendid choice, young man," the shopkeeper responded in English, twirling his moustache. "They're a dashing pair indeed."

The trousers were splendid, he was right, but why was he talking about them in English?


Upon more than three years' reflection, I've decided on three reasons why Swedes answer foreigners in English.

1: Efficiency. Why mess around when you can get to the point?
2: You like speaking English and want to practise.
3: You're showing off.

Whichever way, it's no wonder so many many foreigners in Sweden never master Swedish, or never bother trying. You Swedes sometimes don't give us a chance.

So what can we do when Swedes refuse to speak Swedish? Again, three things:

1: Be stubborn and respond in Swedish.
2: Chuckle inwardly, continue in English, and write an article about it one day.
3: If it's someone you won't see again, pretend you're Polish and say you can't speak English anyway*.

*If they can speak Polish you might be in trouble.

I decided to bring up the subject with Sweden's etiquette queen Magdalena Ribbing, who has penned 15 books on manners and writes a regular column for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. I asked her whether Swedes were in the wrong when they answered foreigners in English.

"If they do that then they're being very rude indeed," she responded without even a second's thought.

"Swedes think they're helping by showing off that they've done their homework, and what's more, they want to seem a little cool and 'urban' by speaking English. And we absolutely don't want to come across as being from the countryside," she continued.

"But it's not helpful. Much more so as we don't speak half as good English as we think we do."

The rules, she said, were simple.

"You should always use the language of the country you are in unless someone explicitly says they can't. I don't walk around London saying ursäkta," she says. "And just the same, I shouldn't be walking around Sweden assuming people are from an English-speaking country."

Well fancy that, I have the etiquette queen on my side.

Now what's your excuse?



http://www.thelocal.se/20140611/dear-swedes-please-let-us-speak-swedish-with-you
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  • 52 comments

thekumquat

June 13 2014, 07:09:27 UTC 2 months ago

I found Germans were generally great actually - more likely to tell me "Nein, man sagt...." and correct me.
But I also lived in Norway for five years. While I got to being able to read it reasonably well, I can't even say a simple greeting because no-one, ever, would respond to even a word of Norwegian from a foreigner. It's like Norwegian was a secret code not to be shared with outsiders.

meepettemu

June 13 2014, 07:49:36 UTC 2 months ago

My partner (and I) are learning sign language. One of her colleagues is Deaf and generally has interpreters with him. When she speaks to him in sign, he replies in English. Eventually she just asked him if he could reply in sign and he was happy to.

jubelhunden

June 13 2014, 07:56:13 UTC 2 months ago

There are so many dialects in Swedish so the locals can hardly understand each other:) As a foreigner I tried to speak Swedish but every time someone interrupts me and tries to correct (in own dialect) so I could hardly improve my language skill. English is the only alternative available:)

iddewes

June 13 2014, 08:17:55 UTC 2 months ago Edited:  June 13 2014, 08:19:55 UTC

I think it really depends where you are in Germany ;) I guess if you're in Berlin....but I live in a fairly small town in the Frankfurt/Offenbach/Darmstadt commuter belt, and believe me no one answers in English if I speak to them in German here. I've maybe had that sometimes in Frankfurt, but not in the other cities, and not all the time. And definitely not in the small towns around where I live, or other smaller cities that my partner and I have gone to on day trips. (In fact, if anything, if they realise you are not a native speaker, they do that thing Brits are good at as well, speaking LOUDER, ha ha)

ningloreth

June 13 2014, 09:03:43 UTC 2 months ago

...speaking LOUDER

That happened to me in Poland. I was wandering round Krakow and a man came up to me and asked for directions -- people always ask me for directions, wherever I am -- and when I replied, in English, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Polish," he asked me again, but LOUDER. I couldn't help laughing (when he'd gone), because I'd genuinely thought that we Brits were the only people who did that.

samtaro82

June 13 2014, 12:08:25 UTC 2 months ago

There are also plenty of parts of Berlin where no one speaks English either. ;) I live up at the far northeastern edge of the city, and no one here speaks English. You'll also find that older folks in the eastern half of the city don't speak English at all - my mother-in-law, for instance, knows about three words. Plus, the first time I came here in 2002, when I spoke no German, I really couldn't communicate with anyone outside of the hotel/hostel. Things in the city center have changed a lot in the last 10 years or so. :D

dieastra

June 13 2014, 13:24:53 UTC 2 months ago Edited:  June 13 2014, 13:30:39 UTC

You'll also find that older folks in the eastern half of the city don't speak English at all

Things were VERY differently in Eastern Germany. The language everyone had to learn in school starting in fifth grade was Russian. You could take up English (or French) later in your school career, but it was voluntary and in your free time, so not everyone did it. Plus, I admit I was quite bored with it, since I didn't see any practical use for it - I wouldn't have been allowed to travel to the UK or US anyway. While with Russian, we could talk to Polish or Czech kids in the summer camps, as they also had to learn it.

There simply wasn't as much English in the daily life like there is now. The counter where you buy tickets for trains was called "Fahrkartenschalter" and not "ticket counter". The other counter where you get information was called "Auskunft" and not "infopoint". A toilet was called "Toilette" (which admittedly is not very German *g*) and not "McClean". All the fancy new words we use now for computers, technolgy and internet didn't exist yet back then. Also there was way more German music in the radio and TV. One reason was that they feared the (bad?) influence of anything from Western Europe or America, the other that they simply did not have the money to pay for the songs. So, whenever there was a famous song, instead of playing the original, they would air a re-make, sung by an Eastern German artist, in German of course. And the German singers and bands sang in German anyway, as they wanted to be understood by their audience. I always care deeply about lyrics, a song with a text I can't understand does not mean anything to me.

Commercials/Advertisement, which is almost completely English nowadays (and therefore excludes a large part of the audience), simply didn't exist. You don't need it when there isn't enough of everything and some stuff sold out all the time anyway. So yeah, the elderly generation, my parents for example, simply never encountered the language as much and aside from a few simple words and phrases, don't speak English at all.

samtaro82

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

samtaro82

2 months ago

conuly

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

conuly

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

dorsetgirl

2 months ago

biascut

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

iddewes

June 13 2014, 15:44:56 UTC 2 months ago

I'm sure there are some, it's just Berlin always seems to me to be the place most English speaking expats are, (and the most tourists too) though I am sure there are some in Frankfurt too and I think there's still some American military around Heidelberg or something, I can't remember where they still are.

oh_meow

June 13 2014, 18:29:16 UTC 2 months ago

I worked every summer teaching and travelling around in Austria for 3 years, so I picked up quite a lot of Austrianisms in German, and I got used to understanding some very thick rural accents. Now when I talk to people from Southern Germany they seem to instantly want to be my new best friend and talk at me in a long stream of strongly accented German, possibly because they're excited to meet a foreigner who will understand them talking naturally. It was a bit alarming the first time it happened, but now I'm just kind of used to it.

People from the North of Germany just look at me like "What?? How?? WHY?????"

oh_meow

June 13 2014, 18:29:34 UTC 2 months ago

And people in Saxony thought I was Czech.

oh_meow

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

oh_meow

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

oh_meow

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

oh_meow

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

samtaro82

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

vilakins

2 months ago

dalaruan

June 14 2014, 06:58:25 UTC 2 months ago Edited:  June 14 2014, 07:03:16 UTC

I'm from the far North of Germany and I have really difficulties to understand Germans from Bavaria or other southern parts of Germany who speak heavy dialects. They also have a funny way to term the time, completely unintelligable for Northern Germans ;)

dieastra

2 months ago

dalaruan

2 months ago

dieastra

2 months ago

resident_pink

June 13 2014, 10:09:51 UTC 2 months ago Edited:  June 13 2014, 10:10:36 UTC

(FTR: Swedish native living in Sweden.)

I've had this happen to me, when I called my parents who, at the time, were staying in a French hotel. I had studied French for 2½ years or something and thought I had constructed a perfectly good sentence (which I today can't reproduce, this was 20 years ago), asking for the guests in room Y and may I please speak to them. The person who answered the call replied back to me in English and I've never tried speaking French with a French person ever again.

As for the article, as a native Swede, I don't quite understand the "showing off" aspect the author suggests, but perhaps there are people like that. (Although personally I've never thought of Swedes as the "showing off" kind – it's kind of interesting if that's how we come off to others.) I'd like to add two other possible reasons to the list though: hyper-politeness and not wanting to misunderstand.

4. Hyper-politeness: If someone is struggling, we want to help them, for example by indicating that if the speaker prefers English we are able to use that (although I agree with Mrs Ribbing that it's not polite to simply switch without asking). Swedes tend to strive toward the golden mean, to accommodate everyone's wishes and finding a consensus, so we tend to be overzealous in accommodating people and, as in this case, sometimes probably overdoing it in a clumsy manner because we make assumptions about the wishes of the speaker, rather than asking. Swedish politeness can be a bit crude and backwards compared to other countries' and cultures'.

5. Not wanting to misunderstand/Finding it embarrassing not to understand: I personally find communication breakdown to be an utterly embarrassing state and I think I share this with many Swedes. We simply don't want to be the person who doesn't understand what the foreign person is saying. Sweden/Swedish people are also quite hyper-sensitive about racism and the like, and they would not want to be perceived as if their inability to understand someone is an active act of dismissal. Almost everyone has a story of an embarrassing situation where they've simply not been able to parse a foreign person's earnest and laboured attempts to convey something, usually because of the accent or some mispronunciation. So, in order to avoid embarrassment, I can see how someone may choose to switch to English because they are afraid they won't be able to understand the speaker as the conversation progresses. I think the logic is that it's less impolite to switch to English than to tell someone straight to their face "I'm sorry, I'm having trouble understanding you."

To me, the author's option 1 is the most plausible. Option 2 seems odd unless it's clear the foreign person is actually from an English speaking country. Practising English with someone whose first language is German seems to miss the point? And, maybe this is just me being imbued with national spirit or something, but I really can't say I've ever met a single Swedish person who, meeting an L2 Swedish speaker would simply whip out the English card with an insinuated "I see your insufficient Swedish and raise you my quite excellent English". If there are people like that, you're quite welcome to be rude to them in return for all I care. >:[

sagrima

June 13 2014, 15:09:52 UTC 2 months ago

I think that Finns and Swedes are not so different in this case, because I have noticed that in Finland people often speak English too even though the visitor/whoever-who-tries-to-speak-Finnish would like to learn Finnish. And I agree with these reasons 4 and 5.

Of course it's annoying and I have seen it in other countries, too, but it's just easier to communicate in English, especially because Finnish is so difficult language (I've heard). Still, if someone even tries to speak Finnish, it's always very admirable and a easy way to gain respect among Finns.

What's funny for me is that in Finland everyone has to learn Swedish (because of the tiny Swedish-speaking minority), but in Sweden no Finn can ever use their Swedish. Swedes don't wish to hear finlandssvenska for some reason - too ugly a dialect maybe? Or are the rules same for every foreigner: no Swedish, please. :D

resident_pink

2 months ago

thekumquat

2 months ago

resident_pink

2 months ago

musa_nocturna

June 13 2014, 20:52:28 UTC 2 months ago

Another swede chiming in, above comment is flawless and says exactly what I came to add. It's not showing off, it's trying for efficiency and clarity, and English has a very high probability of success with that. Abhor situations where someone has to try to explain things to me in their best new-learner Swedish instead of switching to English we're both good at. (I could be projecting a bit, I hate when English natives don't take a moment to realise that there are a lot of learners out there and we're sometimes going to need them to meet us halfway)

sollersuk

June 13 2014, 10:39:41 UTC 2 months ago

I found the pronunciation of Swedish very difficult - particularly the tones: if you're asking the way it makes a difference whether you're being told to turn left at the building site or the garden gnome! Sticking to English is much safer.

fabrisse

June 13 2014, 11:13:45 UTC 2 months ago

New to the community. I lived in Brussels for six years. I learned very quickly to begin with a variation on "Please excuse my grammar..." before I asked my question. The Dutch/Flemish speakers were always particularly helpful with my very, very basic skills in their language. It's been many years, so perhaps this has changed, now.

vanityfair00

June 13 2014, 12:58:18 UTC 2 months ago

I lived in Japan for three years and I started every conversation in shops and restaurants with I'm sorry but I don't speak Japanese, and then I would speak Japanese. I rarely had anyone just switch to English but I think that has more to do with the level of most people's English in the countryside where I lived.

dieastra

June 13 2014, 18:42:15 UTC 2 months ago

Actually, it happened to me the other way around. Last year when I was in London. I have no problem understanding and speaking English and never am at a loss for words, but of course as soon as I open my mouth I get identified as German. Even if I only order fish and chips, no idea what I am doing wrong LOL

Anyway, on two occasions, one man at the train station selling tickets and telling me which platform to go to, and also the security guy at the airport that had to search me, both switched to German and actually had very well constructed sentences and good grammar, more than just "Dankeschön" und "Guten Tag". I was deeply impressed, and it made me smile how happy they were to show off their language skills. I asked the second guy how come, and he said when he is as a tourist in Germany everyone speaks English with him, so it is only fair.

I understand though that the author of the article is a immigrant living in Sweden and not a tourist.

houseboatonstyx

June 13 2014, 19:16:18 UTC 2 months ago

USian here. I'd look at context. A clerk in a store will be thinking of efficiency and accuracy (and perhaps been instructed by her boss). For a practice conversation, it might be good to find a situation where no one is under time pressure and no one will be expecting this casual stranger to say anything of practical importance.

And good to begin with an explanation such as, "I am a visitor to your country and I would like to practice speaking your language."

Not that visitors to the US will have this problem, since no USians can speak any foreign language anyway. /joke

panjomin

June 15 2014, 00:54:54 UTC 2 months ago

Story of my life whenever I go to Malta, where nearly everyone speaks English in addition to Maltese. Here's how bad it gets. I recently gave a 40-minute academic talk in Maltese. Afterwards an audience member asked a question in English. When people around told him to switch, he looked at me in genuine puzzlement and said, "But do you know Maltese?"

The use of English sometimes seems to be involuntary--so much so that I've often wondered if there's some cognitive explanation for it. (The explanations in the article and the comments are all plausible, but they assume that language choice is conscious and unconstrained, and I'm not sure it is.) The best I've come up with so far is that speakers make split-second choices based on accent, appearance, etc., to use English (or whatever). That choice entails a certain cognitive investment, and once it's made, it's hard to reverse without conscious effort. This would explain why, for example, I've had people promise to speak to me in Maltese but then continue speaking English anyway; and why the friends who agreed to speak with me in Maltese keep doing it even when I mess up. In other words, it's not really about you, the foreign speaker; it's about the general human unwillingness to take on more cognitive labor than seems necessary.

On a practical level, I've learned to just stay to people right away, "I'm trying to learn Maltese." If they continue in English, I ask them how to say what they just said but in Maltese. This forces them to switch, which then makes it easier to continue (according to my hypothesis, anyway). If these approaches fail, I try not to take it personally, but then find another grocer, dry cleaner, shoe store, or whatever. There are natural language teachers out there, but you have to find them. During my last visit to Malta, the lady that sold vegetables in my neighborhood just loved correcting me, which was just what I needed.

dieastra

June 15 2014, 07:14:07 UTC 2 months ago

I was in Vancouver once with my Czech friend and we both are very fluent in English and have no problem talking with each other.

But one day, in the hotel room, she said a very long sentence at me in Czech. I just looked blankly at her, as my brain tried to catch up what this was all about, and it took her quite a while to realize I did not understand a word.

On the other hand, when I have stayed in the UK for a few days and fly back home, I need to make a conscious effort to switch back to German once I crossed the border. I once asked for the direction in English on the Frankfurt airport without realizing it. And even in Germany itself, after attending a convention where we only heard and talked English the whole day long, I totally forgot where I was in the evening and wanted to talk to the TAXI driver in English as well.

panjomin

June 15 2014, 01:04:43 UTC 2 months ago

I have to add that I had the opposite experience in Xian. Everyone spoke vigorously to me in Chinese and told me that it was great that I was trying to speak it, often adding that my Chinese was bad and I needed to study more (entirely true). I just loved the whole attitude of "Of course you should know Chinese! Everyone should! Now go study!"

At one point when I didn't understand something the hotel manager was telling me, he wrote it down for me. Again the attitude was, "OK, your spoken Chinese is bad, but let's see if you can figure it out this way." The funny thing was, it actually worked.

Maybe no one spoke English and had no choice but to use Chinese, but even so it was such a welcome change from the miserably depressing let's-just-speak-English thing that happens so often in Europe. Go China!

panjomin

June 15 2014, 01:10:33 UTC 2 months ago

Did everyone see this (posted earlier in another thread)? I'm sure it's over the top for Japan, but it's pretty much what happened to me in Malta.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLt5qSm9U80#t=120

rirakkumiru

June 17 2014, 02:39:33 UTC 2 months ago

When I first came to Japan people either tried to speak English or ran away from me lol Just keep studying hard and keep trying to find people to speak the language with. Once you become better than their English skills they will find it more comfortable to speak to you in their native language.

muckefuck

June 19 2014, 16:49:22 UTC 2 months ago

When I was in Barcelona, it was difficult to get L1 Catalan-speakers to speak Catalan to me (they would reply in English, or just look at me confused) but L2 speakers accommodated me easily. However, this was some years ago, when a tourist who had any Catalan was still a rara avis.