Swedish Language Blog

Hearing Swedish Abroad Posted by on Nov 16, 2008 in Culture

It’s always interesting to see how many people abroad can utter at least some words of Swedish. I say “utter,” because I’m not even surprised anymore at how many people actually can speak Swedish. Their degrees of proficiency vary wildly, that’s for sure, but Swedish is no longer a secret language in which you can gossip with your friend about that fat lady with a camel toe waiting to cross the street. Chances are, the lady and the camel toe can also understand Swedish.

That’s exactly what happened to me last Friday. Except that the lady didn’t sport a camel toe, because she was sitting behind a desk at one of the local governmental offices. I was picking up some useless papers and waiting for even more useless stamps. I was complaining about it in Swedish to my companion. The lady looked up from behind her desk and said to no one in particular – “jävla Svenssons” (bloody Swedes). Needless to say, we shut up and waited quietly for our turn.

Later, because I’m a dork who still sends postcards home, we went to a dinky little post office to buy stamps. The woman there took one look at “Sverige” in the address and responded “Ah! Jättebra! Min syster bor i Sverige.” (Great! My sister lives in Sweden.)

This was getting spooky.

Throughout the day I heard even more Swedish coming from random strangers. A Belgian guy said proudly, “I can say something in Swedish!” and proceeded with “Jag älskar dig!” (I love you.) We heard friendly shouts of “Skål!” (cheers!) in the evening and grateful thanks of “Tack!” (thank you).

I am no longer surprised when I hear odd words of Swedish abroad. And believe me, Swedish can be heard all over the place. In Poland it’s almost expected to have someone try to chat you up in Swedish if they hear you speaking this language. But on the beaches in The Gambia? Or on the streets of Phuket? True, both places are popular destinations for Swedish tourists, but trust me, the first time you hear Gambian bum boys or Thai hustlers address you in Swedish, you will feel a bit odd. And while at first, they may know only a few chosen words to attract attention, they are very quick learners – they know where their business is coming from. I’ve met some that after one tourist season speak better Swedish than many immigrants after years of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare).

Keep that in mind when you’re off to exotic lands this winter to escape the cold.

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  1. ceci:

    hehehe and it is strange, taken in to account that only 9 millions all over the world talk in swedish…well, here in rosario, argentina, people are sarting to be familiar with swedish, as we are talking all day in that way hehehe they cant wait to see us on sweden!
    kisses anna

  2. Chris:

    I work at the Mall Of America in Minnesota and I hear swedish all the time. I even have older swedish couple come up to me and try to talk bad english to me but when I hear them attempt to say “where” but it comes out “vhere” I realize they are swedish and I speak swedish to them and its hilarious to see peoples eyes grow to the size of baseballs!

    I even had a whole family from sweden say in swedish after my friend was done helping them “I am impressed by how much he knew” and the whole family did a round of head nods in agreement and I turned to them and said “thank you and have a good day” and the whole family smiled as their eyes grew large while looking at a 19 year old half mexican, quarter swedish, and quarter welsh boy that looks like he should know spanish not swedish lol

  3. David (Sydney):

    G/day Anna
    A older Swedish lady was telling me about 2 young Swede’s on a train heading into Sydney, they were ‘taking the piss out of there fellow passangers in Swedish, so when she came to her stop she walked up to them and said in Swedish “be careful here as a lot of people can speak that lanuage” Then she said it in English, leaveing the pair looking very nervous sitting there with all eyes looking at them, (Sydney trains can be Scary at times)

    But it is not the norm to hear Swedish in Sydney, I have been trying to find a talking partner for a while,

    Keep up the good work I do enjoy your Blog

    Kind Regards Dave (Sydney)

  4. Curre:

    That´s happened to me… too many times 🙂 A swedish friend of mine is working in Mongolia summertime, and has learned the language quite well. You´ll be surprised to know how many Mongolians there are in Stockholm. He likes to drop a comment in mongolian after listening to people at tunnelbanan (subway/underground). Their reactions are unbelievably funny…

    Keep smilin´

  5. Adam:

    hehe that’s a funny story. I gotta say that I’m one of those people, who stubbornly astonish Swedes in Poland. Because every time I hear swedish I can’t stop myself from dropping a comment 😛

  6. Lisanne:

    Just after my husband and I moved back to the US from Sweden, I was at a grocery store in Knoxville, Tennessee when I overheard two women discussing ice cream toppings in Swedish. I certainly didn’t expect to hear Swedish in such an “out of the way” place, but I guess that just goes to show how right this post is! My husband has a habit of discussing various things in Swedish when we are out in public, but after reading this post and all the comments, maybe that’s not such a good idea!

  7. Peter Miller:

    Have you discussed how you can tell from a persons first name if they are male of female?

    I had e-mail from sweden and the persons first name is Danne and there are other names like my cousin names are Helge and Inge who are male. Is it the “e” that tells you if they are male?
    On swedish calendar they have name days, what does that mean? Are you supposed to name your newborn by that name?

    Is this blog also in svenska as I need to practice my swedish?

    Another good topic would be all things jul.

    “Han har tomtar på loftet.” or swedish idioms.

    Tack så mycket för hjälpen!

  8. Lisbeth Zachs:

    Answer to Peter Miller:
    You can not tell female or male name by the last letter. Mette, Nette, Lisette, Rose and Anne are all female, but I can understand your conclusion since many really old swedish male name ends with _e_.

    The idiom qoutet “Han har tomtar på loftet” is translated exactly “He has father X-mas in the attic” but means “He isn’t all there” or “He’s out of it” or what ever you would say in English when someone is a bit lacking in smartness.

  9. Peter Miller:

    Hej Lisbeth
    Tack för hjälpen med svenska.
    Det finns mycket att lära!
    Ha en skön dag.

  10. Luke (Sydney):

    I hear people speak Swedish all the time—in an Ikea of course lol

    PS. where I work is next to an Ikea.

  11. mare:

    This was fun to read… I really loved the sense of humor in it, for the one who wrote this is quite comical.
    Thanks for sharing

  12. Lisbeth Zachs:

    Noted that Peter still has’nt got an anwer on
    “On swedish calendar they have name days, what does that mean?”

    In Sweden it is common to have two, three or maybe four names. You will usually very lightly congratulate somebody on their Nameday. My mother used to bring me breakfast in bed on the day of Kristina, since that is my third name.

    So some celebrate it, most don’t bother very much. You don’t get called the name from the day you are born. It could be a male nameday which wouldn’t suit a girl. 🙂

    The Namedays has been there for a long time, so most names had an old feeling about them. Somewhere in the 1970 or so, they added more modern names. Often this names are generated from the old name, Like Lisbeth will now be celebrated on the Elisabet day and so on.


  13. Teri Lowery:

    I thought about you after watching the movies “The Girl With The Dragon Tatto” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire.”

    Since the movies were in Swedish with English subtitles, I listened to the Swedish and made our words I know from English and German. I even thought about learning more about the language.

    However, I would be better off learning Spanish since I’m getting more Hispanic students in my classes who are smart, but don’t know how to read or write in English. I’ve worked at the prison for almost three years and have never encountered a Swedish inmate.

    I feel left out because most of my student aids know Spanish even though they aren’t Hispanic. I’d like to be like the person you and your companion met who understood what you were saying.

    By the way, I still have mt PowerBook, but use my iPad more than the other Macs.