Svenska språket

In principle I entirely agree that anyone seeking citizenship in a country, or even permanent residence, ought to learn that country’s language. I used to have my hair cut in Branford, Connecticut, by a man who had lived there for forty years and still only spoke Italian. He seemed to get along OK – there was a pizzeria along the road where he could socialize – but I wouldn’t recommend it. Bangladeshis in Bradford – even their wives – should speak English; Syrians in Syracuse should learn Italian; Glaswegians coming over the border to England should learn to talk so that we can understand them. (And vice-versa? I’m not sure.) You need to know the language in order to understand the culture you’re moving into: to become properly acclimatised, that is. Naturalisation requirements to this effect, as I understand are applied in most countries of the world, are perfectly reasonable.

Which is what worries me about a proposal by the recently-negotiated Swedish government coalition to make competence in the Swedish language a requirement for Swedish citizenship. I’ve applied for that, yet my Swedish language skills have barely got beyond ‘var är systembolaget?’ (‘Where is the State Liquor Store?) The language wasn’t a requirement when I sent my application in – only that I had lived here for more than five years, could support myself, had a Swedish sambo, and didn’t have a criminal record. I should have passed on all those criteria. I’m hoping that my lack of the language – which I admitted to on the form – isn’t nonetheless going to hold my application back. (It’s been two and a half years now since I applied – just after the Brexit vote.) So what are my excuses?

I have several, though none of them can alleviate the sense of guilt I still feel when talking in English to Swedes. (I think that should go in my favour.) I’ve always been bad at foreign languages, though I was taught three at school. Latin is still my best; then German, then French. But I only just scraped by in ‘O’-level in all of them. I took an interest in the structures of languages – it’s why I liked Latin best – but could never memorise the words. I wonder if that’s a common mental condition, with a Latin or Greek name? Whenever anyone speaks to me in French, German or Swedish, I immediately panic, even though on reflexion I realise I know the words. I attribute that to an occasion as an adolescent boy in a Paris shop when I asked for something in what I thought was perfect French from this gorgeously beautiful assistant, only for her to pretend she didn’t understand me. I blushed deeper than I ever have since. The memory of my embarrassment then comes back to me whenever I’m addressed by a foreigner, gorgeously beautiful or not.

So far as Swedish is concerned, I did try to learn it twenty years ago, at the government-run ‘SFI’ – svenska för invandrare – attending every weekday morning for two or three months, and enjoying it greatly; I even found I could joke in Swedish – ‘ah, Engelsk humor’, giggled the teacher – but then returning home at lunch to resume my writing of a book in English, which always threw me off. That’s one of my problems: I’ve never had to work in Swedish, which would have forced me to remember what I learned at SFI. My sambo Kajsa’s English is excellent; we’ve tried only talking Swedish at breakfast, for example, but it never seems to work. There’s only a few conversational places that ‘pass the butter’ (‘passera smöret’) will get you to – and I’ve just had to look that up on Google Translate.* Swedes generally, it seems to me, don’t like struggling with ‘Swenglish’, and are only too keen to show off their perfect English, so that’s where conversations that start off in Swedish – ‘var är systembolaget?’ – usually end. (‘Just up the road, where the green sign is. But it’s closed today.’) That’s enough on its own to deepen your sense of linguistic inferiority.

Quite apart from all that, I’m elderly (‘gammal’) , rather deaf (döv), and losing my memory – of English words as well as foreign ones. Sometimes I find the latter replacing the former in my memory cells, so that I can rarely remember what ‘vitlök’ is in English, for example (it’s ’garlic’), which is OK in a Swedish ICA-Konsum but not in Tescos back in the UK. Everyone who has experienced deafness knows that it mainly affects one’s hearing of vowels, which one’s brain then attaches the right consonants to; which is doubly difficult with unfamiliar foreign vowels. (Some Swedish ones are impossible for us Brits. I was told that the Swedes can use them only because they have a hole drilled in their top palates when they are new-born. New citizens are entitled to the same operation performed under anaesthetic.)

Is all this enough to excuse me? I love the sound of Swedish, and the way Swedes speak it – clearly, in the fronts of their mouths. I get pleasure from Swedish films even without subtitles, picking up a certain amount and letting the rest flow pleasurably over me. I can often get by with Swedish newspapers, but would love to be able read Strindberg in the original. (Then I might even get to like him.) I hate the fact that Kajsa can never talk entirely naturally with me. I hope I can become a bit Swedish without the språk. But that, ultimately, will rest with Migrationsverket.

*I’ve just learned it’s wrong. So much for Google Translate.

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