Do you speak English?

When my friend Josh and I first moved here in the fall of 2007, we did not know the first thing about Sweden.  For example, we didn’t know that everyone knew how to speak English, and that they knew it quite well.

I remember we’d be out at the bars and when we found people (read: women) we wanted to talk to, we’d approach and ask,

Hey, do you speak English?

Most of the times, it was enough of an ice breaker that we’d go right into conversation.  But once, we got this response.

Of course I do.  We all do. We learn English in school, you know.

No, actually, we did not know.  But thanks for making that clear for us.

But seriously, that’s pretty impressive stuff. I find that Swedes generally, and specifically those born later than 1965, speak very very good English.  In fact, I find that their English is far easier to understand than what the Northern Irish speak (if you can even call that English).

However, being #TrulySwedish (read this previous blog posting too) they don’t freely come out and speak English, especially in unfamiliar situations.

Let’s take last night as an example.  My friend Tobias Björkgren invited me to join him for a dinner and comedy show at SysteroBror, a comedy club at KTH (the university).  We were seated in the middle of 3 other pairs, so it was a tight squeeze.  At first it was just Tobias and me having conversation, and the others were keeping to themselves and having their own conversations.

But then, as the night wore on, and more alcohol was consumed, all 8 of us were engaged in fantastic conversation.  There was quite an age difference too – from 19 all the way to 52 – but everyone was talking as if we had been friends for a long time.  And when they heard the harsh American accent through my poor excuse for Swedish, they would jump in with English and ask me about where I was from, what I was doing in Sweden, etc.  It was fantastic.

For a country where the English skills are so good, I think that Swedes should be proud of their language skills and speak English more freely, whenever they want, and without the assistance of alcohol.  But then again, that wouldn’t be Truly Swedish, would it?

12 thoughts on “Do you speak English?

  1. Anna

    I love your blog! You make me understad my own country and the swedes in a fun way! So much fun to read about all the truly swedish (wierd) stuff that to me is so common and normal, but to you is something else. Keep up the good work!

    1. calkenneth

      Hi Anna!

      Glad to hear that you enjoy it… The “Truly Swedish” things that I notice are what makes living in this country so fun for me. I have a list of other topics I need to write about, but it takes time to flesh out those ideas into blog postings. I’m always looking for guest writers too so if you have anything you want to write about, just send it on in!

      Ha det så gott!


  2. Tess

    I get the opposite reaction here in the US. People are surprised that I know English so well “you don’t even have an accent”. I think most Europeans know that the Swedes know English, but usually not Americans. Is it because Americans usually do not know or study languages that much?

  3. veronica sanders

    So, should this be commonly known that Swedish speak English with roughly no accent? I mean, am I an idiot for not knowing that the new Swedish guy who speaks English would do so without an accent? I expected something like the Irish accent or as they speak in the UK or Oz…where English is the language spoken but with a heavy accent.

    1. calkenneth

      Hi Veronica,

      Thanks for your comment! Well, I’d say that they do have an accent, it’s just much lighter than you would expect, and it is tinted from wherever they’ve spent time living. I have Swedish friends who studied in Australia who have an Australian tint. I have one other friend who lived in Scotland for 7 years and she sounds just like a Scot when she speaks English, but her Swedish is flawless.

    2. James

      There tends to be a slight accent speaking from personal experience although this depends on just how fluent the speaker is and where they learned to speak English. IN addition to this Accent or as they speak in the UK or Oz… just think what language you’re talking about (English) and then think of the primary country in the UK (England) then think how stupid that no accent remark sounds

  4. netsurfer

    What a pity the Americans don’t speak English as well as the Swedes. The author of the the “Do You Speak English” article writes in appalling bad English which I find just so typical of much American writing. I’m not sure when they start to learn English in the USA, or how they go about learning it but when a nation such as Sweden speaks English better than they do, eye brows should be raised.

  5. Rachel Condo

    I just got back from a Christmas visit in Sweden. I was very impressed at how well the Swedes speak English. I wish I could learn to speak Swedish so well. I am proud to say my son, however, has learn to speak Swedish very well.
    Secondly, I am familiary with snus, but did not see anyone spitting it on the ground. I would actually be surprised to see that, the Country to so clean and well maintained. I have a “God Jul” (Happy Christmas in Sweden. I do agree the Swedes are quiet or possiblly shy people, but I would not call them rude

  6. Thomas

    How about the fact that in Scandinavia and Holland subtitles are used instead of dubbing when foreign films or programmes are shown. This means that people get acustomed to foreign languages in a different way than most people around the globe.

  7. Natalie

    Haha I totally fell in love with your blog! It’s awesome to see a outsiders perspective! 🙂 I’m adding you to my favorites !!


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