January will mark two years since I arrived in Sweden and joined Karolinska Institutet as a post-doc. Before setting foot in the land of Pippi Longstocking and awkward neighbour interactions I envisioned myself learning Swedish pretty quickly. The plan was to attend lessons a few days a week, take a couple of online courses, listen to Swedes and soon I would be ordering kanelbullar like a native.
Unfortunately, nearly two years on, I still struggle to understand even the most basic of sentences in Swedish. In addition to my own inability to learn languages there are a few reasons why Swedish is particularly hard to grasp for scientists moving from another country. Firstly, the melting pot of academia makes our work environment highly international where the lingua franca is English, itself a second-language for many of us. The long hours and unpredictable schedules in science make it impossible to commit to regular language classes. I tried attending SFI a few times but soon my timepoints began to overlap with my jättebras and my tack så myckets. The timepoints prevailed. As for online courses, sitting in front of a laptop after a long day in the lab while a robotic Swedish lady shouts sköldpaddan äter äpple from the screen can only take you so far.
Then there’s the fact that Swedes speak English extremely well. In the rare occasions that I muster the confidence to order a coffee in Swedish and mumble random Scandinavian-like sounds, the barista replies in perfect English. As does the lady in the post office. And the builder at biomedicum. If you already have a functional way of communicating with the native population, the pressure to learn their language is much reduced. Lastly comes the fact that Swedes don’t seem to speak very much and when they do, they do it quietly. If had moved to Greece my ears would be filled with Greek jabber in no time given how much is yelled by the shores of the Mediterranean. Everytime I try to eavesdrop on Swedes having a conversation in the hope of picking up a few words they seem to sense my peering eyes and retreat into a whisper. Maybe I’m standing too close.
Of course none of this is an excuse. Many a foreign scientists have come to Sweden and learned the lingo in no time and the largest culprit of my failure is my own over-caffeinated brain. Yet, Swedes, I beg for your patience! Soon I will be whispering with you, just give me a bit more time.