Something Swedish


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Awkward & Offensive Language Mishap # 2

Not as offensive or awkward as #1, but too many mishaps in one week to ignore!

I’ve come to a language crossroad. This week I have been tongue tied and confused, making funny mistake after mistake in both Swedish and English. It feels like a speed bump, having learned so much so quickly, maybe I am at my brains temporary capacity.

  • So, while reading a Swedish children’s book out loud in English,I came across the word bajspåsar and kept nonchalantly reading it as “Blueberry pie.” While blåbärspaj is a tasty treat, “bajspåsar is certainly the opposite. If you read this post you will remember that “Bajs” means poop. The word that I was translating out loud meant poop-bag … as in the kind you bring with you when you  walk a dog. “When I bring my dog for a walk I make sure to have a blueberry pie in my pocket” doesn’t make sense but my brain really couldn’t understand poop-bag, two words I know but have never combined. I might never be able to order a blåbärspaj from a cafe again.

  • In class we were discussing clothing and whether it fits or not. The teacher asked “Är dina skor för stora” which I understood as “Är dina skor förstår?” In text these look so different but in speech they sound very similar. Instead of hearing, “Are your shoes too big?” I could have sworn my teacher was asking “Are your shoes understanding?”
  • As a friend was asking for a cigarette lighter in Swedish I misunderstood and thought she asked for teeth, which obviously boggled my mind. “kan jag ha tändaren” and “kan jag ha tänderna” are just too similar for me to ignore or understand, so after a stifled giggle I asked how to say lighter in Swedish and pointed out how similar the words are. If I was working as a dental assistant in Sweden I would certainly be talking about lighters all day.

Many people have jokingly warned me to not forget my English while I learn Swedish. Well, it seems that it has begun.

  • My husband and I hi-five a lot… we just like to, okay? The other day I turned to him and blurted out “Give me a hand-slap!!” Apparently my brain couldn’t manage the word “hi-five.” Not only did I call it a hand slap (Which I think is very Swedish by the way, joining two descriptive words to make a new word), I somehow managed to add a German twist to it and said “hand SCHLAPP.” Yep, there goes my English- right out de window.
  • Two days later I was trying to tell my husband that I couldn’t hear him because I had my ear plugs in. Except I called them ear muffins. Yep.

Meanwhile I found my two new favorite Swedish words that make me laugh whenever I think or hear them.

  • Ett handfat  means a bathroom sink, which translates roughly to “hand bowl” but when I see the word I can’t help but to imagine “hand fat,” as if all the disgusting fat from your hands can be washed away, which is just such a perfectly grotesque image for a sink that it made me laugh in class.
  • En sköldpadda is a turtle, which literally means “shield toad.” Now I think of turtle shells as shields and turtles as warrior toads. Maybe the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are actually toads? Nothing awkward or offensive about that, but it has just stuck with me.

Too many words swimming around in this brain, but so many more to learn- I think this is going to get much messier very soon.

Illustrations made by a bored Megalagom.


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Majblomman & A Step Forward

Today I decided to be a little bit braver.

Every April  in Sweden you will see or be approached by children between 10 and 13 years old selling Majblomman. For the past couple of weeks I avoided them, not understanding what they are saying or selling and not knowing how to respond. Today after passing a few girls by with the quick “Nej, tack,” I decided to go back and talk to them- in Swedish. I know what to say and how to say it, I need to start speaking. And who else is better to practice with than children?

“Hej, min svenska är inte så bra och jag förstår inte vad du gör. Kan du förklara för mig?” Hi, my Swedish is not so good and I don’t understand what you are doing. Can you explain for me? The girl froze and looked at me for a few seconds, I assume not knowing how to respond. Then I asked “Talar du Engelska?” to which she quickly looked at the second girl who ran to ask the third girl for help. At first I thought maybe my Swedish was so bad that they couldn’t understand a thing, but it was just that the third girl spoke the best English.

She explained that they are selling May flowers and that the money goes to children in Africa that have nothing, “As you can see there are many of us selling them.” I was blown away by her English, “Din engelska är jatte bra!” Your English is very good! I tried to respond to her in Swedish as much as I could, while she continued in English. She asked if I was from England and if I am visiting or if I live here. “Jag kommer från New York och jag bor i halmstad nu.I am from New York and I live in Halmstad now. I asked her how much a Majblomma is and bought one for 30 kr. There are a few different types available, ranging from a simple single flower pin for 10 kr to a large patch for 50 kr, showcased in a pouch the kids carry with some information and prices.

The Queen buys the year's first Mayflower pin: http://www.kungahuset.se/royalcourt/royalfamily/latestnew/news /thequeenbuystheyearsfirstmayflowerpin. 5.4a3da1313658e148c3518.html

I wish I snapped  a photo of the three girls I bought from, they were so adorable and helpful.

Majblomman has been sold in Sweden since 1907, it is one of the worlds oldest children’s charities originating in Goteborg as a foundation where children could help children. Thought up by Beda Hallberg, the effort started off as charity towards children with tuberculosis, its success spread the cause to 17 other countries by 1932. Nowadays only Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Estonia still participate in selling May flowers, whose cause has adapted over the years to help support children in need. Right now the majblomman being sold are an effort to tackle poverty. The idea of majblomman was so that everyone has an opportunity to help, with a price so low that anyone could buy a flower. For a woman to try to sell  over 100,00 paper flower pins for 10 cents each (Remember this is 1907) was very controversial, even more so when that goal was exceeded and 139,000 were sold. Beda Hallberg was the first woman nominated by the Goteborg City Council election in 1912. The majblomman purchased today is not the same as from 1907, or any other year; every year the design for the Majblomman changes color and sometimes flower type (My favorites are from 1907-1922). The designs can be voted on by the public for next year here.

If you see children trying to sell you something from a little pouch in the month of April, know that it is for a good cause and to not hesitate because they are only collecting donations for two weeks. Not only does the money go towards a good cause but it is also an effort to get the children involved.

Min Majblomma:

I’m excited to have a memento to remember this small interaction in Swedish while contributing to a good cause and learning about an amazing woman who created such a long lasting charity that is now a staple of a Swedish April. It really goes to show that something small like making an effort and talking to a child for a few minutes makes a huge difference, I felt more comfortable and able – which is a long way from two months ago.


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Right Word, Wrong Meaning.

Last summer I noticed a joyfully jibber-jabbering toddler atop his  fathers shoulders up above the crowd in an amusement park. Amongst his noises he kept repeating “Bye-bye” and to me it seemed like the opening and closing of his tiny fist was a wave. I giggled and exclaimed how cute it was that the baby was saying bye-bye to everyone who passed, not really thinking it’s unlikely he would be picking up English at 2 or 3 years old. Through fits of laughter my husband explained that “Bajs bajs” is common child speak for “poop,” the child was announcing to the world that he needed to, or already had pooped and there I was thinking it was adorable.

When I  misunderstand Swedish because I jump to a familiar meaning too quickly, this is the scene that always pops into mind.

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From google images.

The most popular three words that are recognized for being spelled like English words are Sex, Slut, and Fart. But it’s not what you think, really.

It’s likely you will see sex everywhere in Sweden, but don’t blush- it’s just the number six.

Everyone has their own fart, it’s nothing to be ashamed of- we all move at own speed, or pace.

Every Swedish story has a slut – an ending.

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And so I decided to hunt for more words that might cause confusion:

  • When a family talks about their barn it doesn’t mean they own a farm animals – they have children.
  • Being stung by a bi is more literal than being hurt by a person interested in both sexes – bee stings can be lethal.
  • When buying from the fruit stand and a sign saysask it doesn’t mean that you can bargain for the price- it is the price per case or pack.
  • If someone asks you if  you want a gift, be careful- they are either offering you a marriage or poison.
  • Being invited to the bio isn’t as odd as it seems. You aren’t being asked to use the bathroom, or for your autobiography- Movie theaters are a fun source of entertainment!
  • You’ll hear a lot of chatter about bras, but its not lingerie – bra means good.
  • Don’t ask your chef to make food for you – it’s your boss.
  • Tack!” isn’t a warning that your about to sit on something sharp – it means thank you.
  • Being full in Sweden doesn’t mean that you’ve had too much to eat – it’s having too much to drink, being drunk.
  • When someone says they are going to spy on you don’t be nervous – but do move out of the way because they are about to vomit.
  • Bland is not boring – it means mix.
  • When someone tells you that they go to gymnasium, it doesn’t mean that they play sports or games all day- they attend high school.
  • Wiping your feet on a mat isn’t as polite as it sounds- no one likes dirt on their food.
  • If your friends sign an email sending you lots of puss don’t be grossed out- they are sending you kisses.
  • And when you think they’ve started to called them kisses but messed up and said kissa, they are actually talking about taking a piss.

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Surprisingly a lot of the words that look the same in English are actually the same. Skimming through a pocket dictionary, this is about 1/3 of the words spelled identical to English but the others had the same meaning, and then add another bunch that were spelled close enough to be recognizable. Sometimes the spelling is off just because the language, alphabet, and pronunciation is different- many C’s are K’s, I’s and Y’s are mixed up, W’s and Q’s are rare, and ending E’s disappear. Often when I can’t think of a word for something in Swedish it’s because the word is too similar to English and being obvious, I overlook it.

But beware of some- this list is just the beginning, can anyone think of any others?


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The Things I Tell Myself While Learning Swedish

Learning a New Language is a Long Journey on an Ever Changing Path.

It Takes Time: I need to constantly remind myself that this is one of those things that I cannot get really good at overnight- or even over a few months.

Every Word is an Accomplishment: When I feel like I should be further along than I am, I look back and count all the new words I’ve picked up.

Memorizing is Not Learning: It doesn’t count as a new word until you can use it, until it pops into your head when trying to form a sentence.

If you get it Wrong, it’s Okay: As long as you are in the ball park, it is an improvement- one step closer.

People Will Understand You: Even if you mess up, most of the time your message will get through. As long as you try.

Only Speaking Will Help: Even immersion doesn’t help if you don’t participate. Reading, writing, listening, and practicing in your own head won’t make it easier to actually use the language.

Perpetual State of Learning: Even after you are done with SFI, SAS, and what ever course comes after that, you will always be learning the language. It will take years to feel perfectly comfortable, it will take tons of practice and different situations to become adaptive and use the language the way it should be. You will learn new words every time you talk to someone new.

You Sound Different: Stop obsessing over the accent being “wrong” or “off.” It will never sound natural or perfect. Just like when someone is speaking English- it is easy to tell that they are from a different country, or even just a different state. So what?

Breath: You might feel like your anxiety is taking over, and that you are the only one who turns bright red while speaking Swedish, but you are not. Use your anxiety as adrenaline and run with it instead of freaking out and falling down.

Stop Comparing: Other people in class will be better than you. They will pick it up faster, have better pronunciation, and understand more. Don’t compete with them, everyone learns at their own pace. It’s not a race, it’s better to actually learn than to seem to be the best.

ä, ö, and å Are Real: These are actual letters. They are not A’s and an O with funny hats. Concentrate on dotting your vowels, it does change the meaning and pronunciation of a word.

You are Not Just Learning a Language: You are learning a culture and its traditions. It is not just the words you learn, but when it is proper to use them. Learning the nuances of the language is just as important as reading the context of everything around you.

It Won’t All Line Up: Let go of your understanding of language. Everything will not switch over perfectly, in fact most things will not line up at all. Sentences are formed in a different order, definitions of words are slightly different, tenses are different.

Translation Not Included: English has words that don’t exist in Swedish and Swedish has words that don’t exist in English. That’s just the way it is.

Stop Relying on Google Translate: Pick up a dictionary instead. That bad habit of double checking if what you are about to say or write makes sense by putting it through Google Translate- stop it. It’s better to get it wrong and be corrected. Don’t get stuck relying too heavily on something you can’t use in real conversations.

Stick With It: Swedes will switch to English if they realize you are not Swedish, or that you are struggling. If you are able to, continue speaking as much Swedish as you can even if they choose to speak in English.

Swenglish is Okay: For now. If you don’t know a word, or exactly how to express yourself, it is okay to substitute English words into Swedish sentences or vice versa while you are learning.

No One is Perfect: Native English speakers get English wrong all the time. People who have been speaking English as a second language for 30 years still make mistakes. It’s not rare to forget a word or mess up in your own language, of course you will stumble with a new one.

In their Shoes: Remember all the people over the years that have spoken to you in broken English. They must have felt the same anxiety, panic, embarrassment and struggle- but were brave enough to use their limited language skill.

In My Own Shoes: I always admired anyone for trying to speak English as a second language. I felt compassion, and tried my best to understand them or help them if needed. It helps to imagine others will feel the same way towards me – they will not laugh, or think I am doing it wrong. It’s all about perspective.

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All of these are easier said than done, but it is a start. 

  Hope my photos inspire you to take “The Road Less Traveled,” whichever path it may be.

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Awkward & Offensive Language Mishap # 1

Brought to you by the letter “K”

So maybe a Sesame Street reference isn’t the best way to start this topic, but I felt the need for balance.

Ever notice when someone is learning a new language that the funny stories about mispronunciation and failed communication include accidentally saying vulgar words? Well, this is one of those stories, so please excuse me and bear with me. Also note that this is post # 1, because I expect this to happen many times bringing me great embarrassment and laughter (both being laughed at and with) while supplying me with entertaining writing material for your curious eyes. Win win!

Today I decided to re-strategize my self-studying efforts with my new green post- its. I made a list of kitchen friendly vocabulary and phrases and stuck them to the cabinet so I can study them while cooking. You know, context and all that.

While compiling my list I consulted my husband if words were correct and how to pronounce them. This seems to be my best shot at speaking at this point, trying and then repeating vocabulary. I decided to only put the Swedish words without translation, so I was very serious and stubborn about this study session. And so I compiled my list, and then read each word or phrase out loud, rinse and repeat. I tried hard to pronounce everything as best as I could which was going great until a warning was set in motion that one of the words is dangerously close to something that has nothing to do with cooking or kitchen, but instead male genitalia.

And so, I tried again. And again. and again. And each time I repeated the word I got further and further away from the word “kokar” (cook) and closer to the word “kukar” (…cocks). Which, come to think of it are awfully alike in English as well. The more emphasis my husband put on the “oo” sound the more I pronounced the “uu.” Determined to get it right, through tears of hysterical laughter I couldn’t stop accidentally saying “coooc… (you get the idea).” Repeatedly. And Loudly. I was just thankful that no one could hear me (hopefully), and that my pronunciation was discovered at home instead of in two weeks when we go to visit my husbands family and I am always helping in the kitchen (one of my motivations for this list).

The good news is that after trying for 15 minutes straight I can now pronounce “kukar” perfectly (but “kokar” is still to be avoided at all costs).


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Almost: “nästan”

I almost made a new friend today. Almost. At least I tried to.

Every so often I’ll hear some English spoken in a store or on the street, it’s not incredibly common but I wouldn’t call it rare. I went back to one of the bokrean in town to buy a dictionary since they are normally so pricey and I only have a pocket sized which is no longer cutting it. I was comparing prices and browsing when I heard someone ask the cashier for a Swedish – English Dictionary. I’m not normally the type to approach people or start random conversations with strangers but she was right next to me so I figured why not? I asked if she just moved to Sweden and the conversation went from there. She explained that she is an exchange student from China. We talked about the dictionaries and prices of books, she asked where I was from and why I was here. I asked if she had begun SFI, which it turns out she isn’t able to take because of student status. And just as I thought it would be neat to meet someone in town on my own who had just moved here and is also learning the language she looked at her watch said she had to go and disappeared. Oh well.

As far as my own SFI courses? Still waiting. They said “End of February or beginning of March” and that I would recieve a letter in the mail ahead of time. No letter yet. Called to make sure I hadn’t missed something and the director of SFI for Halmstad is on vacation until Monday. I just hope I am not missing classes and that I got into the next one so I don’t need to wait another 6 weeks.

In the meantime I finished my first book in Swedish. One of the children’s book I bought that the bokrea a few days ago.  “Sus och Dus gor en utflykt” is about two mice that go on a journey to collect things (I can really feel my literature background tingling!) Learning as I went along made it worth while, and who doesn’t love looking at cute illustrations of animals? Now if only life had drawings to help me understand! I made a list of words I had to look up along the way (80 words) and today I am studying that vocabulary and asking hubby to listen to me translate the whole book and see how I do. Later in the week maybe I’ll try to read it out loud in Swedish. That feels a lot less scary that actually speaking. I’m proud of my baby steps in progress- reading at a 4 year old level is better than none at all!

Favorite word in the book: Rollercoaster – “berg-och dalbana” Exact translation: “mountains and valleys”

I received my Swedish ID last week! The photo came out great- unlike ANY of my previous ID’s. I couldn’t stop looking at it, wishing I always looked that way! My best friend works in a store that deals with a lot of tourists and she said that Europeans all have beautiful ID photos, how strange.


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I do not understand: “Jag förstår inte”

I could feel my eyes widen as a tall man in his 50’s with glasses and gray hair politely pointed at the fruits and tried to make conversation with me in Swedish. I’m not sure I even tried to understand the words that were coming out of his mouth, as it took a few seconds just to understand that I should be listening because he was talking to me. I had just picked up a pack of dried apricots as I stood in line, and this man was also looking at the fruit, I assumed by his gestures that he was talking about the apricots and figs. I can guess, after it happened that maybe he was thinking the same as when I saw them, surprised that they were the same price, unsure if they were overpriced. He said only a sentence or two, and the tone seemed friendly enough, but then it was obviously time for me to reply and I was still frozen in place.

I knew what to say. I knew how to say it. I’ve practiced it in my head before,  “Forlat, min Svenska ar inte bra” or “Jag förstår inte.” (“Sorry, my Swedish is not good” or “I do not understand”) It was my chance and before I knew it my mind and my mouth had missed that connection and I blurted out, “sorry.” It was like a slap in the face, why can’t I do it? The words might not have been at the tip of my tongue, more like the back of my throat, you know that feeling when you are about to vomit? They were there, being uncomfortable and embarrassing. And so I swallowed the small amount of Swedish I could have conjured up and burped out a simple “sorry” to which the man smiled and nodded and moved on leaving me feeling rejected. I was annoyed with myself for missing the opportunity, and even more annoyed when the cashier rang me up in English. I’m not sure if he heard the exchange or if he has begun to recognize me. I need to start wearing a less identifiable hat, maybe. Either way I was pretty bummed by the whole thing. The last thing I want or need is for one of my regular cashiers to stop speaking Swedish to me. Even though I know that down the road I will be able to switch it back to Swedish when I am ready and able, but I need the practice now, even if it’s only hearing a few numbers and needing to understand them.

It’s certainly not the first I’ve said “sorry” to change the conversation to English (and it won’t be the last), I just wish I could muster up the courage to switch over to English in a way that indicates that I am learning Swedish and trying, which means…actually speaking a few simple words of Swedish. I know it’s an anxiety hurdle I have (and also had when learning Spanish) but I have been more and more angry with it over the past week or two, knowing that my Swedish classes hopefully start in about two weeks. This knot in my chest needs to go, I always figured it would be easier to blurt out a crappy Swedish phrase in front of strangers, but it’s still the same amount of scary.

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