Something Swedish

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.


25 thoughts on “I do not understand: “Jag förstår inte”

  1. Welcome to Swedish! I know exactly how you feel. I visited here for two summers staying with my wife’s family before I even realized there were individual words in Swedish and not just a long string of sing songy syllables. Trust me, though, the first time you do apologize to someone that your Swedish stinks, they will segue seamlessly over into English. I meet people all the time along Prins Bertils Stig and as soon as they comment about my dog I tell them those exact words you used in your post and go right into communication with them. In English.

    • haha Yes, the long words are frustrating and it has taken me a while to understand where one word ends and the other begins, which I finally have a hold of for the most part. Glad I am not along with the switching over thing, I have heard it many times.
      By the way it’s funny you say that about your dog, I was just taking to my husband about how it feels different here, I don’t feel like I am able to just start petting someones dog and use it as an excuse to socialize unlike in NY where that is a perfectly normal conversation starter (how I’ve met my best friend, even). People are a bit more to themselves and it feels like it would be insulting or awkward. Every time I see a dog in town I want to pet it and I just know better, like its not culturally accepted. Just an inner observation.

      • It’s certainly not advised to just start petting a dog you don’t know, but it’s almost always very welcome to ask if you can! Just say something about what a nice/cute/wellbehaved dog and ask if you can greet it (hälsa på den). 99% of the owners will gladly let you pet it and that usually starts a conversation.

        So, it’s very culturally accepted to ask if you can pet someones dog, but actually rude to just do it without asking. And I think that’s a good thing, you don’t know how a strange dog will react.

      • Oh! Of course not to just dive onto a random dog and just pet it. I guess I thought the small talk before hand was implied 🙂 It’s hard to describe the different feeling- maybe NY dogs are less behaved and more prone to go up to and engage with strangers LOL! Can’t describe it. Good to know though! Tack 🙂

  2. I’ve been here for four years and I still ‘test’ myself by looking at the monitor after the cashier says the total to see if I heard it right. Lots of times I still get it wrong. It takes a long time to get over the fear of speaking. I still have it, but it’s gotten much better. You’ll get there.

    • Exactly, I like to test myself as well. It’s funny because I was getting the numbers right for weeks (most of the time, enough to be proud of it) and now that I started paying in cash and have that extra pressure of needing to hand over the right amount I swear I haven’t understood it half as much- so strange! Thank you!

  3. Hey Meg,

    I really need to practice my Swedish with a friend 🙂 Let’s become language buddies. Surely we can help each other. I am trained as a coach and I am a French teacher.

  4. This has happened to me sooooo many times abroad. It’s so embarrassing! Just like you, I know what to say and I just forget when I’m put on the spot!

    Although, when I was in Norway, I was so excited to practice my Norwegian and I was so terribly disappointed that they all insisted on speaking English to me the whole time! I don’t think I got to hear a native speak speak Norwegian even once! So you are lucky that you get a chance to hear it. You’ll get it eventually! It’s great that you are making such a sincere effort to learn.

    • That does sound disappointing! What other languages do you speak (or have practiced?) You had mentioned polish as well? I think my sincerity is greater than my effort (still so tired!)- working on that! lol Thank you 🙂

      • My German and Norwegian are my best ones, but I’m not fluent. I can get by in every day situations and can sometimes follow a conversation, but can’t participate myself. I understand a lot more of what I read than what I hear.

        I know some Polish to a very minimal level, whereby I can go to a store and understand the signs I’m seeing or make transactions or tell a cab driver where I need to go and how to get there, but not much beyond that. I used to have French and Dutch to that same level, but it’s been so long since I’ve used them, I’m not sure they would come back to me if I ended up in Belgium again.

        And I took some Spanish in high school and don’t remember any of it, except all the curse words. :-p

        I’m not a hyperpolyglot or anything, but I do like languages as systems and understanding how they work. If I had my druthers, though, I’d pick just one to be fluent in and scrap the rest.

        But Swedish is a great language. Once you are fluent in that, you can pick up Norwegian and Danish in a snap, and German and Dutch will also come pretty easily, too. I love the Nordic languages as a starting point for learning any Germanic language because the grammatical structure is extremely simple, so you can focus on building up your vocabulary, rather than trying to remember what order to put your words in and how to conjugate them all.

  5. I know exactly what you mean! It’s like I would practice in my head ALL the time simple Swedish words so I could respond to basic conversational interactions. But, every time I was caught off guard, my brain immediately went to its safe place… English. Gaahh so frustrating! I’d love to say that it happens fast, but it takes a while to build up a Swedish side of your brain. I’m still working on it, but I do think in Swedish now. So much do, that I sometimes can’t find the English word. Be patient! You are so motivated, so it will come! And when it does, it just happens. One day you’ll just begin speaking Swedish. It just happens! All the best to you!

  6. I know exactly how you feel, I had the same problem when living in China and trying to learn Mandarin. It’s very hard to do snappy comebacks when the brain needs at lest ten minutes to decifer the mumbo jumbo these people are talking. I can imagin that Swedish is even more dificult then other languages because of the “melody” of how you pronounce things.

    • I think there are a lot of complex inflictions in Mandarian that change the meaning of words, right? I might be confusing that with Korean or something. Swedish is *supposed* to be like the 5th easiest language for an English speaker to learn, but thee accent, grammar, and long words are difficult. I think it will always take a while to decipher most things! Makes for very slow reactions or none at all 🙂

  7. I wish I could say this never happened to me but even though English is not my first language it still is my safe place too:/ Just yesterday I was buying a new swimming jammer and a cashier asked me in Swedish if I wanna pay cash or card… there was none else waiting, so I could just say something like:

    Förlåt mig, men jag talar bara lite svenska. Kan du prata långsammare tack?

    And I knew that, but still my instinct suggested an easier way… Sorry I don’t speak much Swedish :/ Not to mention that she was a cute girl so it would be fun to talk to her in Swedish:P

    But some time ago I did succeed at a post office entirely in Swedish:)

    • There is one thing that I find funny about Swedes when it comes to English. While they are all pretty good at it, for some reason when you ask them in their own language “Ursäkta, talar du engelska?” they are very often confused and just freeze… but as soon as you ask them in English they are back 🙂

      • It’s like a switch lol Very interesting. I guess it throws them off- most people don’t encounter someone learning, trying and struggling- just Swedish and English. You seem to be doing well! 🙂 Are you going to SFI or self study?

      • I am having Skype lessons once a week with a girl that was teaching Swedish back home as I decided to come here. She studies Swedish language and this really helps a lot. Other than that we some times have someone come to our office and trying to teach us, but honestly it’s the Skype lessons that really give me something. Recently, I’ve started playing Wordfeud in Swedish… I always lose but it’s still fun 🙂

  8. Wow this is a great blog! I’m happy you posted this, I’ve been here for six weeks now and I always feel terrible staring blankly at the Swedes until muttering “English…” I’m hoping to keep up with my blog more and update it once a week now that I’ve gotten into the groove of things. How long have you been living in the country?

    • I moved here on Dec 17th, and have been visiting since 2009, although only one visit was long enough- last summer for two months. I haven’t started my Swedish classes yet (hopefully in two weeks) and I don’t work or anything so my exposure is a bit delayed and my progress is a little slow but I’m trying! Just helps to listen hard and pay attention, even if you only pick up one or two words- its a start. The context can sometimes fill in some blanks. The biggest I ssue I had for a long time was to hear where one word ended and the other began. Much better at reading than listening and I don’t speak at all! Good luck with everything! Looking forward to hearing more about your adjusting!

      • Wow well I definitely agree with you when it comes to splitting up the words. I’m trying to get a basic grasp by putting in random Swedish words I know into my English sentences, hoping to make the associations better. Sometimes I’m able to lie my way through and get pass the first sentence, but once they follow up I freak out. For example, I was at a Pressbyrån yesterday buying a coffee and I was able to tell her it was a plain coffee, but once the cashier asked if I wanted a kanelbulle I freaked and just blurted “English please sorry!”

      • Every little bit counts! If you can start with a sentence that is great- better than I have done I think. It’s so easy to slip back into English since it is so readily available 🙂 We will get the hang of it!

  9. Pingback: Majblomman & A Step Forward « Something Swedish

  10. Oh, boy. Can I commiserate with you on this. I studied Russian for 3 years in University(rather poor program so we didn’t really learn to speak), and after graduating came to Russia for 10 months to study the language in more depth(and really, to learn how to speak), and it took me a long time to get to the point where I’d even speak with friends in Russian even a little bit who could speak English well(6 months to be exact). Now I am learning Swedish(I feel like I know nothing after 7 months) here in Russia(yep, I am still here!) and took a little trip to Sweden for a few days a couple of weeks ago and apart from saying “tack” I don’t think I uttered another phrase of Swedish(in shops, LET ALONE with friends). Why must I be so shy and self conscious!? Our teacher here isn’t a native speaker, he is a Russian so I think I have this feeling that Swedes won’t understand me(I had this similar feeling when learning Russian). Think I am going to go and take a month course in Stockholm this summer – at least I will be forced to speak with my teacher, and that should ease some of my anxiety.

    I hope it is getting easier for you, with taking the SFI courses!

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