When attempting to communicate with native speakers in their own language, are we inadvertently offending them? Well, the short answer is no, but it’s not that simple. The very thought of someone refusing to speak their own native language to non-native speakers seems counter-intuitive, and yet that’s exactly what happens on occasion – for instance, in Sweden.
“Yeah, imagine this. It is a chilly Sunday evening and I am hungry in the outskirts of Stockholm. All stores and restaurants are closed except for one small Pressbyrån shop that looked quite promising because I knew they had hot dogs.”, says Jakub, a 26-year old law student from Warsaw. By his look, it was obvious that he is both frustrated and amused at what he is about to tell us.
“The cashier was a thin, grey-haired lady possibly in her 60s. She said something to me in Swedish that I didn’t understand. So, I awkwardly replied in English that unfortunately, I didn’t speak any Swedish. She smiled and suddenly gave me a – something like a short language lesson, I guess: ‘This is vatten’, said the woman as she held a bottle of water in front of my face. ‘And this is a tuggummi’, she added.” She didn’t stop there but proceeded to ask Jakub questions in a slowly drawn-out Swedish, obviously trying to make it “easy” for him.
A photo of “the hood”, courtesy of Jakub
“She ended the lesson with a cherry on top –‘You should be able to understand what I’m asking. You’re gonna be asked such questions often.’ I left the store confused but I didn’t want the situation to bother me for many days to come, so I turned around, came up to the cashier and said –
‘Listen, I just want to clarify one thing. I don’t live here. I am on vacation. I’m just visiting some friends. I don’t speak Swedish and honestly I see no point in learning it because I’m going to stay here for a very short period. English isn’t my mother tongue either, for that matter.’”
The woman stressed that he could have at least learned some basic words. Good point. Using greetings in the native tongue almost always breaks the ice. “Probably not in the case with Sweden though”, says Jakub. “Their ‘hi’ sounds almost like the English, ‘hey.’ I know because ironically, four years later, I do speak some Swedish. Coincidence? Oh, totally. Anyway, I thought it would make sense for me to go back to Sweden and actually try to talk to people in their beautiful language, improve my skills, and maybe, if I’m lucky, meet the cashier lady again.”
What Jakub didn’t expect this time around was that he’d have to insist on speaking Swedish, in Sweden, with Swedes.
Here’s the thing. The moment Swedes hear some accent, they switch to English. If your grammar is not perfect (and chances are it probably isn’t if you’re a beginner), they just immediately switch to English.
“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that you are not given a chance to speak Swedish. They will not wait two extra seconds for you to remember the right word and to finally utter something.
There was even a time when a bartender at a nightclub spoke English with me and I responded in Swedish, and that weird bilingual conversation lasted for several minutes.”
At this point, Jakub was getting a little desperate because his expensive language-learning vacation was obviously failing. So, to comfort himself with a hot dog, he went into a corner store where he found Sayyid, a Syrian refugee who had just received his residence permit and was learning the language out of necessity. “Sayyid was the only person with whom I managed to actually speak Swedish. We had a short conversation about the weather and about our professions. I was endlessly grateful to him for that amazing opportunity to actually practice the language in a real-life situation. Oh, the grey-haired lady from Stockholm – wish you were there too.”
Jakub is not alone. The Internet knows it all. Try googling “Swedes won’t speak Swedish with me” and the search engine will return numerous links to forums where the people quoting in posters are just as confused. Let us quote one of them:
“Every time someone replies to me in [E]nglish I just interpret that as ‘your [S]wedish is too rubbish for us to speak in.’ Maybe I am being too sensitive, but I also think that it is slightly rude.” Yes, of course we have questions. Why wouldn’t you speak to us in your language?
We tried asking some Swedes why, in their opinion, people behaved this way, and as one of them put it, “they were just trying to be polite and make it easy for the guy.” This could be true. But is that the only explanation? Isn’t it obvious that a person is making a conscious effort to avoid English in favor of the local language? Is it indeed politeness, or is it the fact that we are just too bad at speaking their language and we just don’t realize it? And if it’s the latter, how else is one expected to improve their speaking skills if not through practice?
You’ve learned how to say “hello” and “thank you” – good for you. But on which level does it stop being “cute” and start to become an inconvenience to everyone? Do we come across as being annoying if we are not proficient speakers? And more broadly, do native speakers become offended when we speak to them in their language?
Turns out, it depends on where you are in the world.
This is how the Swedish phenomenon is explained in a topical article on The Local – “Swedes think they’re helping by showing off that they’ve done their homework, and what’s more, they want to seem a little cool and ‘urban’ by speaking English. And we absolutely don’t want to come across as being from the countryside.“
Speaking of homework, much of it needs to be done in English – Sweden has seen an increased number of students from abroad who take courses taught in English. These newcomers are required to be able to speak English at a fairly proficient level.
The number of people holding a residence permit for work-related purposes has almost doubled since 2016. The same applies to the “students” category, even though the blue line may seem almost horizontal in contrast with the staggering total number of the newly-arrived immigrants. This might as well be a factor that makes the English language all the more widespread. But let’s leave Sweden alone for a while.
In the US, it appears, it is possible to offend a Hispanic person by speaking Spanish with them, because they may not actually speak Spanish well (if it all), and if they do, they may not want to for various reasons. Some resistance may even be political or socioeconomic in nature.
Try speaking Russian with a Russian person and you will see that spark of excitement in their eyes, particularly if you’re a westerner. You can even expect to be invited for a drink or two – or even more – especially if you go far outside the city of Moscow. They may give you curious looks and make you the center of attention but they will also slow down the pace of their speech for you to be able to better understand what’s being said. However, there are other opinions.
A similarly positive feedback can be expected in Georgia, a beautiful post-Soviet country sandwiched between Russia and Turkey.
Georgian landscape – pixabay
Few people make an effort to learn the unique, extraordinarily difficult Georgian language, so the locals will appreciate the effort and help you make progress. They won’t expect much from you though, because it looks like most learners drop the whole thing somewhere halfway to fluency and people know it. But it’s not always that straightforward. We’ve heard amusing stories that involved an American guy trying to grocery shop in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Cashiers wouldn’t speak Georgian with him even though his Georgian was better than their English. In his opinion, they just used him as an opportunity to practice their English!
Let’s look at some data. Education First (EF) Language School releases English-proficiency reports that include data for an ever-increasing number of countries, but we’ll just focus on the three countries we mention in this article:
Sweden sits at the very top of the list, while Russia is far behind in the “moderate” band. Georgia still technically belongs to the “low proficiency” group but given the overall upward trend, the country is likely to join the moderate club in the coming years. So, what does this mean?
Well, there’s no evidence that a country’s EPI is directly linked with its people’s (un)willingness to speak English. At the end of the day, we’re talking about something that is pretty difficult to measure. Still, the report’s data is something to consider. There might be more opportunities to practice from the “low proficiency” group since the locals are limited in their ability to express themselves in English.
“Offended” probably isn’t the right word to use when describing a person who refuses to speak their language with us. There may be various reasons why some people just switch to English every time. Consider these:
But honestly, we believe that none of these should be a good enough reason to stop trying. If you really wish to improve your proficiency in another language, speak it. Insist on speaking it. Because it is arguably the only way to reach a level where you can comfortably converse with native speakers in a real-life setting. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself in that awkward buffer zone – you’re no longer a true beginner but you still can’t really say much, and are therefore an inconvenience to the locals. But hey, no one said it would be easy, right? Just have patience and don’t stop learning.
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