Timst’s Happy Place

Make It Three/A Word About Language

by timst on October 14, 2013

Heya. So remember when I said that I was going to be there for two years? Yeah, I lied. It’s three years really. But why?

You see, I can safely say that everything in my life is more or less better since I’m here. Everything except my studies, which is kind of a problem considering that this is, after all, a university. I come from a fairly technical background with a healthy dose of business studies mixed in. For years I’ve been studying how to make things. Things that people would want to use. The study path I chose, however? Computer Science. Hardcore, theoretical, no-actual-computer-needed Computer Science. Which turned out to not really be my thing, as I explain on my technical blog. Then I just kind of let go. I started working hours every day on VIS-related stuff instead. Well, I achieved a lot, and I’m not ashamed of that. But it was obvious that it was but a diversion that I created to busy myself.



There were… other distractions.

Realizing that, I ran away from one of my lecture during the break, went home, and sent a mail to the head of the Media Department. Some more mails, a quick appointment, and a lot of soul-searching later, it was official: I am now a Social Media & Web Technologies student. This has a certain number of side-effects, the biggest one being that I now have to extend my stay by one year. So I’ll leave Sweden (if I leave it) in 2015 instead of 2014. It also means that I’ll graduate at the same time than most of my friends here (but one year later than my friends in France), which I guess will bring a better sense of closure. Despite this start of semester having been really, really weird for a variety of reasons, I still feel more at home here than anywhere else, and I’m glad to be able to stay longer. If anything, this will clearly help me to gain a better understanding of the country.


Speaking of which, and considering that there is not a lot more to say about me (plus, who cares?), I’m going to take a look at some points of interest in the Swedish culture, and how they compare to what I knew previously (ie, how they do it in France instead). Today for instance, I’m going to talk about language.


Oh yeah, I'm coming for you

Oh yeah, I’m coming for you


One of my challenge for this year is learning Swedish. You see, contrarily to what you might expect and as I said before, Swedish isn’t necessary in Sweden. At all. You can get by indefinitely (a teacher told me he knows a guy who have been here 8 years and still doesn’t speak the language) with English alone, considering that everybody speaks it (#1 country on the EF English Proficiency Index). Written mediums —like letters from the government— are the hardest obstacles, but usually it’s not too complicated to deal with them (hint: start by learning the Swedish for “Please pay this to the following account”).

Swedes that don’t speak English are extremely rare, and are usually senior citizens (or bus drivers, or both). I don’t think I’ve met a single local student that did not speak English. Even the worst speaker I know has better English skills than 90% of the French of the same age. And they will all be happy to practice their English with you at the slightest occasion. So yeah, Swedish? Accessory. Or so it seems, of course; in practice, for most jobs, you still need to deal with people who obviously intend to primarily communicate in their native tongue. Which make learning it all the harder: looking around you, there is no tangible evidence that you need to, yet you will forever be trapped under a glass ceiling if you don’t.

But let’s talk about what it means for culture. It’s interesting to see that France still has some influence abroad, beyond the usual clichés (unlike Sweden in France and much of the world, where it’s usually reduced to “sexy blondes and Ikea”). The French language is much admired, to the point that it’s common to see wall decorations with random french sentences written on them; some french movies get shown here, like Intouchables; and most amusingly, they like to slap the “fransk” adjective on a bunch of stuff, even when they have nothing whatsoever to do with France. My favorite remain the “french hot dog”, a sausage stuck into half of a breadstick. Needless to say, few things are as un-french as a hot dog, and that french hot dog idea would probably draw a lot of mockery back in the homeland. Which would be a shame, since it’s actually pretty tasty.


France: the country of human rights (and of everything that involve a baguette)

Further research reveals that this is actually a danish creation. Weather, prices, girl, hotdogs. Is there a single area where Denmark doesn’t outshine Sweden?

It’s rather interesting to see two nations with such different approaches to culture. Sweden openly embraced US influence, to the point where you can watch an unedited Discovery Channel while eating Cheetos and gulping Dr. Pepper (and indeed, I know some swedes that indulge in that lifestyle), whereas France led a (partially successful) resistance against it. Don’t get me wrong: fast foods and blue jeans are still ubiquitous in France, but at least we escaped The Jersey Shore.

We paid the price in terms of multilingualism ability (our position in the aforementioned EF index? #23), though, and our influence is fading every day anyway. Danish author Johannes V. Jensen said that “Denmark’s history is the story of the downfall of a powerful tribe”, and that’s doubly true for France. When you see the big picture, you realize that the government has been fighting with all its might to maintain an influence sphere that started evaporating sometime at the beginning of last century.

We now have ridiculous language laws (no foreign words in ads, mandatory 40% of french language music on the radio, no lectures in English at the university until 2013…) for the sole purpose of slowing down the inevitable encroach of English. There is an entire international organization with a 80 M€ budget called “Francophonie” whose only aim is to promote and defend the language abroad. They made projections that 8% of the world population will speak french by the year 2050, instead of 3% now. This sounds ridiculous until you look more closely and realize than most of those projected speakers will be in Africa. Now, I’m no social studies teacher so I’m not going to start throwing accusations of neo-colonialism left and right, but yeah, this certainly paint the whole thing into another light.

Another difference between the two countries is the treatment of regional languages: there are a lot of dialects and accents in Sweden. A LOT. Basically every region has its accent, and we’re not talking about minor differences, considering that people from the south of Sweden can (more or less) understand Danish whereas people from Stockholm (more or less) can’t (though apparently everyone can understand Norwegian. What is this magic?). In addition, a lot of places have old dialects that are sometime so removed from Standard Swedish that it cannot be understood outside of the region.

Now, France also has regional languages, some common one being Corsican, Alsatian or Basque (all of which have no shared root with English: Corsican is derived from Italian, Alsatian is a dialect of German and Basque is pretty much its own thing). The difference? While the Swedish government support its regional languages, the French one has spent a lot of energy suppressing its regional variations, and has only recently (and begrudgingly) accepted them, notably by signing —but not ratifying— the European charter on regional and minority languages. Too little, too late of course.


Members of the Académie Française, hard at work pretending other languages do not exist

Members of the Académie Française, hard at work pretending other languages do not exist


I can speak from experience on that one. I come from Brittany, an area that spoke the Breton language (of Celtic origins) from the middle ages to the XXth century. Then the government enacted a bunch of anti-Breton laws along with a social onslaught (ridiculing the kids that spoke Breton in school, for instance). The result? My great-grandparents spoke exclusively Breton. My grandparents spoke Breton between themselves, but French to their children. As a result, my parents understood Breton, but almost never spoke anything else than French. When I was born, they obviously saw no interest in teaching me how little of Breton they remembered, so I don’t speak a single word of it. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you kill a language within 60 years.

Nowadays there is some renewed public interest in Breton, but the harm is done, and the same laws that are being used to curtail English also apply to regional languages. You can’t for instance have an ad in Breton without translating it to french. Considering how few people speak Breton in the first place, it’s rather pointless to even go through the trouble of using valuable ad space for this. The practical result is that there is a single language in France, and almost no accents (the strongest one being the southern, which is very intelligible accent, and that’s pretty much it). This “linguistic oneness” has been instrumental in unifying the country, but again, at a cost.

So yeah. On one side, a country whose main language wasn’t even official until 2009. On the other, a state with an official language inscribed in the constitution and specific rules to limit the use of other languages, including regional tongues.

On one hand, a nation that openly embrace English, to the point where 9 citizens out of 10 speak it. On the other hand, a place where barely a third of the population speak English, and even fewer than that will accept to speak it.

This summer I worked in a service job with a guy who, even though he spoke English adequately, never addressed tourists in English unless asked a direct question, even when it was obvious that they didn’t understand him. This was in startling contrast to a LOT of foreigners who bothered to learn at least enough French to order two croissants and a bottle of milk for their breakfast.


This guy: “Alors ce s’ra quoi pour la p’tite dame s’matin?”
Tourist: “???”


There is a real problem of opinion at every level of society in my country regarding English, and in the current economic landscape, this is threatening to go from “semi-cute cliché” to “huge liability” really fast. Let’s hope the people there will take a page from Sweden’s book and stop watching those awful dubbed TV shows. No seriously, this is terrible, stop doing that.