The importance of language

My first-language is Swedish, but I read most books in English. A large proportion of my reading was originally written in English, and as I feel comfortable reading it in its original language, I see no reason not to. In addition it is often easier to find English translations than it is to find Swedish ones for much of the translated fiction that I read (although not for Nordic authors, plus reading Nordic authors in English feels wrong). As a bonus, reading in English gives me useful language practice and is often the cheaper option.

However, although I don’t find reading in English noticeably more difficult than reading in Swedish, the impact is different. Swedish is to me associated with real, living, breathing people. It is the language I use with those closest to me, in both mundane, everyday conversations, and for the words that changes everything. English on the other hand I associate with fictional characters who say things such as “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” or “My name is Bond, James Bond”. To me the English words lack the solidity that Swedish has, I don’t think I consider English entirely real.

This dissociation when I read in English is not entirely negative. Although the very best Swedish literature speaks to my heart in a way that English never can, I am also much more sensitive to any wrong notes. I have a much easier time to suspend my disbelief and to accept e.g. a slightly awkward translation when I read something in English. I believe that I’m more likely to like a text in English, but less likely to love it. The same is true to an even higher degree for film and TV. I quite enjoy a lot of mediocre US and British productions, but if something is in Swedish it has to be really good, or it is painful to watch.

In addition to Swedish and English I also read in Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) and, more rarely, in Danish. Due to the similarities between the Scandinavian languages written Norwegian and Danish are both perfectly understandable to a Swedish reader, but not without some effort. In Norway I have heard it said that “Swedish is misspelled Norwegian whereas Danish is mispronounced Norwegian”, which describes the situation fairly well. Written Danish and Norwegian (especially the Bokmål variety) are rather similar, while Swedish is spelled quite differently. On the other hand spoken Norwegian and Swedish are much closer to each other than to spoken Danish.

To communicate across the language divides you need get used to the different spelling and pronunciation, and learn a few tricky words, but it’s much easier than learning a new language. My primary work language is “Svorsk”, that is Swedish with lots of Norwegian words thrown in, it is ugly but it works. However, living in Norway I of course also need to improve my written Norwegian (plus most of the library books are in Norwegian). I therefore try to read at least some fiction in Norwegian, but as it is more of an effort I tend to go for easier reads, such as crime fiction and thrillers. Crime fiction, both Scandinavian and British usually works fine, I have for example found that Agatha Christie works just as well in Norwegian and Swedish as she does in English, although reading her in three different languages makes it very hard to keep track of which titles I have read. Thrillers are different, although I disconnect from the text in a similar way as I do when I read in English, my language associations are very different, and I have a much harder time believing in an American hero doing impossible things if I read about it in Norwegian. It is still good practice though, and choosing page-turners is a good way to counteract the reading resistance that comes from the extra effort it takes me to read in Norwegian.

27 thoughts on “The importance of language

  1. This is very interesting, thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s wonderful that you can read in so many languages! I deeply regret that I did not work harder on learning languages when I was younger but I’m trying to make up for it now. It makes sense that for you Swedish is the language of “real people” whereas English seems slightly unreal; even the best narrative prose is highly artificial compared to the spoken word, but we tend to overlook that when reading in our mother tongue.

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    1. The way the largest Scandinavian languages are mutually understandable, at least with a little bit of practice, is really cool. And as Danish is taught as a second language on Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe islands, and as Swedish is the second language in Finland, this language community in theory encompasses all of the Nordic countries and regions. In practise it is a bit more complicated and I do occasionally have to switch to English to make myself understood, but mostly it works.

      I will be interested to hear if you will get a similar experience with German, as I do with English and Norwegian. I find it fascinating how a new language doesn’t just help you communicate, but also opens up new perspectives.

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  2. That was a great description of the Scandi languages. And very true. Being Danish, I don’t lift an eyebrow when reading Norwegian books, whereas Swedish are slightly more difficult. The last one I read in Swedish was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I wonder if I missed some of the finer details. Today, living in the UK, I mostly read Scandinavian literature in English, which seems rather silly. But since I read everything on the Kindle, it’s a matter of availability and convenience.

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    1. I refuse to read Nordic authors in English, although I’m willing to read them in the wrong Scandinavian language if that is more convenient. However, I’m not sure how long that conviction would have lasted if I had owned a Kindle…

      Last time I read something in Danish it was Ditlevsen’s “Der bor en ung pige i meg, som ikke vil dø”. Poetry is of course best read in the original language, and having once lived for a few months in Denmark, I have pleasant associations with Danish, so I do try to read Danish authors in Danish, but otherwise I’m currently avoiding the language a bit as it messes with my attempts to learn Norwegian. My svorska is basically replacing as many Swedish words as I can with a Scandinavian counterpart, but as my Norwegian and Danish vocabularies are not properly separated in my mind, I sometimes end up with Danish instead.

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      1. Yes, reading in the “wrong” Scandinavian language is probably fine, seeing that the structures of languages are so similar. But I guess it depends on what you read. As you say, poetry is best in the original language, whereas crime fiction should be fine in whichever language you choose (except you couldn’t take crime fiction seriously in Norwegian, is that right? 😀)

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      2. I can take crime fiction seriously in Norwegian, but I have tried some action type stories (page-turners are great for language practice), but I just can’t believe in a Jason Bourne type hero who speaks Norwegian…

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  3. Thank you for this very insightful description, I can easily understand how Swedish characters are ‘real’ for you. I think even amongst the English languages, I’ll react differently to a character or setting told in English English than (for example) American English. Very interesting!

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    1. Cool, that sounds like a similar effect. I don’t think it’s working on me though, unless I consciously pay attention, I usually don’t notice what type of English I’m reading. I guess that’s one of the nuances that get lost due to it not being my native language.

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  4. I can relate! Though English constitutes a very real world to me now, I tend to be more forgiving to what’s said and written in English than to what’s said and written in my mother tongue.

    I’m trying to get myself to dust off my Russian and read “Master and Margarita” in the original, but I’m currently too lazy for that 😉

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    1. Reading the Russians in their original language would be cool, but ambitious. I studied Spanish as my third language in school, but have unfortunately forgotten almost all of it, so I can’t really use it for anything. I would have had more use for Russian 🙂

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  5. I haven’t much to add to what you’ve written or to the comments that follow except to say it’s so fascinating the transitions between languages, and even dialects. (Even reading familiar English books in American editions can be mildly disconcerting to me.) I keep intending to read more in French but though the spirit is willing I’ve yet to get on with it, unfortunately.

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    1. I think those transitions between languages are really fascinating. I once heard it suggested that if you dated someone with another first language, you should ask them to say “I love you” in their own language, as it means more that way. I think that is true, I could probably lie more easily in English than in Swedish.

      Reading in a second language can certainly be a bit of a struggle, I don’t think I would have read much in Norwegian if the library hadn’t offered free books, or if I didn’t really need to get better at the language. Svorsk works in conversations, but it would be good if I could write official texts without my colleagues having to translate.

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  6. That must be so strange, to read Scandinavian things in English. I’m a New Englander learning Danish, slowly as all get-out. When I hear Danish, Swedish or Norwegian it is an odd feeling. Understanding comes in waves, of course, I have to teach myself as this is a hobby I don’t have enough resource or time to go to school over. Anyway, I liked reading this article – it’s all quote interesting.

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    1. Thank you for visiting! Yes, reading Scandinavian texts in English is weird, so I try to avoid that. Even if I read them in translation a Scandinavian translation will usually stay closer to the original. What tools do you use to learn Danish? I listened to a ton of Danish music, podcast and TV-series before I got (fairly) good at understanding spoken Danish, but as a Swedish speaker I had a much easier starting point. Now I understand Danish but the Danes still don’t understand me…

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      1. What kind of music do you enjoy? I don’t know so many Danish artists who sing in Danish, but for language learning purposes I mostly went with those who sang most clearly. Rasmus Seebach (modern pop) is good for that: and so is Karen Mose (folk song): Myrkur is also interesting, but her texts are more difficult to hear, so not as helpful for language practise:

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      2. I liked what you sent, but I think the first song is turned off in New England- said it’s unavailable. Both the women had clear voices, which is awesome.

        my favourite band is Garmarna, I think Emma Hardelin has an Angel’s voice. But I’m a metalhead, too, Raubtier is a close contender for my favourite band.

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  7. I love this! What a fascinating piece! And thank you for writing it. Only speaking and reading in English, I always enjoy when you discuss language and reading in your pieces. I feel I learn so much from you, not just of the mechanics of it all but of feelings and interactions. Thank you for writing a piece about language so directly :). This was as eye-opening as it was enjoyable.

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    1. Thank you! Moving around between the Nordic countries has made my quite fascinated by languages and the feelings connected with them. Shifting back and fourth between different languages makes me notice them much more. I have also found some favourite Norwegian words that I try to introduce into Swedish and vice versa.

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  8. This is so interesting! I also feel very similarly, it’s much rarer for an English text to really impact me than one written in my native Hungarian.

    There is one area where this effect is much more severe though: Poems!
    I simply can’t enjoy poems written in any language other than Hungarian. Even if I can perfectly understand a poem in English or German, they feel awkward and flat compared to Hungarian poems, several of which I deeply love.

    I’ve always wondered if others also noticed this. Do you feel the same way?

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  9. Thanks for sharing this. I am fascinated by how you associate English with ornate words of fiction.

    Being a polyglot myself I am forcing myself to read “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka in the original language (original German). German feels so informal and over the top. Meanwhile I’m reading “Planet of the Apes” in the original French and French feels so formal that a college professor is telling me the story!

    Do you recommend any good Swedish and Norwegian authors? I would love to engage its literal culture. (I’m also learning Norwegian)

    Thanks for sharing, friend!

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