The Swedish Language: How I Went About Learning It
I was born in Sweden. I lived there until I was five. I imagine that I only spoke the Swedish language for that period. I have no recollection of transitioning from Swedish into English after we moved to Canada. My parents decided we would speak English in the house. My parents were actually from Czechoslovakia, so Swedish was not their mother tongue either.
Nowadays, in Canada, they put immigrant children in ESL class. I’m not sure that is really helpful. They would probably be better off to have more local friends. There is all kinds of help for children of immigrants to learn the language today, well intentioned but probably not all that effective. Granted, there weren’t so many immigrants in my day, but, in any case, I can’t remember transitioning from the Swedish language. I must have had an accent, and difficulty expressing myself or understanding, but I have no memories of that. I just played with my new friends and we communicated somehow. Soon I forgot Swedish.
I started school the next year, and from then on I was just a regular English speaking Canadian with parents who spoke with an accent. My Swedish was mostly gone, or so it seemed. At the age of 16, I visited Sweden because my mother had died. She passed away quite young from cancer. My uncle, her brother, lived in Sweden, so my father decided to send me to Sweden to spend some time with my uncle.
My uncle had a son, my cousin, who was 10 years younger than me. I was 16 and he was six. At the airport he came out to meet me. He was an only child and had no other relatives in Sweden, so he was very excited to see his older cousin. I remember driving home from the airport and we couldn’t communicate. He was crying out of frustration that we couldn’t say anything to each other.
I spent two months in Stockholm. My uncle got me a job in the warehouse of a large department store. They would tell me to go and get something and bring it to the front so they could load trucks, so I did that for eight hours a day. I earned a bit of money and I heard a bit of Swedish. Of course they all spoke English, still it was exposure.
Subsequent to that, as a student in Grenoble, France, there were a lot of Swedish girls, so there was a real incentive to learn the language. I spent a fair amount of time with them, so that was very good for my Swedish. Probably not so good for my French, but it was good for my Swedish. I’m sure that having heard it for five years as a child helped me. I was able to say some things but I had a very limited vocabulary.
Then, after starting my own lumber company in 1987, we ended up doing business in Sweden. We saw an opportunity to develop Canadian lumber supply, spruce and pine, graded to European specifications. Sweden was a major supplier of these species and grades to the European market. I went to Sweden to learn more. I hired a retired mill manager, as well as an experienced lumber grade, to come out and teach the Canadian mills how to grade this lumber to European specifications.
This was my first involvement with Sweden for the lumber business. Lo and behold, in 1993, there was a dramatic shift in world lumber market prices whereby we could no longer export from North America to Europe, because the prices in North America had risen very steeply and Canadian mills only wanted to sell to that more lucrative market. Instead, we could now buy lumber in Sweden for sale to Japan. I started doing more and more business in Sweden. At that time, I decided to really work on improving my Swedish. In a way I didn’t need to because the people we dealt with all spoke English, with a few exceptions, but I wanted to take advantage of this new opportunity to improve my Swedish.
Basically, what I did was listen to and read things of interest to me. Fortunately Sweden is one of those countries with a well developed audiobook market. I have many shelves full of Swedish language audio books at home. One of my favourites, and a big influence on my Swedish, was Herman Lindqvist’s A History of Sweden. Herman Lindqvist is a wonderful writer of popular histories, who also records his own audiobooks. Now, it just so happens that I like history and, of course, it’s very important that your reading and listening be about things you like. At a time when it was not so easy to download mp3 versions of audiobooks, I would always go to bookstores and buy audiobooks, as well as books, on subjects of interest, when traveling in other countries on my lumber business, whether China, Latvia (Russian), France or Germany, or Sweden.
I am no longer active in that business, but I used to go to Sweden two or three times a year. Even though a lot of the people in Sweden speak English, the businesspeople and so forth, very often they’re happy to speak in their own language. This was especially the case with the sawmill workers and quality control personnel with whom I had to deal in in order to explain the requirements of the Japanese market.
I used to do a lot of jogging on my business trips to Sweden, and I would always listen to Swedish audiobooks while jogging. With the jet lag I was often up early in the morning. I have clear recollections of jogging in the winter slush in the early morning in Sweden, while learning about Swedish history in Swedish.
Of course, the opportunity to interact with Swedish people in the Swedish language, whether in Sweden, or while on visits to Japan to see our customers, all contributed to me greatly improving my Swedish. I feel very comfortable speaking the language today. If you speak someone’s language well, people are happy to speak with you. I often hear this complaint: “people always speak to me in English when I try to speak their language.” There are certainly some people like that, but most are happiest speaking their own language. That’s certainly what found in Sweden.
I ended up having quite an involvement with Sweden in the timber trade. For 20 years we exported lumber from Sweden to Japan, and now my company is bringing lumber from Sweden to US east coast markets. My language ability, both in Swedish and Japanese, contributed greatly to building up this business which continues to this day.