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Shell Shocked: How to charm and eight-year-old girl who speaks no English

By Staff | Jul 21, 2011

It’s fun having an eight-year-old niece who can’t speak a word of English. That’s the situation I found myself in when my wife and I recently traveled to Sweden, her country of birth.

We went to Uppsala, which is a university town about an hour from Stockholm. My wife has a number of relatives there and we tend to travel to Sweden about every three years. My wife’s niece was about five when we saw her last and we were anxious to see her in person again after watching her grow up via Internet photos.

Her name is Emma and she’s about the prettiest eight-year-old I’ve ever seen. But she hasn’t started learning the English language as yet. In Sweden they now start that process much earlier than they ever did before. She’ll be learning English in about a year and I can hardly wait. For you see, my Swedish is not only rusty it’s non-existent.

You might ask why I haven’t learned any Swedish since my wife is fluent in it. The answer is that I find Swedish to be an extremely difficult language to learn – both its pronunciation as well as its grammar. But as you will recall from Ingmar Berman films Swedish has a lovely, lilting sound. I truly enjoy hearing it spoken even though I don’t understand it.

We had several visits with Emma and her mom while my wife and I were in Uppsala. They picked us up at our hotel one day and drove us to Sigtuna, a charming seaside town about an hour away that has lots of history.

Emma had remembered meeting me three years earlier and was anxious to see her American relatives again. So what do kids do when they finally meet up with relatives they haven’t seen in a while? She started speaking to me in rapid fire Swedish expecting me to answer back. When I didn’t and said to her in English that I didn’t speak Swedish she simply laughed.

She said something to her mom who also laughed. Fortunately, Emma’s mom speaks fluent English. She said: “Emma wants you to speak in Swedish because she can’t speak English. It’s your duty and obligation to speak to her in Swedish because you’re older than she is.”

Emma had a point. Given my age I certainly should have learned some Swedish by now. But every time I tried to say a few words in Swedish to my wife she would discourage me by laughing uproariously. So the only words I could mutter to Emma were: “Svenska flicka” which means “Swedish girl”. That didn’t get me very far.

But Emma quickly sized up the situation. She knew intuitively that she had to help me with Swedish. She began to point to objects and named them in Swedish. I would try to emulate her pronunciation, which would lead to big laughs. But then I responded in kind. I began to point to objects and name them in English. And she would repeat those words as well as she could. The fact is she did better than I did in this quirky form of communications.

This made us comfortable with each other. The next day my wife and I were invited to lunch at Emma and her mom’s house just outside of Uppsala. I noticed that Emma had a ton of children’s books written in Swedish and I found one about Garfield the Cat.

I began to read the book to her in Swedish – or as close to it as I could pronounce phonetically. She would stop me periodically to correct the pronunciation of a word or phrase and I would repeat it just the way she coached me. She smiled when I repeated a word and pronounced it to her liking.

I believe that she enjoyed having someone read to her who didn’t know the language and was reading the book the way I thought the words should be pronounced. She didn’t mind it at all. But through the continuing translation of our conversation with each other by my wife and her mom we did agree that the next time I would be in Sweden we would speak in English.

There’s no question in my mind that within a couple of years Emma will be speaking to me in fluent English. That’s a lot more than could be said of my Swedish.