Archive for November, 2008

The second language – part 2

As I just wrote, a second language as primary learning language seem to be a limitation to intellectual development. A study from Eva Wiren at my own employer,  The Swedish Agency for Education, just reveals that teaching the mother tounge to immigrants, will improve their grades at school. They perform significantly better in other subjects, something that scientists have identified too.

Of course this result is expected, and different views are expressed about its significance and its reasons. The minister of education talks about the importance of learning Swedish well if you live in Sweden, which is an opinion I share. He thinks that students reading their native language are seriously motivated, hence the higher results in other subjects.

The senior lecturer Monica Axelsson says that we need an understanding that its easier to transfer knowledge from one language to another if you have good command over one language. Its just ignorant to place studies in Swedish against studies in the mother tounge, since they benifit eachother.

This subject is also interesting on the web, since so much knowledge and learning is being done in English.

 In the news:

The report, in swedish though, at my employer


The second language – a limitation

I try to write this blog in English, as you might notice, even though I’m Swedish. My confidence is fairly high that I can make myself understood in my second language. I always had the highest degrees in English at school, I travelled a lot and I lived in Australia for a while, with a girl and a couple of cats. However, I always find it hard to get my opinions, my humour and my personality through when it comes to communicating in English.


I just read an article in the Swedish magazine Skolledaren 11/2008. “Swedish a superior tool – for a Swede”. It explains the issue really well: A second language can never bee as deep and detailed as your mother tongue.


In Sweden, there’s a belief that we can communicate well in English. Not perfectly, but good enough. But generally a five year old English kid speaks it better and handles the details of her own language better. Since we can order coffee when on vacation, we gain a certain confidence. This confidence can put us in awkward situations. In the article, the Swedish academy’s Horace Engdahl, who has done research on English literature and held lectures in English for several years, tells about problems he encountered. He always loses debates against English professors, even though he has better arguments and knows the subject better. Because as a foreigner you are always in a rhetorically inferior position. He also tells about his introduction when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize a few years ago. He was going to say “She has opened her box” for the readers. But when a translator had a look at the introduction, he explained that this phrase was a sexual metaphor. They changed it to “She has opened her casket” which is neutral. For a Swede, these details are very hard to master.


Some believe that a small language like Swedish should be replaced and that we should switch to English. But with a language in which we cant handle the complexities and cleverness, we can never make an impression or be convincing. Many Swedish scientists writes in English today, as a method to get international impact. Unfortunately the stylistic errors are plenty and they colour the content. In the end, this creates the opposite effect from what the writer intended. The academic works are not taken seriously and are met with some ridicule. Mr Engdahl tells about French students who read Swedish articles written in French on their free periods, with its unintentional obscenities that occur in the Swedish school-French.


There is a belief that a language is just a system of labels that we can change for the corresponding labels in every other language. But a language is a conception of the world, and where Swedish is a very concrete language, English is more well-presented. French on the other hand is full of conceptual definitions, constant thesis and conclusions. A Swedish way of reasoning would seem a little bit primitive to a French. A native is used to these errors in a certain extent, but the patience is limited. In Sweden there are a high number of immigrants, and they face the same kind of problems. The Swedish-Iranian writer Fateme Behros writes in Swedish. An example of this problem is when she formulated the phrase “You lie like a dog”. But in Sweden a dog is a respected animal. Consequently the phrase did not work in Swedish.


When asked about beautiful words in ones own language, magical, poethical, clever or just efficient ones which opens up emotions appear. The article has a few Swedish examples: Sommarvind – which is almost identical in English. Fjäril – which is entirely different in English – Butterfly. A direct translation of butterfy to smörfluga would be quite strange and not very attractive to a Swede. DagsmejaMiddday thaw, which is a little different too. And how do we translate the concentrated cleverness of Rävslumra – to slumber lightly and on guard? The Swede who thinks its enough to “communicate” has without understanding it, very low demands of complexity.


To be witty, funny or angry is extremely hard in your other language. We have no access to the deep emotional layers needed to be expressive. The second language becomes numb. Even in our best other language where we think we have a direct understanding, the brain works hard during a translation process. The neurological energy need makes us tired after a short while when trying to replace labels.


The article has a very thoughtful ending: English has entered Swedish education as a language of learning. It is a social experiment without analysis of the consequences. We think that we get access to the riches associated to the English language, but there is a self contempt in not valuing our own language higher. Most of us will speak a kind of limited pidgin English without knowing it. A version of English that can never compare to the language of the natives. For a Swede the Swedish language is the main route to intellectual development.


Of course all of us trying to handle the Internetized world face this problem too. Myself, I make errors all the time and hope for your understanding. My best help is the lexin dictionary and some strange confidence of what sounds good.

About this blog

Starting from a project about foreseeing the future of learning, this blog is an output of thoughts, ideas, comments and research. I am trying to be practical too, providning examples of the different aspects of the subject. My name is Pelle Filipsson and I work as a web pedagog.