Having lived in Sweden for nearly three years now, my command of the language is starting to be pretty decent. I studied Swedish full-time for a year right after I moved over, and with the exception of the summer of 2004, I have been working in offices where Swedish is spoken 85-90% of the time since then. And even though Dr. Darling and I speak English at home (more on that later), I am comfortable socializing in Swedish when called upon to do so.
But if someone at a social gathering chooses to speak to me in English of their own accord, I always respond in English. And this actually happens on a fairly regular basis because Swedes under a certain age usually revel in the opportunity to practice their English with a native speaker. To be honest, this probably made learning Swedish even more of a challenge than it needed to be in the beginning. But now that my Swedish is far enough along that I don’t feel like I have to jump at every opportunity to speak it, I’m quite happy to speak English with Swedes…or anyone else for that matter.
So last night when a Dane whom I had never met before sat down next to me at a housewarming party of some mutual friends and started speaking English to me, I naturally responded in kind. And when Dr. Darling and another Swede joined in the conversation in English, I didn’t think twice about it. But then fellow guest South African Nic happened to pass the room, noticed we were all speaking English and proceeded to tell me quite sternly (in Swedish) that I could not expect an entire room of Scandinavians to speak English for my convenience. WTF?! Never mind that I had only switched to English because the Dane spoke it first.
Fortunately I’d had a few glasses of wine by then (and so had he, actually) so I was able to let most of that little lecture roll off my back. But later he started scolding me for speaking English at home with Dr. Darling. Of course I do realize that my Swedish would be even better at this stage if we spoke with each other…but the reality is that after struggling to understand others and make myself understood at the office all week, I just don’t want to have to work that hard to communicate with my partner…especially when said partner is happy and comfortable speaking English with me.
My present position requires me to do a lot of writing in English, but often the information I’m trying to fashion into articles/product brochures/press releases, etc. is gathered in Swedish…so I’m constantly switching back and forth between the languages during the course of the day…sometimes even during a single conversation. And as almost any bilingual person will tell you, constantly switching back and forth is much more difficult than just speaking the second language all day long.
So this is why Dr. Darling and I only speak one language at home and that language is English. And according to my semi-regular but informal surveys of other American-Swedish couples, this is not unsual. They tend to stick with the language they know each other best in (English) even after the American achieves a decent level of Swedish fluency.
Besides, as long as the language of our relationship is English, I’m always going to have the upperhand when we argue!