“Your Son is in The Babysitter” An Examination of Some Semantic Issues Faced by Swedish Learners of English Jennifer Brook
Abstract Transfer errors by Swedish learners of English were examined with respect to their effect on semantic meaning. The his- torical and contemporary relationship between the Swedish and English languages makes many aspects of English, such as the use of the Latin alphabet and S-V-O syntactic structure, easier to acquire for native Swedish speakers; however, studies of Swedish learners of English have shown that use of the gerund in English as well as issues with modal verbs can cause semantic issues, which can impede the learner’s intended meaning. Additionally, “false friends” between Swedish and Eng- lish such as gift, glass, and blank, can cause further interference and difficulties for the learner. Finally, teaching suggestions are also presented in order to assist Swedes learning English to avoid the negative interference of their first language in their second language use.
Introduction ish and English before addressing recurrent As an official language of both the Kingdom issues related to the use of the gerund and of Sweden and the Republic of Finland, modal verbs, along with errors caused by Swedish is the mother tongue of more than “false friends,” that can cause great difficulties ten million people worldwide (Lewis, 2009). to native Swedish speakers who are attempt- An Indo-European language, Swedish has ing to learn English. Additionally, this paper been historically influenced by migration, for- will offer teaching strategies that an ESL edu- eign interests and conquests much like many cator may employ to assist his or her Swedish of the world’s languages, continuing, to a cer- L1 students. tain extent, even after it was formalized in 1906 (Haugen, 1982, p. 201). In fact, the The Historical Background of the Swedish language shares many common his- Swedish and English Languages torical linguistic influences with English as As previously mentioned, Swedish has histori- both languages were shaped by Old Norse, cally been influenced by several other lan- Latin and other Germanic languages. Since guages. It was weaned from its Old Norse, the middle of the twentieth century, this trend runic orthography when Christian missionar- has shifted as English now directly influences ies arrived in Scandinavia at the end of the Swedish vocabulary, idioms, and expressions Viking Age (AD 750-1050) using the Latin through literature, media and a variety of alphabet. At that time, Latin loan words such other forms. However, despite the numerous as kondoleans or condolence (from the Latin similarities and frequent interaction between doleō, to grieve) were incorporated into the Swedish and English, there are also many dif- Swedish language (Haugen, 2009). Swedish ferences between the two languages; some- was then further influenced by both German times it is the subtle differences that may and Dutch immigrants and merchants with cause difficulties for Swedish learners of Eng- the rise of the Hanseatic League during the lish as a second language. These difficulties early 14th century. In turn, English was heavily result in semantic misinterpretations which influenced by Old Norse, the ancestral lan- cause confusion and frustration for both guage of modern Swedish, during the Viking Swedish learners of English and their in- conquests. Additionally, like Swedish, English tended audience. In order to understand this was influenced by Latin and other Germanic difficulty better, this paper will first investigate languages throughout its history. As a result the close historical connection between Swed- the two languages are closely related as both ______
Brook, J. (2010). “Your son is in the babysitter”: An examination of some semantic issues faced by Swedish learners of English. Hawaii Pacific University TESOL Working Paper Series 8 (1, 2), 25-32. Publication’s website: http://www.hpu.edu/index.cfm?contentID=8064&siteID=1
are considered Germanic, even though Swed- inger (1968), the use of the infinitive form in ish belongs to the Northern-East branch, the place of gerunds can cause semantic issues while English is in the West branch (Pyles & because while gerunds describe “events that Algeo, 1993). In fact, some linguists and edu- are ‘vivid, real and fulfilled,” infinitives “tend cators believe that because Swedish and Eng- to depict events that are “hypothetical, future lish are so closely related in many respects, and unfulfilled” (as cited in Celce-Muricia & including their common syntax and phonol- Larsen-Freeman, p. 648). Consider this exam- ogy, English should be “relatively easy for ple from Davidsen-Nielsen and Harder Scandinavians to learn” (Davidsen-Nielsen & (2001): Harder, 2002, p. 21). (1) *I must really stop to smoke. In addition to the many linguistic com- Jag måste verkligen sluta att röka. monalities, the ease of learning English as a (I really must stop smoking.)1 foreign language in Sweden has been further (p. 31) expedited by the fact that, since World War II, In this example, one may believe that the sur- English has been the most widely taught lan- face meaning with the use of the infinitive is guage in mellanstadium (middle schools) and that the speaker wants to stop to smoke, or in gymnasium (high schools). Swedes have also other words, he or she will stop doing an ac- witnessed an explosion in the amount of their tivity (e.g., working, driving) in order to have a exposure to English through popular culture cigarette, an action that is not yet fulfilled, in and business in the past thirty years, marking Bolinger’s sense. However, if one understands the first consistent interaction between the that the speaker in this case is a native Swed- two languages since the Viking age (Haugen, ish speaker who is not familiar with gerunds, 1982, p. 203). As such, most Swedes have one will notice that they have used the infini- picked up basic English vocabulary and tive form, which is acceptable in Swedish for phrases even without formal English instruc- the gerundic meaning. The student really tion. For example, Swedish and English share meant to refer to smoking as a fulfilled action: I many cognates, such as potatis, tiger, and choklad, really must stop smoking. due to their common history and etymology. This example could also illustrate Cor- Other similarities of note include the fact that der’s (1971) notion of a covert error, which is both Swedish and English are SVO (subject- characterized as an error in language that verb-object order) languages, both use only seems correct on the structural level yet does nominative and genitive cases, and pre- not reflect the learner’s intended meaning. positioned attributive adjectives. Additionally, Covert errors are evident in several instances a Swedish learner does not have to learn a of utterances produced by Swedish learners of new orthography as both languages utilize the English (p. 59). For example, consider the fol- Latin alphabet. In sum, English and Swedish lowing example of a covert error gleaned are more closely related than many of the from Linnarud’s (1986) study of Swedish other Indo-European languages. learners of English, which may occur due to
the transfer of infinitives where a gerund is Semantic Issues Faced by Swedish necessary: Learners of English (2) *I did forget to buy the fruits. Gerunds Jag glömde att handla frukt. A specific area that may cause confusion for (I forgot buying the fruit.) Swedish learners of English is learning to use (p. 101) the gerund. A gerund, which has been defined as a verbal that ends in –ing form and func- In this case, the Swedish learner of English tions as a noun, does not occur in the Swedish has used an infinitive form, which has not language (Davidsen-Nielsen & Harder, 2001). made the sentence itself ungrammatical. Since Swedes are not familiar with the gerund, However, within the context of the student’s they tend to use an infinitive form in its place story, the semantic intention of the sentence in all cases, even if it causes the meaning of has been lost because the student was not the sentence to be altered. According to Bol- aware of the meaning of the gerund. While
26 the produced sentence means that the speaker in conversation, but it also attracts students’ did not buy the fruit (the infinitive indicates interest by using authentic material. an unfulfilled action), the intended meaning of A more advanced task can involve using a the sentence was in fact that the speaker re- game. The teacher can take a soft, inflatable called going to the store but did not recall beach ball and tape different verbs all over it. buying the fruit (the use of a gerund, I forgot For this activity, students are asked to form a buying the fruit, would indicate that “buying” is circle in the middle of the classroom. As the a fulfilled action). ball is tossed to each student, they must read With this information in mind, there are aloud the verb that is closest to their left several ways that one may approach teaching thumb as they catch it. The student is to then Swedish learners of English how to correctly create a sentence utilizing the correct form of use the gerund, while also differentiating it the verb, whether it is a gerund or an infinitive from the present progressive and infinitive or if it is a verb that can take on both forms. form. According to Folse (2009), most Eng- The student then tosses the ball on to another lish language learners will learn the present student who will then briefly explain, or para- progressive first and thus may falsely assume phrase, the meaning of the previous student’s that they already know what a gerund is when sentence(s). This activity is more difficult as it it is introduced (p. 208). Additionally, as noted requires higher order thinking skills such as above, infinitive forms are present in the analysis and synthesis; however, it is less bor- Swedish language; therefore, students usually ing than repetitive drilling exercises, while also will be most comfortable in using this form in allowing the students to utilize self-made ex- comparison to the gerund. In order to assist amples. students with learning gerunds and to avoid making errors, which are not only ungram- Modal Verbs matical, but also result in semantic misunder- Another common error that Swedish learners standing, as seen in examples (1), (2), and (3), of English may also have some difficulty with several activities can be created. occurs when they attempt to learn the mean- In order to craft activities that are tailored ing of English modal verbs. Although the and meaningful to students, one can imple- Swedish language makes use of various modal ment pre-tests and more interactive drills. For verbs that have an approximate equivalent in the pre-test, the teacher may introduce various English, there are several that do not directly sentences that require either a gerund or an and clearly translate, leading to difficulties. infinitive and then ask them to choose the For example, consider the Swedish verb skulle, correct form. As Folse suggested, most stu- which roughly translates to the auxiliary verb dents will get some incorrect, which will signal should in English; even though this seems that they do not know all of the material (p. straightforward enough, it is important to 209). This can be important as a step in draw- note that in certain situations, skulle can also ing the learners’ attention to what they need translate to several other English (auxiliary) to know. Some additional activities that may verbs such as would, could, ought or even might. be developed in order to exemplify the use of Since only a single Swedish word is used to the gerund, rather than memorization, may convey these verbs, Swedes will often use the include cloze and creative construction activi- generic translation, leading to ambiguous sen- ties. In the cloze exercise, the teacher can se- tence construction. Consider the following lect a clip from a popular English language covert error: film such as Harry Potter, and then type up the (3) *She said that she should dialog leaving blanks where gerunds are pre- Hon sade att hon skulle sent in the character’s speech. The students walk out with the dog. can then be asked to view the film to fill in gå ut med hunden. the blanks utilizing the correct use of the ger- (She said that she would take und. This activity is useful in not only helping the dog for a walk.) students conceptualize how the gerund is used (my observation)
Obviously, the use of should in this case is not (5) *Anna can be in Toronto now. ungrammatical; however should, conveys an Anna kan vara i Toronto nu. obligation, such as, she really should walk the dog (Anna may be in Toronto now.) because it needs exercise. Would, on the other hand, (my observation) is used in lieu of will to express a future action In this capacity, can refers to Anna’s ability in a past sentence. For example, Yesterday she or power to be in Toronto now, while the use said that she would take the dog for a walk if no one of may implies that there’s a possibility or it may else was home. be the case that that Anna is in Toronto now. Also, consider the following covert error The reason for the learners’ difficulties that illustrates how should may accidentally be with the modal verbs in the examples shown substituted for might: is threefold: they may occur because a similar (4) *She looks like she should be sick. word does not exist in Swedish, because some Hon ser ut som om hon skulle kunna vara sjuk. (She looks like she might be sick.) modals convey several different meanings, or (my observation) because the words are “false friends,” that is, they appear to be the same word but have In this case, the use of should is awkward, but very different meanings. To help students may convey that the subject ought to be sick. learn English modals, an activity that may be Therefore, it may be better if used in a sen- used at the high intermediate or advanced tence that utilizes a non-referential it, such as level involves creating sentences that contain It looks like she should be sick (throw up) in order to modals that Swedish learners of English fre- feel better, indicating a recommendation.2 An- quently have the most issues with, including other possibility may be that the speaker is can, might, should and would. The teacher can trying to convey that the subject should have then construct two sentences that correspond already been sick as in, She should have been sick with each word’s intended meaning; for ex- by now since her partner had pneumonia last week, ample, (sentence 1) Saskia might be late, (sen- which indicates an expectation; however, the tence 2) The bus broke down. The teacher may intended meaning is that it looks like the sub- even want to construct corresponding sen- ject might be sick, as in, She looks like she might tences that relate to his or her student’s names be sick so she should go home early or She looks like and interests. Sentences 1 and 2 can be she might be sick from eating that hamburger. In printed and cut out separately and then ran- Swedish, the verb that would be used in this domly passed out to the students. The objec- sentence to convey the meaning intended in tive of this activity is for students to talk to this example is mår, which means “to feel.” In each other in order to pair up with the other order to convey the intended meaning, a student who has the corresponding piece of Swede would normally say Hon ser ut som om the correct sentence and meaning. Sorting hon mår illa [she looks like she feels sick]. through all of the available possibilities in or- The error of modal verb transfer also oc- der to create a connection between the sen- curs when Swedish learners of English utilize tences requires the students to analyze the the verb kan, which very roughly translates to meaning of the different modals. In addition, the auxiliary verb may or might. As one may this activity also reinforces the meaning con- have guessed, the Swedish kan is often con- veyed by the different modals by putting them fused with the English auxiliary verb can, into a context that students may better relate meaning having ability, which leads to addi- to. tional unintentional errors and confusion. In addition, according to Davidsen-Nielson and False Cognates Between Swedish and English Harder, kan, unlike can is used in “affirmative Even though this discussion about the confu- sentences to talk about whether things are the sion surrounding the meaning of kan versus case, or may happen in the future” (2001, p. can was limited to the fact that they are modal 32). For example consider this covert error: verbs, it should also be mentioned that the two words are cognates. As previously dis- cussed, Swedish has been heavily influenced
28 by other Germanic languages, and has many Although these examples might be con- common roots with English. With this con- sidered extreme, one may be surprised at the sidered, it should not come as a surprise that dozens of humor websites on the internet Swedish and English share many cognates, or such as Avigsidan.com and books such as In words with a common historical origin, such and Out of English, which are dedicated to the as foot, son, grass, and house for example, which humorous use of false friends in the interlan- may facilitate target language learning; how- guage between Swedish and English. In addi- ever, there are also some cognates that can be tion, a conversation with several native Swed- used in different ways, as exemplified in the ish speakers, including former HPU kan/can example above. False friends, which valedictorians Thomas Mellin and Claes Insu- are words that are identical or very similar in lander, revealed that these and similar phrases orthography, yet have a different meaning in occur often and not intentionally in the Eng- Swedish as compared to English are also nu- lish of beginner level Swedish learners (per- merous. In fact, English speakers are so sonal communication, August 4th, 2010). amused by the false friends between English In addition, according to Kiparsky (1970), and Swedish that a Chicago Sun-Times article the inclusion of false friends in different lexi- (2004), entitled, ‘Fartful’ workbench, 'Jerker' desk: cal categories can cause some additional con- Is IKEA hiding a grin?,3 explored the humor fusion as “the words of one class may be behind the transferred errors on some of prone to develop derived meanings which Ikea’s most popular products. In addition, their synonyms, in another class do not get” dozens of “Swenglish” websites and blogs, (p. 278). Consider the following example: such as the Swedish Blog at the website (8) She cold. “Transparent Language,” point out the humor Hon fryser. of Swedish-English intra-sentential code (She’s cold.) switching. In order to further illustrate how (my observation) false friends, may become a problem for According to Kiparsky’s theory, even Swedish learners of English, consider the par- though she’s cold and hon fryser essentially means tial list of false friends between Swedish and the same thing, there is the difference in that English below by observing the varying defi- frysa is a verb and thus, it is open to semantic nitions in each language. Please note that the meaning extension that is not available to the definitions for the words given have been adjective freezing. Also, consider the following simplified in order to facilitate a general un- example (Kiparsky, 1970): derstanding of the terms. (9) *She had to be cold outside while Many of the examples noted above may Hon fick frysa därute medan result in miscommunication, confusion, and in they were looking for the key. some instances, embarrassment as Swedish dom letade efter nykeln learners of English negotiate the nuances of (She was getting cold outside while they the English lexicon. This is especially evident were looking for the key) in many Swedes’ interlanguage, even when the (p. 280) learner has mastered other, more complex grammatical aspects of English. For example, In these examples, frysa is able to fit into an embarrassing situation may occur if a stu- several contexts that require actions rather dent said either of the following: than states. (6) *He took fart and hopped/jumped. One of the reasons that there are so many Han tog fart och hoppade. false friends as well as cognates between (He sped up and jumped.) Swedish and English is due to the impact that (my observation) English has made on Swedish language devel- opment. This relationship between Swedish (7) What is the fart limit in Hawai`i? and English has been especially prevalent Vad är fart-gräsen i Hawai`i? since World War II, with some scholars call- (What is the speed limit in Hawai`i?) ing English a threat to the Swedish language (my observation) and culture (Haugen, 1982, p. 202). This has
29 not only contributed to the normalization of dents paraphrase the meaning and to help some historically connected words (cognates), identify where the intended meaning in the but also the wholesale adoption of English target language may have been impeded. words into the Swedish lexicon. In fact, many These materials are not widely available in contemporary English words have been in- print form; however, they are becoming more corporated into Swedish including, baby, best- common on ESL/EFL teacher message seller, check, deodorant, jeans, reporter and service boards and personal web pages on the inter- among hundreds of others (Holmes & Hinch- net. Please note an excerpt from a story to liffe, 2008, p. 2). Although some English teach false friends to Swedish learners of Eng- words have been adopted and remain cog- lish below (Grudzina, 2008, adapted from The nates, many other adopted English words Blanket by Floyd Dell). The false friends are have evolved to take different meanings or underlined. connotations, which can cause confusion Together, the old man and his grand- when Swedish learners of English then at- son washed the dishes. When the tempt to transfer them back to English. For dishes were done, the old man example, babysitter, which is a common Eng- poured the boy a glass of milk and lish word denoting a person who watches a they sat by the fireplace. I’ll get my child while his or her parents are away, has harmonica and play for you," the old been adopted into Swedish to mean a specific man said. "I'll play some of the old type of baby or high chair, which can lead to tunes." But instead of the harmonica, sentences such as: he brought out a large, wool blanket. (10) *Your son is in the babysitter. "Now, isn't this a fine blanket?!" said Din son sitter i babysitter the old man, smoothing the fabric (Your son is in the high chair) over his knees. "And isn't your father (my observation) a kind man to be giving the old man a blanket like this to go away with? And This sentence would most likely be misunder- it will be so warm on the cold winter stood by an English-speaking listener, who, if nights to come. " The boy nodded the parent of the child, would most likely be with a blank expression on his face. alarmed! Adding further confusion, the term “When you become an old man like for the popular game of basketball has been me you will hope to have a blanket as shortened to basket in all contexts, not only in fine as this.” (p. 46) reference to the way in which a player may gain a point in the game (Stålhammar, 2007). In the short excerpt above, one may note The challenge with teaching false friends that the words underlined are considered to is that most ESL classrooms have diverse be false friends between Swedish and English groups of students whose native languages as gleaned from Table 1. For example, the differ greatly, making teaching students how English word blanket closely resembles Swed- to recognize and avoid errors due to false ish blankett but actually means “form” in friends a potentially daunting task. However, Swedish and English become closely resembles in the homogeneous EFL classrooms, teach- the Swedish word bekommer but actually means ers may choose to address the challenge of “bother” in Swedish. A teacher may choose to teaching false friends by introducing a new underline the false friends in the short except false friend, and its correct definition and chosen, as seen in the example shown here, in meaning, at the beginning of each class period. order to draw their students’ attention to Another activity is to construct a story that words that may cause semantic misunder- uses several false friends between the native standings and to facilitate a discussion on and target language. The teacher can ask the their intended meaning in English. students to take turns reading the story aloud and then stop after each sentence to have stu-
Table 1 A List of Common False Friends Between Swedish and English
Word in Swedish/ Swedish English Meaning Lexical Category English Meaning Gift Poison Present; something given without Noun payment in return Blank Shiny Having no marks; not filled in Noun
Bra Good A woman’s undergarment Noun Fabrik Factory A cloth Noun Fart Speed To pass wind; Flatulence Verb Glass Ice-cream Handleless container for drinking; Noun a hard, non-crystalline, transpar- ent substance produced by fusion normally used for windows and bottles Plant Level, to lay To put or set in the ground for Verb flat growth such as seeds, young trees, flowers etc. Blankett Form A large, rectangular piece of soft Noun fabric, often with bound edges, used especially for warmth as a bed covering Bekommer To bother To come into being Verb
Slut End/finish An immoral woman; a prostitute Noun
Note. The English definitions were gleaned from Dictionary.com (2010).
Conclusion Through the analysis of some of the common Linked both historically, and through modern differences between Swedish and English in- influences, Swedish and English share numer- cluding the absence of the gerund and confu- ous commonalities, including the use of the sion when utilizing modal verbs and false Latin alphabet, S-V-O syntactic structure and friends, one will be able to identify how se- cognates that may help facilitate language ac- mantic interpretations may become an issue quisition. However, even though the two lan- for Swedes as they learn to master the English guages are closely related, there are distinc- language. It is the hope that while keeping this tions that may inhibit a learner from fully information in mind, educators can develop mastering the target language and may addi- strategies and activities such as those sug- tionally result in semantic misinterpretation. gested in this paper.
Notes 1 Intended meaning is provided in parentheses fol- 2 This utterance, while slightly awkward, is used in lowing each learner’s example. The Swedish ex- some regional dialects of English, such as with amples in this paper come from various Swedish some Canadian English speakers. regional varieties from Östergötland, Örebro and 3 Fartful in Swedish roughly translates to “Ugly Stockholm. Speed” or jokingly in “Swenglish” as “Ugly Fart.” Jerker is a Swedish given name.
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