When I first traveled in Sweden 12 years ago, it was the first time that I had visited a country where I couldn’t even make an attempt to speak the language. I felt considerable guilt about the whole thing – here I was, this arrogant American waltzing around as if I owned the place without any advance study of culture or language. Folks would frequently address me in Swedish and I would feign comprehension. Then at some point they would ask me a question (you could tell by the intonation) and then I would blush and apologize, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.” At which point whomever it was, whatever age, would switch to English and say, “Oh, that is OK. Where are you from?”
I had forgotten about this aspect of traveling here. I do understand a bit more Swedish now but still do not speak and still feel a little bad about that. So, when I approach people (e.g. asking the bus driver which stop to get off at, or buying train tickets or ordering lunch) I need to manage the situation. On this trip I started out by dealing with these situations this way:
Me: Excuse me please, do you speak English?
Other person: [rolls eyes] Yes, of course. [and now I feel guilty for not speaking Swedish and insulting their intelligence by insinuating they do not speak English]. How may I help you?
So, I think I have hit upon a better way to manage the situation. The issue is that I don’t speak Swedish and I feel bad about it. Pretty much everyone here speaks English really well so it is not a problem of comprehension. I decided I should just be direct. It seems to work well. Here is how it goes:
Me: I am sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.
Other person: Oh, that’s OK. How may I help you?