I’ve been fascinated by language ever since I was a child, growing up in Nigeria amidst more than 250 tribes and their unique dialects. I taught myself Italian (which has waned over time), struggled with German, and studied Spanish at university. When I arrived on Sweden’s shores seven years ago, newly married to a Swede, I knew I needed to learn the language as deeply as I could. Though most Swedes speak English, cracking their hard outer shell can take years. Here, friendships date back to childhood and compliments are rare. Mastering the subtle nuances of the language was the hammer I needed to start chipping away.
I enrolled in free Swedish classes offered to immigrants. And while it was challenging to learn how to properly purse my lips when pronouncing such similar-sounding words as sjö, sju, and tjö, it was regularly encountering the word duktig in everyday conversation that bothered me the most.
Duktig means “smart” in Swedish. To locals, the word is harmless, part of the natural flow of their native language. To me, an outsider trying to fit into an insular culture, it suggested a level of condescension to which many native speakers might be oblivious.
I would share an idea at a business meeting. “Vad duktig du är!” (How smart you are!)
At a dinner party, I would tell people I had worked as a computer programmer (my former profession). “Vad duktig du är!”
Duktig felt like a veiled insult—that somehow, I had miraculously exceeded their low expectations. For me, it evoked the same negative, visceral reaction as being told in the United States that I speak “eloquently” for an African American.
Many expats in Sweden have difficulties securing jobs. It sometimes felt like whatever expertise I brought with me was simply not enough, so duktig came off as patronizing.
Over time, as I advanced my language skills and delved deeper into Swedish expression, I came to realize that duktig, in the right context, really could be a compliment. Often it means, “I think you’re cool.”
Still, until I progress further on my journey toward fluency, I’ll probably reserve the phrase “Vad duktig du är!” for kids under 10.
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