How I Learned To Speak Swedish (And How Learning About The History Of English Helped)
Much like its native speakers, the Swedish language is fascinating and quirky.
It has Germanic roots, like English, so it isn’t too horrendous to learn to get the sounds to roll off your tongue.
Although for the absolute beginner the new sounds and pronunciation can seem a little overwhelming! (yes, people will show you the tongue twister videos like this one and no, you won’t master them for a while.) 🙂
On the language difficulty scale, Swedish isn’t rated particularly high.
The plurals can best be described as an utter mess – I threw the three little pigs at a wall when attempting to put knowledge about sound shifts into practice.
Worst of all, everyone in Sweden speaks incredible English and finding someone willing to hear you out as you stumble through broken sentences is next to impossible.
Despite the high level of English in Scandinavia, I do think it is valuable to learn some Swedish if you intend to migrate, visit long term, for interests’ sake, or you’re lucky enough to have captured the stoic and loving heart of a Swede.
Plus, I’m a big believer that learning another language means that you learn a new way of thinking, not just some new words.
Learning Swedish can definitely help you understand the Swedish way of thinking.
‘Mysig’ (much like its Danish cousin, ‘hygge’) is an extremely important concept.
The same is true for the untranslatable “lagom”.
Swedes are extremely proud of these words and the lifestyle choices and values that are associated with them. Without a basic grasp on the language, it is impossible to comprehend just how important these words are!
Learning the language also opens up doors for understanding Norwegian and Danish, and the Icelandic spoken by toddlers (plus lots of Icelandic adults speak Swedish, so it may come in handy there after all).
On top of that, Swedish is spoken by almost everyone in Finland and is listed as a national language there.
During my most recent visit to Norway, I understood Norwegian often enough that I stopped doing my embarrassing (unintentional) victory dance every time I understood a conversation.
But I digress.
Here’s what I used to help me get started with Swedish:
Swedish for immigrants (svenska för invandrare) – aka SFI
I enrolled myself in the full time Swedish at Folk Universitetet when I arrived in Sweden.
This turned out to be a really excellent idea! Don’t quote me on this but I believe that if you have a visa for Sweden that provides you with a personnummer, then you are able to access these courses.
I was on a working holiday visa and was able to attend at no cost.
I attended the school for five hours a day, five days a week and did the daily homework.
I won’t lie, the first couple of days at school were tough.
They teach via immersion so English is rarely spoken in class and they do not spoon feed you. After a week, I was able to manage supermarkets, introductions and converse about food.
After a few weeks, I had definitely started to find my feet conversationally.
During my time at the school (just over two months in total), I used the following resources to supplement the course:
- 8sidor (news in very basic Swedish)
- Digitala Spåret (developing reading, grammar, and listening)
- SwedishPod101 (grammar and vocabulary explained in English)
If you don’t end up on a surprise trip to Sweden, I’d recommend finding a Swedish course locally and starting there.
I continued my education at CAE (the Centre for Adult Education) in Melbourne after I moved back to Australia, but there were plenty of people there who were studying prior to their move.
Speaking basic Swedish will help get your foot in the door if you’re looking for jobs and will otherwise help you to understand the world going on around you. It won’t necessarily help you to make friends.
A lot of expats speak incredible Swedish so Swedes aren’t typically impressed by anyone anymore, but it doesn’t lower your odds either!
As a TEFL teacher, I may be slightly biased about the value of courses, but I do firmly believe that – as a beginner – courses are really the best way to get you thinking in the target language.
After you can form some thoughts in the target language, it’s easy to expand your vocabulary and improve your comprehension alone, but having some support as you struggle through the initial learning curve seems like a good idea to me.
If you’re hoping to learn the language without attending a course, or you want to get a bit of a head start, here’s what I recommend:
1. Master the alphabet
The alphabet isn’t that different from the English alphabet.
The pronunciation is a little different and there are the three additional letters: å, ä, and ö, but on the whole, it shouldn’t take too long to come to terms with.
There are an abundance of songs on YouTube to help you with this venture.
I would recommend a combination of 8sidor and Duolingo to get you started with the vocabulary.
They both expose you to grammar that is similar to English, so you can focus on memorising some words.
The flashcard feature on SwedishPod101 or Quizlet is also pretty handy. Once you get to the point where you can read and understand some basic sentences and have a working vocabulary about occupations, animals, colours and numbers, you can move to interactive websites, like Digitala Spåret.
I would also recommend at this point that you start watching TV shows for kids, like Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump), or Kalle Anka och hans vänner in Swedish.
I also love reading children’s books in the target language.
My usual website is Childrens Books Forever. They have adorable stories about dinosaurs and a giant dog called Waldo in a ton of languages, including Swedish.
The stories do occasionally have old fashioned language, but it is much easier to tackle than Astrid Lindgren.
I don’t personally believe that the study of grammar is essential for learning Germanic languages.
However, there are definitely those out there who disagree.
My go-to resource for grammar is the driest and most out of date resource that I use and I assure you that I am not recommending this purely as punishment for disagreeing with my stance on grammar.
I got started with the FSI – Foreign Services Institute guide to Swedish (do not confuse this with SFI! They are very different.)
The FSI guide is detailed enough and explains some of common issues faced by beginners quite well.
That said, it won’t get you speaking native level Swedish and some of the phrases are a little out of date.
It discusses common sound shifts, roaming adverbs, conjugation of verbs, adjusting the adjective to fit the gender of the noun, those pesky plurals, and it has a ton of vocabulary and useful sentences to boot.
If you can tolerate the way it is written (it is so dull) and the unfeeling voices of those who narrate it, then there is a ton of knowledge to be gleaned from the free online course.
Now that you know how to get started, I’ll gloss over some of the common issues.
These can be tough to come to terms with (if you don’t already speak another Germanic language aside from English), but you will one day look back on these and laugh!
Common issues when learning Swedish
1. There is no continuous tense in Swedish
Things will be difficult as you transition through the direct translation phrase into being able to think in Swedish because no matter how hard you try, you cannot say anything in the continuous tense.
It will sound strange to you to begin with, but you will get used to it.
2. It has genders
If this is the first language you are tackling as a native English speaker, you will have to deal with the issue of genders.
There are two in Swedish: en and ett.
There are no hard and fast rules about which gender should be assigned to which words, so that will take some getting used to.
People will usually still understand you if you use the incorrect gender, so don’t feel too overwhelmed.
3. The definite article is a little weird
In Swedish, the definite article is placed at the end of the word.
So, take the word for dog: hund.
You can say “a dog” by taking the word hund and adding its gender: en – en hund. However, to say “the dog”, you say hunden. The same goes for “flower” – en blomma/blomman.
Ett words are treated the same, so ett torn (“a tower”) becomes tornet (“the tower”).
Naturally, there are a bunch of rules for regarding the creation of the definite article. You can check them out here.
4. Things get even weirder when you start to throw in plurals
There are five declensions that you need to know when forming Swedish plurals.
This post sets them out reasonably well but I will provide an example here for clarity.
Do you remember how to say “a flower”: that’s right – en blomma.
We know that to change it to “the flower”, we say blomman. For “flowers”, we say blommor and for “the flowers”, we would say blommorna.
These were a little overwhelming to begin with, but once you see them a few times, it becomes bearable. You can use Duolingo to gain some exposure to the plurals and, I promise, they will get easier!
I also used the textbook Mot Målet 1 to help with plurals.
The book is very repetitive and had several pages dedicated to each declension. Drilling the plurals over and over does help you to remember what happens to which ending, so I do recommend getting a copy of this text.
After getting your head around these, Swedish will start to come together.
A lot of the grammar is similar to English and where it is different, it is quite intuitive.
I still speak “Swenglish” a lot of the time, but it is possible to get my meaning across most of the time by adopting an approximation of English grammar.
How learning the history of English helped with my Swedish
Oh, there is also one final tool that helped me very early on with my Swedish vocabulary and grammar.
This one won’t be interesting for everyone, but if it does pique your interest, it will definitely aid your learning – I listened to a wonderful podcast called “The History of English” by Kevin Stroud.
The podcast discusses the development of English from when the language first started as Proto-Indo-European.
There is a huge section that details words that came into English from Old Norse, as well as the sound shifts that occurred in English, but not Swedish.
Just over 1000 years ago, English was mutually intelligible with the Nordic languages – just like Norwegian and Swedish are today.
Long story short, the French invaded England shortly thereafter and English has been simplified a lot, but we can still learn a lot of new vocabulary by studying words that came across from the Vikings during this time.
Learning about the sound shifts also helped me to remember some Swedish words.
For example, “sk” in Swedish changed to “sh” in a lot of English words.
In English we have fish, dish and ship, and in Swedish we have fisk, disk, and skepp. (Please note, you should not pronounce skepp as it is written).
You can check out this website for a very brief overview.
I do highly recommend Kevin Stroud’s podcast if you think it might interest you.
Finally, get some practice!
I mentioned above that it is difficult to find Swedish people to practice with, given that they all speak such good English and tend to switch to English if it’s obvious that you are struggling with the language.
I recommend finding a phrase that you can remember easily to ask people to bear with you – my go to is:
“Förlåt mig, jag försöker att lära mig svenska så kan du prata svenska med mig?”
If you’re outside of Sweden and have a smart phone, jump on Tandem language exchange (it’s an app you can download). If you set Swedish as a language you speak, you will be able to find other learners to converse with and practice.
Note: We recommend italki for inexpensive Swedish conversation practice and lessons.
If you’re fluent in a language other than English, you might even be able to score yourself a native Swede with whom to exchange language advice!
Lastly, there are a few good books floating around and a ton of websites that detail the numerous and hilarious Swedish idioms.
I have always found that learning idioms is a great way to memorise new vocabulary and to get a feel for the culture, so once you have some working knowledge of the language they are a great resource.
My favourite two are “skägget I brevlåden”, which literally means to be caught with your beard in the letterbox (or caught with your pants down in English) and “om finns det hjäterum så finns det sjärterum”, which literally means if there’s room in the heart, there is room for the ass.
I’m sure you can imagine what the latter means if you think of a crowded room!
The more you speak and read, the more you will learn. As always, practice makes perfect!
This post was written by Stephanie Ford.