Prior to hitting the ripe old age of 24 I had very little experience with foreign languages.
Of course, I had completed the mandatory Australian foreign language subjects at school, but the 5 years of Japanese that I took left me with the ability to sound out words, introduce myself, be a polite guest and little else.
I dropped the subject as soon as it was no longer compulsory and didn’t look back.
I cruised through university, undertook the typical Aussie “backpacker” trip through Europe – where I hit some museums, churches, free walking tours and came back feeling very “cultured”, having barely experienced the culture at all.
I worked… I travelled… I worked… I travelled… and then I met a gorgeous Swede and discovered that I loved listening to him speak Swedish, I worked some more and then I finally worked up the nerve to move to Southern Sweden with him.
I attended SFI (Svenska för Invandrare / Swedish for Immigrants), practiced where I could, and ultimately moved back to Australia with basic communication skills and perhaps young teenage fiction level reading comprehension.
Every single time I have returned to Sweden since, however, I have been pleasantly surprised by the improvement in my listening comprehension, speech and vocabulary.
Obviously, this isn’t wizardry.
I have continued to study, but not the kind of study that stresses you out and makes you question why you would undertake such a silly task in the first place.
The study I’ve been doing is something that fits in nicely with my lifestyle and busy schedule – so here’s what I recommend doing if you want to improve your Swedish language skills outside of Sweden.
1. Find something you love about the language (and cling to it like glue)
I have this adorable idioms book called Sail In On A Shrimp Sandwich.
It’s jam-packed with hilarious idioms that I could initially barely understand (vocabulary-wise). Now, it’s mostly full of idioms that I literally understand but cannot for the life of me imagine WHY someone would ever say it in the first place.
My favorites include:
Att sova räv
which is (literally) to sleep fox, but means to pretend to be asleep.
Göra någon en björntjänst
which translates literally as to do someone a bear service, but refers to that unfortunate situation when you try to help but end up making everything worse!
Gå som katten kring het gröt
which is literally to go like a cat around hot porridge. The equivalent saying in English is to pussy-foot around, which has quite a crass feel to it compared to the Swedish equivalent.
It can also be a lovely linguistic feat to call someone stupid in Swedish.
Much like the English lights are on, but nobody’s home, or not the sharpest tool in the shed (or if you’re like my parents and found these sayings a little too run of the mill not the sharpest tool in the crayon box or somewhere there is a village missing its light globe), Swedish has these absolute gems:
Är du helt pantad, eller?
Has the bottle bank chewed you up or?
Han har tomtar på loftet
He has gnomes in the attic.
Hjulet snurrar men hamstern är död
The wheel is spinning, but the hamster is dead.
The point is, the slow growth in my cultural and grammatical understanding of the language, coupled with my ever improving vocabulary motivate me to try and try again with this book – and the everyday usage of more natural-sounding speech.
I love how “real” Swedish is spoken and knowing that one day, if I continue to study and absorb the language, I might be able to replicate some native-sounding speech is a huge motivator for me.
On my most recent trip, I spoke with an elderly lady on the bus to the airport for about ten minutes and she didn’t realise that I was a foreigner until I told her.
I’ll put her missing my horrendous accent down to her being a little hard of hearing (the Australian accent does not do beautiful things to the Swedish language), but having this conversation with her resulted in me receiving the biggest compliment I could have ever asked for.
Needless to say, studying was not tedious whilst that was fresh in my memory!
So whether it’s a wonderful book of Swedish sayings, speaking with your loved one, being able to understand more of Brön, På Spåret or Welcome to Sweden, or even having a thought in Swedish instead of English – use whatever you can to motivate yourself to continue learning when you’re not in the country.
Also, this won’t work for everyone, but I keep my study materials on the shelf underneath my underwear so that I see it every day.
It’s a daily visual cue that reminds me that Swedish is something I should be making time for when I can.
It keeps me accountable to myself.
2. Visit when you get the chance
Obviously being surrounded by the target language is the best way to learn a language.
So, make sure to visit Sweden when you get the chance. Or, better yet, make visiting Sweden as often as possible a priority!
Side note – while you’re there, the Swedes will likely switch to English as soon as they hear you falter or make a mistake.
It’s not usually because they’re sick of listening to you, but rather because they want to make your life easier.
If you persevere and explain that you want to speak Swedish, they’ll probably entertain you in your language misadventures.
Prior to your holiday, you’ll have plenty of motivation to brush up on your language skills and you’ll definitely pick up some vocabulary through your frantic Googling.
Bonus points if you frantically Google in Swedish!
Sweden is a truly beautiful country in so many regards – linguistically, culturally and for all of its spectacular nature.
Visiting will remind you of all the reasons that speaking the language was desirable in the first place.
3. Practice Swedish locally wherever you are
Just because you’re not in Sweden, doesn’t mean you aren’t near some Swedes.
Swedes are a nomadic bunch, so you can have a look around near home and see if you can sniff some out.
Here are a few good places to start looking:
Couchsurfing (not just for dirty hippies)
For the uninitiated, Couchsurfing is this beautiful concept where poor travellers sleep on your couch/floor/other designated space for free.
It is a wonderful chance for them to share something with you – usually a meal or a gift – and you share your space with them for a few days.
The truly amazing thing about this for language learners is that you can bring a native speaker into your home for a few days. The native speaker will be more than happy to practice with you in exchange for a shower and some time away from the hostel or campground that they’ve grown accustomed to.
It’s free, it feels really good and it is mutually beneficial!
So, as a couch surfer and as a host, I can’t recommend this enough.
The Swedish Church (or other relevant Swedish community in your country)
I loved visiting the Swedish Church in Toorak, Melbourne.
For those of you in the area, it is beautiful and you can buy all of the tasty Swedish treats you miss in the store there. Last I checked they had a “pay what you want” bookstore stocked with used Swedish books too, so it is definitely worth a visit year round.
That said, the main event is the Swedish Christmas market.
It boasts tons of Swedish Christmas goodies, songs, dancing, and no shortage of native speakers.
The vibe is excellent and there is Julmust in abundance, so I strongly suggest getting there.
It is, also, a phenomenal place to practice language and an excellent motivator. Prior to going, you’ll want to brush up on your Swedish Christmas vocabulary and maybe read a culture article or two.
As always, exposure is an easy way to learn so you’re bound to pick up a word or two (minimum) even before you arrive!
The actual event will obviously provide you with a chance to put your knowledge into practice, which is the ultimate goal for all language learners.
If you’re really daring, you can volunteer at one of the stalls for the day and use the chance to go off script.
It’s not too often that you’ll have the chance to encounter this many Swedes with so many questions in a single day in Australia, so I recommend going for it!
The Church also has a branch in Sydney, and potentially other cities around Australia.
Some Facebook stalking of Swede related keywords (like “Swedes in — city” or “Svenskar in —“) should result in you finding the Swedish community in your nearest major city anywhere else in the world.
4. Find relevant Swedish language learning materials
A good textbook can help you learn the target language.
A great textbook will make you look forward to it! Find something that you like and make sure you set aside some time to improve every week.
You can start with something like Duolingo, then move onto a B1/B2 textbook.
A good one will give you the tools you need to move through it by yourself, but it is a good idea to have a native speaker who can check your answers and give you some quick feedback. Swedish prepositions can be rough so you might be making mistakes and not realise!
You can turn every day into a Swedish experience if you switch your phone and/or computer to Swedish or listen to Swedish music as you bake.
You can look up recipes in Swedish, switch your Navigator to Swedish or just like a bunch of Swedish Facebook pages so that instead of seeing the Duck of the Day on your Facebook feed, you see jokes in Swedish from En Gott Skratt (a good laugh).
It doesn’t matter what you do really as long as you do it.
Any exposure to correct language is good exposure!
5. Monitor your progress in Swedish!
Having something in place to prove to yourself that your studies are having tangible results can be really motivational.
I noted in my first point that I regularly check in with my idioms book to see how much more I understand.
In addition to this I also regularly attempt to have increasingly complex conversations in Swedish with my language partners and check in with other resources to see whether I have progressed at all.
Here are two audio resources that I’ve found really useful:
This is a subscription service, kind of like Audible, that has a heap of books in English, Finnish and Swedish.
I use it to listen to English books that I can’t understand in Swedish and Swedish books that I can understand. It has that amazing feature that enables you to listen to the audiobook at slower or faster speeds, so you can slow down the Swedish if the native speed is too fast (which it likely will be if you’re not in the country – listening is typically the most difficult and, therefore, the most neglected skill).
This is a great resource because as you practice, you’ll get to increase the difficult in the filter.
So whilst you may have had to start at books for 4-6-year-olds, soon you’ll be listening to books for 10-year-olds and so on.
News in Swedish
There are a bunch of websites that give you access to Swedish news in easy Swedish.
It can be tough going with listening to begin with, but you’ll notice that it becomes easier and easier the more you practice.
Last, but not least, if you have the time and the financial resources:
Take a class!
Online classes or finding an online tutor are great options if you’re reasonably self-motivated.
A quick note though, they aren’t cheap! 🙂
You can also have a look at online tutoring websites, such as italki, which connect you with a language tutor for really reasonable prices.