Today is June 6th, now the National Day of Sweden, formerly known as the Day of the Swedish Flag. As to why that day in particular was chosen, you can read the story about it here.
And if you ever go to Stockholm, I highly recommend a visit to Skansen, which is one of the most genuine experiences you will ever have in your life, guaranteed. It sometimes feels like time travel, given that many of the shops there function exactly the way they did before the Industrial Revolution.
Anyhow, if you have an interest in learning Swedish, particularly for travel purposes, you’re going to encounter a lot of discouragement on the Internet, and this piece will serve as your “antidote”.
I’ve lived in Sweden for a year. I did not leave fluent (I acquired that mantle at around early 2014, when my polyglot visions all started to come together, and when I found myself practicing with encouraging and helpful native speakers very often). But it was a good start.
But chances are if you look around the Internet, you’ll encounter, you guess it, horror stories, the same way I did with learning Danish and Icelandic. Stories from The Local (a newspaper that has English-Language editions in several countries, including Sweden and Denmark) about how “my Swedish spouse won’t talk Swedish to me, she only uses English even though I’ve asked her thousands of times to not use it” and about “why bother, given as I’ve only been answered in English?”.
(Hey, I know I’ve been repeating myself but you have NO IDEA how many hits posts like these get!)
Anyhow, as I detailed when writing about Myanmar, it was actually easier to get answered in Swedish in Sweden than it was to get answered in Burmese in Myanmar (this is taking my appearance as someone who does not look Asian into account). This was despite the fact that Sweden has among the highest rates of English proficiency in the world and Myanmar has 5% of its population as fluent English speakers.
Reasons Why Learning Swedish in Sweden is a Good Idea
I was told beforehand that learning Swedish just wasn’t necessary. And then my luggage got misplaced at the airport and I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my address. I couldn’t pronounce the street names. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of businesses.
Then my housemates and I went on a shopping tour to buy things for the house (I was in the Paideia Program in Sweden). Thinking that not knowing Swedish wouldn’t be a problem, we encountered several staff members at that store who responded to our English in Swedish.
And then there was another store near Östermalmstorg (a town square near where I went to classes) in which the same thing happened to me.
(My understanding is that they might have been immigrants that underwent Swedish-language immersion beforehand to the exclusion of learning any English at all, or possibly might have learned Swedish from their environment much like I was doing in the early stages).
And to top it all off, the apartment I was in was owned by the Jewish community and we had to follow the guidelines for keeping a kosher home that were written in Swedish and seldom translated into English! (Only a few paragraphs from the guide, if I recall correctly)
Keep in mind: this was before I learned about polyglot cultures, language hacking, or before smartphones were invented. This was before I had access to any decent programs that would help me learn languages (although I would pick them up in the next few months after the events I described).
So…I was going to learn Swedish but…I had no real clue about how I would go about doing it.
The only real thing I had was the phrasebook sections in my guidebook.
I struggled. I got answered in English quite often, but sooner or later it happened a lot less often. Sometimes I encountered the occasional Swedish native speaker that would feel threatened by my level of Swedish and sometimes not-so-subtlely ignored me, treated me not very nicely, or outright refused to use Swedish with me (sometimes this still happens to me, oddly enough, although the overwhelming majority is appreciative!)
I know the feeling as well. I’ve encountered some people who have spoken English to me with virtually no trace of any accent (these have only been a handful, and keep in mind that my ear for accents is very, very sharp, especially as concerns Nordic languages). I felt a little bit threatened too, to be honest. Can’t blame others for feeling the same way.
But anyhow, enough complaining, more about advice about how to make the most of your venture.
- Sweden is full of people from various backgrounds that all come to the country and learn to speak Swedish. Like Americans, Swedes are more used to hearing their language spoken in foreign accents than people of other nationalities may be.
“You pretty much have to talk like a native otherwise they’re going to answer you in English”.
Get good pronunciation, no doubt, especially as concerns the letter “a”, which is pronounced differently when stressed than when unstressed (I spent ten minutes trying to think of English equivalents and between the dissimilarity between English dialects I can’t think of anything suitable to illustrate the difference. “Ja” = yes = stressed, the a’s in “fattar” (understands) is unstressed.
But don’t feel that you’re under extraordinary pressure to be perfect. They may hear an accent (when I wasn’t fluent yet, I was placed in either Germany or Finland most of the time), but just because they hear an accent doesn’t mean it is English-only city for you.
- Use your smartphone to your advantage
If you know what you want for breakfast, check it up on Google Translate or, better yet, go to en.wikipedia.org, look for the item you want, and then change the article language to Swedish. If you do the latter, look at the article and notice how the word pluralizes (if you haven’t gotten the hang of the flavors of the Swedish plural form yet).
If you don’t have coverage, make sure to download the Swedish language packet on the Google Translate app so that you can use it even when offline. It may not be perfect, but thanks to the fact that there are a lot of Swedish speakers in the Google Translate online community, your luck is better with Swedish than it is with something like Irish or Burmese.
Simple phrases will, more often than not, work.
For an app with very good simple phrases that will be useful in travel, I recommend the Transparent Language app that can come with many US library accounts (I don’t know if it is available outside of the US, however). For more information on how to find a library that supports the service, write a comment and I’ll help you. All of these phrases are accompanied by native speaker audio.
Mango Languages is also good for getting the hang of simple conversations that will be useful on a daily basis. It, too, is available through libraries.
- If you have Swedish-speaking friends, even if you primarily use English (or another language) with them, get their help!
One of my best friends in Stockholm was a priest in the church of Sweden. Being a Swedish teacher himself, he really helped me with irregular verbs as well as assisting me with commonly mixed-up words. He helped me have my first-ever conversation in Swedish!
Even the Hebrew teacher in Paideia, who picked up Swedish later on in life, helped me as well! So you can enlist the help of your Swedish-speaking friends even though not all of them may be native speakers!
Swedish language enthusiasm is a very contagious bug (as is Swedish-culture enthusiasm, must I add). Those who get addicted get in for life. Swedish people lecture foreigners about Sweden and the Swedish language all of the time. (Admit it!) So if you have friends who have been affected, they’re going to affect you too!
And my, my, is Swedish a useful skill to have! Especially in Internet comment sections 😛
- If you get answered in English and know what to say next, just continue in Swedish as if nothing happened.
I actually learned this trick from watching my monoglot family members interact with people who don’t speak English, as well as other people like the shopkeepers I mentioned above (who didn’t speak English).
Keep in mind that, in some places, native speakers get mistaken for tourists at times (I’ve heard multiple stories about this happening in the Netherlands). If you know what to say next in order to ask for directions or order food, then say it. If you don’t use English you’ll give no one any pretense to answer back in English.
But keep in mind: if you are in the company of Swedish-speakers and English-speakers, use English unless necessary so as not to come off as rude. Swedes are more sensitive towards that sense of exclusion than members of other nationalities (or so I feel).
I’ve had times when I’ve just kept using Swedish after accidentally hesitating (and getting responded to in English) and then it just continues in Swedish as if nothing happened.
You aren’t your mistakes. Your mistakes are like the various blows of a hammer that mold you into what you are about to become.
And this will soon become the sigil of your success resulting forthwith!
- Use filler words and make your sentences longer than normal.
You don’t actually want to sound like a phrasebook, you want to sound like a native speaker (or close to it). But the phrasebook stuff actually serves as a “springboard” to sounding like a native speaker.
As a result, I’ll direct you to my article here, which is valid for learning how to avoid being answered in English anywhere (taking into account that I’ve had most of my language immersion in European countries as of 2014).
- Realize that Swedish People are, on the Whole, Supportive and Want you to Learn Their Language
Swedish pride is very strong. Like with other cultures, Swedish culture rewards those who have an active interest in it. You will make new friends, you will get complimented, you will be treated with awe and respect if you master conversational Swedish.
But the road to that can be difficult, but here’s the thing: looking back, picking up Swedish wasn’t too difficult in comparison to having picked up many other languages. And looking back, Sweden had among the most encouraging native speakers I’ve encountered anywhere, especially among its younger generations.
Was my immersion journey in Sweden hard? Yes
Would immersion journeys be hard anywhere else? You bet.
Did I leave Sweden fluent? No.
If I came back there, would I avoid English the entire time? Of course I would.
And when I would come back, I would remember that the last time I was there, in 2013, I was struggling an awful lot, and realizing that that fulfillment from having come a long way…could also be yours, be it with Swedish or any other language.
You’ve got an exciting journey ahead!
Uppsala, complete with a very Swedish indeed truck in the backgrond.