How to Learn Swedish: 37 Lessons from My 6 Months Living in Sweden
When I realized I was going to have the chance to spend six months working in Sweden, I naturally got interested in the Swedish language. More so, when I started getting work emails I needed Google Translate to read. Even more so when I landed and couldn’t read the signs around me or understand anything people were saying.
I decided I needed to learn Swedish.
Towards the end of my time in Sweden, I went to Norway for the Starmus Science Festival. Stephen Hawking, moonwalkers and other astronauts, Nobel Prize winners and other intellectual stars lit up the stage in Trondheim, but I was struck linguistically by Norwegian. I knew it was similar to Swedish, but now I really ‘got it'. It truly hit home that I'd learned some Viking.
So, let’s dive in. Here’s a crash course in how to speak Swedish — or as it could well be called: “how to learn Viking”.
I went into this mission speaking English and German – and as Swedish is a Germanic language, I found this background knowledge really useful.
Here are the 37 lessons I picked up in my time learning Swedish. Some of them are specific to Swedish, some of them will be useful for learning any language.
How to Learn Swedish: The First Steps
Before you start learning a language, it’s best to find out about some of its features. This is so you can size up the challenge ahead, decide on a good strategy and jump in with some ‘feel’ for where you are headed.
Lesson 1: Context is everything in language learning. Oddly, I was thrown in at the deep end but quite enjoyed it. One of the things with beginner language learning is that it’s well, so simple. That’s of course where you need to begin if you want to speak, but the meaty stuff comes farther along. My first exposure to Swedish was very advanced: emails from my University Department. The downside was that I couldn’t read hardly any of it, but the upside was that it was meaningful. I needed to understand these emails for my job.
Lesson 2: Google Translate is your friend. I set about translating with Google Translate. I found it works pretty well but still makes some gaffs that you just have to look past. So, I knew I could rely on it as a tool, but only when taken with a grain of salt.
Lesson 3: Look for cognates – the words you already know. Reading emails was a quick way of sizing up the types and numbers of cognates. Speaking both English and German, I had a good head start on Swedish, but was surprised how much of it looked ‘very different’.
Lesson 4: Guess where you can – but take good note of when you guess wrong – and why. Often, when I compared my guesses to translations, I saw a lot of fuzz. Cognates I missed, especially because of the spelling and cognates I got wrong because they aren’t what they look like. My estimation of the challenge rose.
Lesson 5: Use Google Translate’s audio feature. I used Google Translate to listen to my emails. My estimation of the difficulties of learning Swedish rose higher. What I was reading wasn’t looking a lot like what I was hearing. I was longing for good old German – where what you see is what you get.
Lesson 6: Understand how well (or not) the spoken and written versions of your language match. I would learn much later that this in German what you see is what you get because the language was written down for the first time much later than Swedish. This means Swedish sounded one way when it was first written and is quite different today.
Lesson 7: Keep note of all the words you’ve learned or want to learn. From Day 1, I took time to keep a digital record of the words I wanted to learn. I started a Google spreadsheet.
Lesson 8: Focus on learning the words that matter to you – not what the phrasebooks tell you to learn. I built up a small and very specialist vocabulary specific to emails and my field. I learned to recognize words like nyheter (news), brev (letter), vidarebefordrat brev (forwarded email) Inbjudan (invitation), studenter (students) and phrases like Till alla medarbetare (to all employees).
Lesson 9: Make a special effort to learn the “glue words.” I started to learn ‘the little words’. These ‘glue words’ occur so frequently, it’s best to learn straight off the bat. Three important glue words in Swedish are och (and), men (but) and “eller” (or). The sooner you conquer them, the better.
Lesson 10: Two more essential glue words are en and ett. En is for animate and ett is for the inanimate definite article (a, an). Swedish condensed male and female a while back, which makes Swedish easier than German which retains the male, female, neuter (der, die, das) triumvirate.
Lesson 11: Go with “en” when you’re unsure. I was told when in doubt go with en because it fits with some 85% of words. If people look at you funny, switch to ett.
Lesson 12: There’s lots of romance in Swedish. Interestingly, I noted Swedish has a lot more romance language cognates than German. For example, “ice-cream” is glass, like the Italian glace, and “to write” is skriva. This makes Swedish an intriguing mix. I found out later this is due to an early influx from Latin and later from French. If you don’t already know a lot of French, this helps put into context unexpected letter combinations like fåtölj, from the French fauteuil, “armchair”.
Lesson 13: Swedish word order is more akin to English than German. In fact, because of this, some say Norwegian is the easiest foreign language for an English speaker to learn. This is aided by the fact that Swedish is a subject-verb-object (SVO) like English, while German is SOV.
Lesson 14: Adjectives come before nouns and are modified according to noun type (en or ett).
Lesson 15: You’ll spend a lot of time on prepositions to get speaking idiomatic Swedish. Prepositions come before their nouns. This unlike a language such as Hindi, where they come after the noun. However, prepositions can be quite different in usage from their seeming equivalents in English.
Lesson 16: While German capitalizes nouns, Swedish does not. In fact, it even drops caps from words we capitalize like nationalities, days of the week or months of the year. For example, on Sunday is på söndagen.
Lesson 17: Immerse yourself as much as possible. With a dusting of recognition vocabulary, I hit the ground for a one-week visit. It confirmed just how widespread and beautifully spoken English is in Sweden. It can be hard to learn a new language in a country that speaks so much English, so well.
Lesson 18: The first word to learn in any language is “thank you”. Then come the greetings “hello” and “goodbye”. I had long been saying ‘hey’ when I met friends, and I suddenly realized I fit into Sweden perfectly – hej is the primary greeting in Sweden. I felt more Swedish when I got to using hej hej and the same for thank you (tack). I now generally use tack tack.
Lesson 19: Look for “cultural tokens” – words that you see all around you Along with the greetings, I managed to compile a list of the first 20 cultural tokens I encountered, like the famous köttbullar (meatballs) and kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls).
Learn to Speak Swedish: Living in Sweden
Lesson 20: Listen to all the words around you. Moving there, meant really trying to listen to Swedish, even though I only understood a little bit of what was being said. It was hard to escape the “English-bubble”, as most Swedish people speak fluent English, and would offer to speak with me in English.
Lesson 21: Use what you know from other languages… to decipher as many cognates as possible. I decided to focus first on cracking the cognate patterns that would help me pick up the similarities to German as it would result in the quickest growth in my vocabulary and listening comprehension. For example, I saw betala in stores (on the cash register) and it took a bit to realize is it like bezahlen in German – to pay. Many of the cognates are shortened versions of the German (e.g. dropping of the ge- prefix). As I previously mentioned, there is also a lot of Latin in Swedish, so any knowledge you have of romance languages will come in useful too.
Lesson 22: Don’t stick in your comfort zone of cognates forever. A huge turning point came being forced to do laundry in a communal room – I had to decipher the instructions for booking a time to use the machines: Ah! Those Norse words! The neighbour caught me using the wrong machine. Ah! Tvätt! My eyes missed the stickers on the washers saying tvätt 1 and tvätt 2. In typical Swedish fashion, he was incredibly nice and helpful and explained it means laundry. It was a eureka moment. I had to stop skipping those Viking words in favour of the more comfort-inducing German and French cognates.
Lesson 23: Relish the unfamiliar. The Norse words became my favorites. Norse sticks out a mile for the wonderful letter combinations like: snygg (good looking), sjö (lake), kvinna (woman), pojke (boy). These are clearly north Germanic and not anything like the words you find in modern German.
Lesson 24: Focus on a particular type of vocabulary you want to learn and build your specialist vocabulary. My second ‘breakthrough’ was to not try to be a vocabulary jack-of-all-trades. I went where it was natural to go: food. My practical exposure to Swedish was shopping for food, menus in cafes and my search for Swedish recipes. When you love something, it’s infinitely easier to stay motivated.
Lesson 25: Enjoy the buzz when you’ve learned enough to recognize words in the real world. The first recipe I followed in Swedish was for a classic Swedish cheese pie! Because of this I got my first ‘word reward’, being able to read a sign for hot chocolate with cream in my favorite café. I’d just learned the word from cream (grädde). Things were starting to ‘add up’ – an excellent sign.
Lesson 26: Make your phone support your learning. I invested in downloading the core Swedish vocabulary for Google Translate so I could use the image recognition feature to decode labels and recipes: as a treat, I would occasionally buy the glossy magazine Mat and Vin (Food and Wine), which I loved.
My Two Month Swedish Crash Course
After 8 weeks living in Sweden, I decided to take Swedish seriously and do my own “Swedish crash course”.
Lesson 27: Set yourself a goal. I set myself a goal of two months to be able to ‘read Swedish’. For me, this meant understanding the ‘easy-Swedish’ on the news site 8sidor.se. This clear focus really helped. At first, I could read hardly anything on 8sidor.se. By week 6 I could read 75% of the content of stories and by week 7, I could do 100% on some. Today, for example, reading an article on Elton John, I only needed to look up hedrade (honoured), drabbas (suffer) and grindarna (gates) and I have gained a sense of familiarity with the language that is comforting even if I have a long way to go.
Lesson 28: Give yourself a set amount of time per day. Short, intense bursts of focused concentration can prove invaluable, as long as you’re really able to concentrate. The crash course approach was my best phase of learning Swedish. I spent at least an hour a day, often more. Working intensively proved exponentially helpful as I saw words in many contexts in a short period of time. Intensive bursts of learning really help with reinforcement if you are consuming a wide range of materials.
Lesson 29: Go for the top 1,000 words in your new language. I crammed vocabulary. Like an athletic boot camp, I conquered 1,000 of the easiest, highest frequency words. I used Quizlet flashcards. I’d listen and watch while commuting. It helps hugely to learn the high frequency words first: never waste your time on low frequency words until you’re ready for them.
Lesson 30: Use online resources and videos. I learned off the web, especially YouTube, and focused on active listening: I looked for resources to help my listening, reading, and comprehension all at once.
Lesson 31: ABBA! I found out that ABBA recorded in Swedish. In particular, I listened to “En av oss” over and over again watching with English subtitles. The vocabulary of the song “One of us” is helpfully simple and straightforward. For fun, I looked at a lot of lyrics in translation – they are different. I found they were quite different. Good to bear in mind if you know the English lyrics and expect to hear them verbatim in Swedish – you won’t.
Lesson 32: The Swedish alphabet is different to English I learned there are 3 extra letters – it’s not an umlaut like in German (for a missing “e”) but three real letters at the end of the alphabet. The vowels are really complex in Swedish – and there are hard and soft versions. Swedish is what’s called a pitch language. This explains the unique second upturn in many words and gives the language its musical lilt
Lesson 33: Knowing some grammar helps you make a lot more sense of what you’re reading. Learning grammar rules helped me distinguish words by their endings and thus significantly help with reading comprehension: One tricky aspect of Swedish is the lack of a word ‘the’, rather the definite article is appended to the end of each noun and is different in singular and plural. This takes some getting used to. Verbs are actually easier than English: there is no equivalent of ‘ing’, there are only five tenses, and verbs stay the same for all the pronouns. Passives ends in ‘s’ as do possessive forms of nouns. Adjectives have endings that match their nouns (based on en or ett). Adverbs never change – thank goodness something is static. Later I learned that many adverbs end in ‘t’.
Lesson 34: Bring it all together with dialogue. Pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary all come together when listening to simple dialogues. I decided to focus to this video, Useful everyday phrases – Super Easy Swedish 1, subtitled in Swedish and English, to so some ‘deep learning’. This means comprehending to the point that you can hear the sentences in your head and recreate them, including with substitute words. This is the life-blood of speaking.
Learning to Speak Swedish: Lessons with a Teacher
My crash course over, I felt ready to start speaking with a Swedish teacher. I had gotten inside reading, but I wanted to pop the English-bubble in terms of speaking. Here’s what I learned with my teacher.
Lesson 35: Read aloud to force yourself to speak… and improve your pronunciation. With my teacher’s help, I read aloud from books to work on pronunciation. This series of videos, “Träna att tala”, shows just how ‘red’ Swedish text can be when you mark up the differences between written and spoken Swedish. There was a lot to learn, but it helped immensely with my listening comprehension.
Lesson 36: Learn basic sentences structures. I did this with both English and German sentences to see the extent of the difference – and the differences are numerous! Swedish really is a mix of German, English and a lot of its own stuff too (that Viking!). This exercise proved how different Swedish is to German and English, and created interesting challenges triangulating between English, German and novice spoken Swedish.
Lesson 37: Make yourself a cheat sheet. During the last lesson, I created myself a ‘cheat sheet’ full of basic conversational statements and questions. The devil is in the details. In many ways, I ended where I should have started. Many people dispense with grammar and jump right to basic conversation but I would have been too curious about the “why’s” to sit still. And it left the best for last — conversation.
My Next Step in Speaking Swedish: Towards ‘Talking to Learn’
Now that I’ve left Sweden, I would love to go back.
I’m still trying to read the news in Swedish, and I’ve taken to watching Swedish movies with English subtitles. I can’t recommend “En man som heter Ove” highly enough.
My next step is to pick up with my list of basic statements and questions and go from there, building up a core set of phrases and sentences I can say with confidence.
I now have a vocabulary that far exceeds what I would have attained if I’d spent my time learning to speak basic touristic Swedish. I was just too keen to read ‘real world Swedish’ not to invest my time being a bookworm. After this long and enjoyable ‘prequel’, I’m prepped to get to my end goal of “talking to learn”.