On the surface, Stockholm moves as many other modern cosmopolitan societies, hardly dissimilar to what I would encounter in my own English-speaking country. But there is one marked difference: in Sweden, the native language is Swedish.
Whether you have just arrived in Sweden or you have been here for some time, you’ve probably heard: ‘Hur går det med svenskan’? Or ‘How’s your Swedish coming’? And no doubt you’ve probably provided various reasons for not being quite fluent yet.
Being an English speaker in Stockholm is hardly a crisis of epic proportions. It is actually quite the opposite – most Swedes speak fantastic English and are happy to use it. But if you are here looking for work or planning on staying for some time, it is very important to pick up the language. Locals will appreciate that you learned any level of Swedish. But before you jump into Swedish classes, it is important to figure out what level of Swedish you require and how quickly you need or want to reach this level. So sit down and think about your main purpose of living in Sweden.
Some people are here for love. Some to study. Others to work. Many seeking asylum. For the rest, it can be a combination of many reasons. But your individual circumstances will drive you toward where you need to go with your education in the Swedish language.
I had my first dose of reality when I entered one of my favourite health food shops some months ago and was recognised as a regular customer. The shop assistant remarked, ‘Well, you’ve been here for more than six months haven’t you? I think we can take this in Swedish now…’ Since that time I’ve been more humbly aware of my … difference. Although taking the plunge in conversing with my new Swedish vocabulary has produced some results that I didn’t quite expect.
On my first particularly brave day, after rehearsing countless times, I walked into a coffee shop and in my Swenglish accent asked, ‘Kan jag få en kaffe latte och skinksmorgås tack’. The waitress paused to look at me and then replied in English, ‘how would you like to pay for that?’ So taking it in Swedish was going to be a little more difficult than I first anticipated.
Cathrin Arnheim, a Swedish teacher living in Stockholm, explained that it is often common for a Swede who is conversing with a foreigner struggling with the language, to naturally change to English out of courtesy. This places the motivation to learn Swedish directly up to the individual and calls for more than just confidence in speaking the language; it also begs for a little stubbornness. This minor conundrum has led me to what many believe to be the best way to learn a language: active immersion in the environment around you.
A Swedish language teacher since 1965, Cathrin Arnheim has taught at Studjefrämjandet and now teaches at Medborgarskolan and encourages students to engage in a life-centred approach to learning. She explained that these days, they teach Swedish using a more direct method because a purely theoretical approach can isolate you from normal life. She maintains that only focusing on theory and grammar may leave you in a situation in which you have been studying for years and you cannot even buy a loaf of bread. As was her experience living as a foreigner in Uruguay. Fortunately for us, this is not a problem in Sweden. But there are ways to speed up the process that will not necessarily require you sitting down with grammar books. Cathrin suggests using all occasions and all opportunities to immerse yourself in the culture, so you can get to your goal a lot quicker. Pause. Look at the media around you such as billboards, signs, TV and radio. Translate a word or an item in a shop, do not try to memorize it, simply get familiar with it, so that next time you understand it.
Everyone can enjoy Stockholm life and culture, no matter what their level of Swedish. There is a wealth of English community events, culture and resources out there to make your life in Sweden a great experience. If you can take the opportunities that come to you every day and continue to feed your curiosity, you’ll probably be surprised by your progress.
Whether you need to learn Swedish to find work, to get around the city, to socialise and make friends, to gain a sense of belonging, satisfaction, and personal empowerment, every day is an opportunity to learn. Then again, there is no need to get stressed over it, because the need is as great as you want it to be.
Written by: Lily Mackay