Finding it hard to get to grips with the language? Want to be able to speak like a native? Check out YLC’s Amy Johansson’s top tips to get ahead in Swedish – the non-SFI way!
I knew I had started speaking really good Swedish when people stopped telling me that I spoke good Swedish and instead started saying “Hur kan du så bra engelska?” (How do you speak English so well?) when they overheard me speaking English with my children. Admittedly, I do have an interest in languages and linguistics, but I worked hard to attain fluency and accurately mimic the tones and pitch of this language in under 2 years. You can too. It does take effort and time, but I am happy to share my tricks with YLC readers. In Plain English of course!
Here’s what to do:
I live in a part of the country (Småland in the southeast) where English is not a de facto second language. Many people where I live are resolutely monolingual. Even if they understand English, or studied English at school, or listen to English on television, many here are too shy to speak it. This has its downsides of course, but it is a huge advantage when learning the language. Immersion is frustrating. It is lonely. But it works. There have been many times at the beginning of my language learning that I sat silent at my husband’s family’s dinner table listening and unable to participate. If you cannot find willing peers to practice with, go where you have no choice. Find small rural communities. Find the elderly. Talk to children. You might feel silly at first, but if you have no other choice, you will learn.
2) Don’t worry: Swedish is not a grammatically difficult language
Have you heard Finnish? Impermeable! Thai? The tones Oh my! Russian?! Wow, the cases! Navajo?! Swedish is a relative of English and there are many cognates. Also, you do not have to conjugate verb tenses – it is thankfully the same verb whether you are speaking about yourself, to another person and to multiple people. The most difficult obstacle I’ve encountered learning Swedish is that in some places people are extremely fluent in English and want to speak English so it is easy (depending where you live and where you work) to avoid using Swedish. Have no fears.
3) SFI Akademiker
Swedish for Immigrants is a much-debated, often maligned program. It is actually a generous program, if perhaps not well-executed sometimes. However, there IS sometimes an alternative to traditional SFI and that is SFI Academic. If you have a university degree from your home country, you are eligible for this faster-paced, more rigorous program. I enrolled in this program in my municipality and enjoyed both having great teachers and the diverse group of accomplished fellow students.
4) Idiomatic Language
Watch TV, LISTEN (the best linguists are the ones who are good listeners too) to how Swedes speak to one another, listen to Håkan Hellström music, Kent, Evert Taube. This is how people really speak. If you are using quaint, overly polite, overly formal language, some Swedes might lose patience with you and switch to English. Speak like them. Make it easier for them to meet you halfway.
5) Accent Bootcamp
If you totally alter the sound of the language, it can make you difficult to understand. Or if you have a thick accent that betrays you as a native English speaker, many Swedes will want to practice their English with you. Lose that Swenglish sound. Here’s how: Talk to native speakers and watch their mouths move. Try writing words out phonetically. Practice in front of a mirror. Peter, a linguist friend of mine in New York (and fluent in 4 languages) advised me wisely once:
“Socially you are more believable if you sound the part, even if you make grammar mistakes”.
He is right, native speakers of English don’t always speak English with correct grammar, but we recognize native speakers by how they SOUND. When I first came to Sweden, I sounded American when I spoke Swedish. I realized this and whilst working hard on morphing my accent, I also told people who tried to speak to me in English that I actually was Spanish speaking and didn’t speak English.
Gradually and with lots of practice and the patience of a Jedi, I lost my American accent in Swedish and gained a proper local Swedish dialect, which incidentally gets made fun of when I am in other parts of Sweden! At that point, I often switch to English and say in my best native Tri-State American accent “What’s up with THAT, yo?!”
Good luck to you in learning Swedish, YLC readers!
Amy moved to Sweden from Brooklyn, USA in July 2011 with 1 child, 1 Swedish husband, 2 large suitcases and no idea what she was getting herself into. Two years and two more children later, she speaks fluent Småländska and still does not “get” the appeal of salty licorice.
You can find out more about her experiences at www.expatmompreneur.com.