Want to learn Swedish? Here’s how.

Saved on June 01, 2017 · 12 mins read Source: Danielle Jabin

Want to learn Swedish? Here’s how.

I originally wrote this outline for a friend whose girlfriend wanted to learn Swedish, and I’ve been meaning to polish it and share it for some time. That time is now here!

A lot of this reflects an approach to language learning that is quite different from the standard class/book methodologies I’ve seen used, namely the Birkenbihl Language Learning Method . That being said, I don’t know that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to learn a language (actually there’s one wrong way, and that’s to not put in the time and effort :D) . I tried to optimize for not being bored i.e. I didn’t want to sit around all day and memorize vocabulary flashcards. I was okay with the tradeoff of having to look up words while reading, possibly several times for the same word, because I found that to be a more engaging approach. I want to note that even though I mention tips and resources specific to Swedish in this post, the general approach can be used for learning any language (I’m using the same techniques to pick up a new language now in fact) .

When it comes to Swedish, I personally don’t think it’s a hard language to learn (compared to other languages, that is) . Grammatically it is very straightforward (you don’t even have to conjugate verbs based on subject pronouns! ) . There are also very few gotchas (again relative to English) . That being said, there are two big challenges when learning Swedish: understanding spoken Swedish and continuing to speak Swedish even when Swedes inevitably switch to English with you (I could write an entire post about that topic alone, but I’ll keep this one on track :D ) . So without further ado, here’s how I went about learning Swedish:

Part 1

Take a beginner’s course (a common choice is Svenskundervisning för invandrare , known as SFI)

  • Here you’ll learn the basics and get in the habit of setting aside time to learn Swedish. More importantly, you’ll hear how things are pronounced .
  • Use the books from Swedish class to review and strengthen your understanding of the grammar (and pick up more vocabulary) . I can highly recommend adding Essentials of Swedish Grammar as a supplement to other language books/resources you use.
  • Personally I found the pace of the class I was taking to be a bit slow, so after about 3 months I stopped going and learned the rest on my own. I still think that getting started with a class and hearing words pronounced in a native Swedish accent (though riksvenska is considered “Standard Swedish”, there are surprisingly many native accents/dialects) was helpful. The most important part of learning a language, or doing anything really, is sticking with it, so I don’t think it’s bad to attend class less, more, or not at all, so long as you are making progress and challenging yourself.

Enroll in an online course such as SwedishPod101.com

  • The approach of SwedishPod101.com fits well with the Birkenbihl method. The site is basically a collection of dialogues with transcripts in both Swedish and English. Here the important thing is to listen several times to understand what is being said then look at the vocabulary section and listen to/learn new words , relisten to the dialogue, relisten while reading in Swedish, relisten while reading in Swedish and comparing with the translation, etc. You’ve probably picked up on my use of the word “relisten” by now, but again I found listening (even over and over again) to be far more interesting and engaging than sitting down and memorizing unrelated lists of words (boring! ) .
  • OBS! The way the site tries to get you to sign up feels scammy, but I can attest to the fact that the content is actually (surprisingly) good. Also note that, if you choose to use the site, they will set you up for auto-renewal and not make that clear. The fix is simple though: turn off auto-renewal if you do not want to auto-renew

By this time your vocabulary will have grown to a level that you can work with (which is to say that, even though you won’t know many of the words when you listen to things or read, you’ll be able to pick out enough) . In keeping with the Birkenbihl approach, I listened to as much Swedish as I could during this time (the audio files that accompanied the book from my Swedish course, Swedish music, children’s shows on YouTube, podcasts, Sveriges Radio, etc. ) .

Comprehension is the secondary objective here. The main objective is immersion so you can pick up on pronunciation. Comprehending is extra credit :D

Once you have a grasp of grammar and have a good amount of words under your belt, start reading and consuming content in basic and straightforward Swedish.

Take the “Inga gratistidnigar” sticker off your mailbox and start to read the free local newspapers that will surely flood your mailbox (or opt for the environmentally friendly alternative of reading the local newspaper online ) . The basic and straightforward level of these papers makes them the perfect next step. Translate (and optionally write down or at least highlight) the words that you don’t know.

  • Listen to the pronunciation of the words you’ve highlighted. I can highly recommend lexin.nada.kth.se and/or en.wiktionary.org/wiki .
  • Go back over the next few days and review the words.
  • Aim for a minimum of 1 article per day . No need to push it here — since you will be coming across a lot of unknown words which will require translation (and thus time and brain capacity), even 1–2 articles a day will be a great start.
  • Watch children’s shows on YouTube and listen to programs from Sveriges Radio (also available in app form), particularly Klartext which is a self-described “”nyhetsprogrammet som berättar nyheter på ett enklare sätt” (look at that, some Swedish to get you started! ) .

Part 2 (once you have a better understanding of vocabulary and grammar)

Before going all-in on speaking Swedish, I highly recommend that you text/email Swedish friends in Swedish. There’s not the awkward pause of having someone wait for you to construct a sentence when texting like there is when speaking (long live asynchronous messaging! ) . This tactic was by far one of the most useful for me.

  • This is crucial because it allows you more time to respond (and thus lowers the chance that you or the person you’re chatting with will switch to English (or any other language you both speak) ) .

Listen to more advanced programs from Sveriges Radio , especially the work of Ann Törnkvist (but she’s my former teammate/coach so I might be biased) .

Read more advanced newspapers ( Svenska Dagbladet , Dagens Nyheter , etc) and books .

Part 3 (once words start to come easily to you when texting and you understand at least the gist of what you’re reading about (i.e. not necessarily every word) )

Actually speak. This is harder than it sounds — people will very quickly switch to English with you, especially in shops, etc, so you have to keep fighting the good fight even though it can be hard and even if they continue in English. This aspect of Swedish society actually makes learning Swedish quite difficult. Speaking with other people who are learning is another great way to practice speaking, as the conversation will typically be more balanced due to similar skill levels.

  • TIP: Find a situation in which you *have* to speak Swedish. For me that was joining a sports team, but if you’re not into sports then try to find a group of people who don’t speak English (in theory that would include young children, so perhaps volunteer to babysit for your friends if that’s an option) or who choose not to speak in English (e.g. a Meetup group for language learners) .

General tips:

Listen, listen, and listen some more before you try to speak! Listen to the words pronounced without looking at how they’re spelled in Swedish so you can learn the pronunciation instead of trying to read it on your own and thus pronounce it the way you would in your native language.

Decide which accent you want and stick with it. Since there are lot of varieties each with their own distinct differences, learning how to pronounce things can be complicated if you have not made a decision. e.g. I have often learned how to pronounce a word from a Stockholm friend, tried using this pronunciation with a friend from Umeå who will then correct my pronunciation to their version of the pronunciation, and then use that pronunciation with a friend from Dalarna who will again correct my pronunciation (true story) . So, try to stick with one pronunciation the best you can, or at least be aware that this could happen to you.

It’s important to note that throughout this process, when reading text, one should pay close attention to how sentences are structured grammatically and which words/phrases go together (e.g. you’ll realize it’s “nu är det dags” not “nu det är dags”, figure out which prepositions go with which phrases, learn key phrases (“ser fram emot”, “ser trevligt ut”), recognize that after an “att” clause the “inte” comes after the subject not the verb (“Det var inte roligt” vs “Du sa att det inte var roligt”), etc.

Enjoy knowing a language spoken by around 11 million native speakers (plus a few million more who have learned it (plus Norwegians) ) which has the unanticipated benefit of being a semi-secret language when traveling outside Scandinavia!

Lycka till!