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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.
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.
It truly hit home that I'd learned some 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. Context is everything in language learning. Oddly, I was thrown in at the deep end but quite enjoyed it. My first exposure to Swedish was very advanced: I needed to understand these emails for my job. 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.
Look for cognates — the words you already know. Reading emails was a quick way of sizing up the types and numbers of cognates. 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. My estimation of the challenge rose. I used Google Translate to listen to my emails. My estimation of the difficulties of learning Swedish rose higher. I was longing for good old German — where what you see is what you get. 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. From Day 1, I took time to keep a digital record of the words I wanted to learn. I started a Google spreadsheet. 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.
The sooner you conquer them, the better. 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. If people look at you funny, switch to ett. Interestingly, I noted Swedish has a lot more romance language cognates than German. This makes Swedish an intriguing mix.
I found out later this is due to an early influx from Latin and later from French. 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. Adjectives come before nouns and are modified according to noun type en or ett.
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. 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.
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. I felt more Swedish when I got to using hej hej and the same for thank you tack. I now generally use tack tack.
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. 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. 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. 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: The neighbour caught me using the wrong machine.
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.
The Norse words became my favorites. Norse sticks out a mile for the wonderful letter combinations like: These are clearly north Germanic and not anything like the words you find in modern German. Focus on a particular type of vocabulary you want to learn and build your specialist vocabulary.
I went where it was natural to go: My practical exposure to Swedish was shopping for food, menus in cafes and my search for Swedish recipes. The first recipe I followed in Swedish was for a classic Swedish cheese pie! 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: Set yourself a goal.
This clear focus really helped. At first, I could read hardly anything on 8sidor. 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.
Give yourself a set amount of time per day. 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.
Go for the top 1, words in your new language. Like an athletic boot camp, I conquered 1, of the easiest, highest frequency words. I used Quizlet flashcards. It helps hugely to learn the high frequency words first: 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. For fun, I looked at a lot of lyrics in translation — they are different. I found they were quite different. The vowels are really complex in Swedish — and there are hard and soft versions. This explains the unique second upturn in many words and gives the language its musical lilt.
Learning grammar rules helped me distinguish words by their endings and thus significantly help with reading comprehension: This takes some getting used to. Verbs are actually easier than English: Adjectives have endings that match their nouns based on en or ett. Adverbs never change — thank goodness something is static.