You’ve probably guessed by now that in order to learn Swedish, you don’t just sign up to a class and expect the teacher to do the job for you. The only one who can teach you Swedish is you. Don’t get me wrong; a teacher can help. A teacher can inspire and guide you, but you have to do the work. You’ve already realised this – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this – and that’s good. So how do you actually do it, how do you learn Swedish?
In this piece, I’ll share some insights that I’ve come to as an independent language learner. Presuming you want to learn Swedish on your own, online or offline, here are some tips on how to learn Swedish.
If you have no previous grasp of the Swedish language at all, but assuming you are an English speaker (native or fluent) you should get yourself a Teach Yourself-type book where you learn the very basics. This will give you the building blocks you need in order to “crack the code”. You can’t just jump into Swedish tv-series and books, not quite yet.
When you start using this first book and you start to pick up phrases and words in Swedish, you’ll probably feel elated for the first couple of weeks. It seems very easy and you experience daily improvement. The feeling of accomplishment you get when deciphering those first few sentences in Swedish is something you’ll probably long back to later, when the learning process gets more complex.
It’s sort of like entering a relationship. Everything seems possible in the beginning, your feelings are all over the place and there seem to be no obstacles. When it starts getting serious, however, you realise that there’s some real work to be done. It’s hard to commit. There will be times when you and Swedish don’t agree on things, and you might consider breaking up.
Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. The honeymoon is over, but real life is much more rewarding if you put in the work.
Many people abandon their language learning adventure when their inflated self-confidence of those first few successful weeks gets flattened by reality. You thought you kind of knew Swedish but realise you can’t understand what they’re saying in that movie you try to watch. Let alone having a conversation with a Swede, who annoyingly switches to English.
Don’t give up at this point. The key is exposure to the Swedish language, but exposure at your level. You need to listen to and read content that is adapted to non-natives. It is difficult to define exactly what the difficulty level should be in numbers or percentages, but let me put it like this: find content that you understand most of, but that is still challenging. This would mean that you understand the subject matter, you can kind of make out most sentences, but there are new words that you didn’t know. Once you find this type of content, you should listen to the same content over and over and try to notice what’s going on in the language. In an ideal scenario, you find Swedish content that is enjoyable and interesting, which makes it so much easier to stay focused. If the Swedish content is too difficult – i.e. you can’t make out what they’re talking about at all – you won’t be learning much. It needs to be intelligible to a certain degree.
Swedes, by the way, are rumored to be pretty good at English. That has very little to do with Swedish schools being particularly good (they aren’t extraordinary, by any stretch of the imagination. If that were the case, Swedes would be great also at German, French and Spanish, which we also take in school). No, the real reason why most Swedes speak English relatively fluently (yes, relatively) is that we watch all the movies and tv-series coming from the anglosphere with subtitles. We don’t use voice actors at all. I guess we probably learn enough in school so that we can proceed to learn from original content.
The way we all learn our first language is from context. We don’t have a previous language against which we compare the new one. “Dog” doesn’t mean “hund” or “perro”, it means that thing that has four legs and barks. In my experience, words that you learn straight from translation don’t stick as well as those you learn from the context. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consult a dictionary from time to time – it just means that when you do so, try to immediately place the word in context, so that you see its place in a sentence. The word doesn’t refer to the English equivalent – it refers to some concept or thing within the interplay of other Swedish words. Don’t just start cramming “the 1000 most common words in Swedish” or something like that – learn them by picking them up organically within meaningful content.
You know the thing where you suddenly decide you want to get fit, you get a gym card and you start working out for two hours a day and then give up after less than two weeks? This goes for any human endeavour. In order to make your learning sustainable, you need to set up a realistic goal. Half an hour a day of practicing Swedish will be a very good aim. Plus, it is the consistency, the mere fact of learning every day, that will work wonders for your ability to speak Swedish. It is my firm belief that half an hour a day is many times better than 3,5 hours every Saturday, although it is the same amount of time. If you also throw in occasional longer sessions (sure, do 3,5 hours if you can manage), then all the better. But don’t set goals that will keep you constantly disappointed with yourself.
While theoretical knowledge about a language can be helpful (I have nothing against grammar books), what you have to realise is that learning Swedish – or any other language – is more like acquiring a skill than it is accumulating knowledge. The grammar rules are descriptions of the language, not the language itself. Learning Swedish from a grammar book is like learning to ride a bicycle by reading a manual. There’s really only one way to learn how to ride a bicycle, and that’s by riding a bicycle.
Grammar books can be great for generating “aha-moments”, when you’re actively looking up a pattern that you really can’t figure out from just listening to and reading Swedish. Consult the grammar book but don’t be its slave.
When you know a language well, it is more like an unconscious, intuitive process than a conscious one. This is probably what you had in mind when you first decided to learn Swedish: you imagined yourself picking up a conversation with a Swede and the words just come out, you’re joking around, you’re not translating in your head, you’re just naturally speaking Swedish.
To get to this level, as I said, you need a lot of exposure to the Swedish language at the right level. And once you start stumbling into real conversations, don’t fear making mistakes. Language is not about exhibiting your eloquence – it’s about, well, communication. If you can make yourself understood and also understand what the other person is saying, then that’s great. If you’re focusing on your mistakes, focusing on trying to speak perfectly, using grammar correctly, it will stifle your development. Be kind to yourself.