It’s all Swedish to me

When I was much younger, my older brother went on an Erasmus exchange to Bilbao for 6 months and came back speaking fluent Basque. Therefore, after a year and a half in Stockholm I imagined that I would be at least be conversational in Swedish. Well, in fact, no.

There are many reasons for this.

If I’m feeling self-indulgent I tend to blame Sweden. Here are my grievances:

  1. The Swedes. I mean, why do they have to speak such perfect English? Why didn’t they grow up with badly-dubbed films like the French and Germans? I’m guessing that one masters a language rapidly when it is the only form of communication with the outside world. In fact, my former post-doc told me she learned Swedish quite fast as a PhD student since she lived with an older woman who spoke only Swedish. So, here is a nice life hack – find one of the rare Swedes who don’t speak any English and move into their house (which also solves any accommodation problems you might have – two birds, one stoneJ).
  1. The Swedish language. First of all, Swedish is very different from my native English or French. Of course, they have ‘borrowed’ quite a few words from both languages, but they’ve disguised them so well with their å and ö letters that I can barely recognize them. Take fåtölj (fauteuil: armchair) or adjö (adieu: goodbye forever) for examples. The useful pre-requisite language to know, as I have discerned through my international social group, is German. The vocabularies of the two languages overlap quite a bit, along with the vexatious tendency to make torturously long words. The sentence constructions are also comparable. Nonetheless, we can all agree on how hard it is to master Swedish pronunciation. I have yet to utter anything sounding remotely like the Swedish ‘sj’ (as in ‘sju’). Sigh. What makes Swedish beautiful but all the more challenging is its melody. The rise and fall in tone of words follow a rhythm which remains elusive to me. I have been known to imitate subway and bus stop announcements in a mocking, sing-song voice…. mostly out of jealousy laced with despair. There is one silver lining – my former lab partners have told me that if I speak Swedish with a French accent, I can actually pull off a pretty authentic sound. Enfin! French has its uses.

Of course I could also blame myself for my lack of Swedish skills.

The thing is, Swedish language acquisition has been paradoxical for me. I have learned more Swedish and been more exposed to Swedish conversation outside the country than inside it. This past summer, I worked two hours a day on Swedish in France. I used the duolingo App for the vocabulary and a textbook for grammar rules. Then, I moved back to Sweden in late August. Suddenly, ‘learning Swedish fell to the bottom of my priority list.

Despite these substantial distractions, I still find ways to practice. I attend language@KI classes every Monday. These are evening classes organized by the International Committee  at Karolinska and taught by Swedish students. The atmosphere is fun and relaxed and provides you with routine. I’ve also made myself whatsapp only in Swedish with one of my swedish friends . More importantly, I purchased some Swedish word magnets (but lack the fridge) :p . Perhaps my process resembles a cautionary tale more than an inspiring success story. So, on that note I’d like to refer you to Radek, who has graduated from SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) to now start SAS (Swedish As a Second Language) doesn’t let any vocabulary issues or pronunciation stop him! And you shouldn’t let it either!


3 thoughts on “It’s all Swedish to me

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