Expat Adventures

Learning Swedish Chronicles, pt. 1

My mom is in Sweden! She will be staying with us for the first three months of baby’s life to help out around the apartment and get to know her new grandbaby (it’s tough living 4000 miles away!). In addition, before she retired, she worked as a breastfeeding expert, and so we will basically have a live-in lactation consultant!

When I tell people that she will be here for so long, most people respond with either “You’re crazy”, “You’re brave”, or some combination of the two. Which honestly surprises me. We don’t have a perfect relationship, and yes, all three of us (my husband, my mom, and I) expect there to be annoyances on all sides. But overall, my husband and I are simply grateful that she is able to take this time to help us through the early months.

I digress, however. The point of this post is that I am currently sitting at the kitchen table with Mom as she works her way through her daily Duolingo exercises. And it has me thinking about when I first moved here and started learning Swedish myself.

At this point, I’ve lived in Sweden for a total of just over 2.5 years, though not consecutively. I am by no means fluent, but I can speak quite well, and understand even more. Sweden offers free Svenskundervisning för Invandrare (“Swedish For Immigrants” or simply SFI) to all new immigrants to give them a kickstart in learning the language, and this helped me a lot in building a solid base.

But the course does not leave one fluent, and so my language development continued self-guided. Here are a few tips and tricks I came across or developed that really helped me out.

**Disclaimer: I realize most people reading this are not in the same position I am. These tips do require a good basic understanding of a language as well as consistently being around people who are native in that language, and will probably not help you if you are a beginner, or living in a place where the language you wish to learn is not spoken by the populace. I hope you still enjoy this post, however!

Learn From Mistakes

This has to be my number one real-life learning technique, and one I had never thought of before living in another country. While it is true that learning from your own mistakes is always good advice, what I actually mean with this is learning from others’ mistakes. As I was told when first coming here, almost everyone speaks English, and I’ve found this to be true throughout Europe at least; English is definitely the lingua franca of the Western world.

That being said, most people I meet here are by no means fluent in English. And just like I still do with Swedish, most people are translating in their heads as they are speaking English, so some sentences and phrases may come out sounding awkward due to differences of grammar and word choice. Once I had enough knowledge of Swedish, I found these “mistakes” to be a practical tool in learning some of the nuances and subtle differences between the two languages.

I find it most useful in prepositions. For instance, my husband, though quite fluent in English, will still occasionally say “…on the evening,” or “…at the evening,” instead of “…in the evening.” This is because the phrase in Swedish is “…på kvällen,” and “på” is usually used in place of “on” or “at.” So I soon realized that I was incorrectly saying “…i kvällen,” and that the Swedish phrase is “…på kvällen.”

For a more humorous example: Swedes love to talk about the weather. It is the one form of “small talk” that they seem to get into, though with the strong farming, gardening, and overall outdoors culture they have, it’s often more practical than superficial. In any case, it was weird to me in the beginning, when every time there was a gray, rainy day, my husband or his friends would say to me “What boring weather, isn’t it?” Not necessarily how I’d choose to say it, but sure, not much is going on. Boring weather.

But they would even say it on days when it was storming! The first time my husband mentioned the boring weather, and I looked outside at the night-black clouds, the wind howling through the trees, blowing the rain nearly horizontally against the window, it finally clicked. I had just learned that the word “tråkig/t” means “boring,” (as in, “a boring book” = “en tråkig bok”). So I asked him “Would you say ‘tråkigt väder’ in Swedish?” and he nodded. So apparently, “tråkig/t” can also mean “gloomy.”

Bring on the Subtitles

Netflix is available in many countries at this point, but that doesn’t mean that all of those countries have produced movies or TV series in their native language. However, I will almost guarantee that a specific country will offer subtitles in their language. Many of the kids’ movies have been dubbed into various languages, but even if a show is only available in English sound, try turning on the appropriate subtitles. It is a great vocabulary builder, and after awhile, you can even start challenging yourself by catching the mistakes made (translating the word “bare” instead of “bear”, etc).

The only downside with this is that it doesn’t help with pronunciation. The number of times I’ve said some variation of “I know there’s a word that means (fill in the blank), and that it begins with a v and has a k in it somewhere, but I can’t remember what it is and I really don’t know how to say it anyways,” is quite large. The number of times my husband can guess what word I mean from that description is frankly astonishing.

Revert back to childhood

…in your book choices at least. This is definitely a more advanced technique, but recently I’ve begun buying/borrowing Swedish language versions of my favorite books. This works best with books that you have read since childhood, and may even have parts of it memorized. For our first anniversary, my husband gave me a Swedish copy of “The Hobbit,” knowing that I can more or less recite the first paragraph in English by heart. This was a few years ago, when I was less knowledgeable in Swedish, but I still loved slowly going through that book, with my tattered, dog-eared English edition by my side, visiting my old friends with new vocabulary. As an added perk, it helped me pick up on some of the wordplay Tolkien used that I had never caught on to before.

Do Hobbits speak Swedish?

Much to say, I’ve loved my Swedish language journey so far. It is a fascinating language that has helped me become better acquainted with my own native English. What about you? If you have a second (or third, or fourth…) language, what tips do you have for learning a new language?

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