5 Tips To Learn Swedish (From A Swedish Polyglot)
Swedish is an easier language to learn than you might think — these 5 tips from a genuine Swede will make it even easier to start speaking it.
Swedish is one of the easier languages for an English native speaker to learn, with a lot of vocabulary and grammar in common. Still, there are some tricky components to Swedish, from the melodic rhythm to complicated compounds; but don’t despair — we are here to help with these five super useful tips!
1. En or ett?
The Swedish articles “en" and “ett" can be confusing. Why is one fruit called en banan but the other ett äpple — and why is it sometimes bananen and äpplet?
First of all, it’s a bit tricky that the equivalent of “the," which is what we call the definite article, is built into the words as a suffix. So “a banana" is en banan but “the banana" is bananen. Seems strange at first, but you get used to adding the endings pretty quickly.
Now to the tricky part: How do you know if a word is an en-word or an ett-word? Swedish doesn’t have a semantic gender system like the Romance languages, where a man is masculine and a woman is feminine. Instead, both man and kvinna (woman) are en-words. Barn (child), however, is an ett-word! How come?
It helps to know a bit of the history behind the Swedish grammatical genders. More than 700 years ago, Swedish had a system much like German, with three genders: feminine, masculine and neuter. Over time, the masculine and feminine melted together and became the common gender, the en-words, which now counts for more than 75% of the nouns.
There really is no watertight way of knowing whether a word is en or ett (except for the statistically sound assumption that most of them will be en-words). However, there are a couple rules of thumb. If a noun is used for a person or an animal, there is a really good chance that it’s an en-word (barn being one of the few exceptions — we all love exceptions, don’t we?). The same goes if the word ends in -ing or -are; here, you can bet your savings that the word takes the article en. But the best tip? You’ve heard it before and it’s exactly as unexciting as it is true: Always learn new words together with their article!
2. It’s not said as it’s spelled — or the other way around
Even with your first words and phrases, like jag (I), det är (it is) or god morgon (good morning), you will notice, and learn, something which will help you a lot when learning Swedish: not all letters are actually pronounced. The “g" in jag is often omitted in spoken Swedish, det and är melt together to a “de-e" and god morgon sounds more like “gomorron." Since, first and foremost, you probably want to speak Swedish and not only read and spell it, this is a good tip to integrate these so-called reductions into your new language right away. Because they exist for a reason! We often say, “This word is not pronounced as it is spelled" — when it is actually more accurate the other way around: “This word is not spelled as it is pronounced." Pronunciation follows a more logical and easier set of rules than writing: it follows the rules of nature (acoustics and anatomy), whereas spelling is, as we all know, very arbitrary. The principle of the many omitted letters in Swedish is quite logical; if skipping a letter or two makes it easier to say something, it will probably happen. Because it is virtually impossible to say all the consonants in the end of fantastiskt (fantastic), we just say “fantastist."
Another example of how spelling makes Swedish seem harder is the many ways in which a certain sound can be spelled. Take the “sh" sound for example: it can be spelled “tj," “k," “kj" and “sh." This is bad news for spelling but good news for speaking! You just have to learn one sound for all those spellings. And whenever you want to scold Swedish for not being pronounced as it is written, just think about the fact that, according to bizarre English spelling conventions, ghoti would be pronounced “fish."
3. Sing it!
You often hear people say that Swedish is a melodic, singing language. The melody is said to go up and down and up again, like when you warm up your voice. A good tip for speaking Swedish is to put on your very best Welsh accent. Then again, if you are as clueless as I am when it comes to Welsh, getting the Swedish rhythm right can be tricky — but listening to and imitating Swedes will help you a lot. Even listening to a Swedish podcast or radio show without really understanding much can be useful, as you can get a feel for the prosody (that’s a fancy linguistic term for everything that affects how a language sounds). Listen and try to find a rhythm; which words in a sentence are stressed, which syllables within the words are stressed? This also goes for your first phrases, like introducing yourself, ordering coffee or asking for the way to the ABBA museum: If you pay attention to how long the syllables are, where the stresses lie and how the rhythm goes, it will help you a lot.
Also helpful is knowing how to pronounce the vowels correctly. Once you know them, you will sound very Swedish! Swedish has nine vowels and each of them has a long and a short version. The long, open A and the long U are two of the trickier ones. Actually, the U-sound might be the most characteristic Swedish sound altogether — if you listen to the Swedish chef, the U-sound is present in almost every second “word" of his (he might not be the best Swede to imitate, though…).
4. The nurse and the sick sister, or: Wait, this word has 32 letters!
Ah, the beauty of compound words! Looking around my office, I see a miniatyrplastfläkt, a språkträdsteckning and a rullgardinsupphängningsanordning — in other words, a plastic miniature fan, a drawing of the Indo-European language tree and an arrangement on which the window blinds hang. These are words you won’t find in a dictionary, and maybe I’m the first one to ever write them — but they still exist!
Swedish is one of those languages where you can form very long words just by gluing them onto each other. This might seem frightening at first, but just think of how exciting your first game of Swedish Scrabble will be! Also, they are perfectly logical — you just have to know where to separate the compounds, what the individual words mean and how they relate to each other. You see, the last part is the part that tells you what it really is, while the first part tells you what kind it is. So komjölk is cow’s milk (answering the question “what kind of milk?"), but mjölkko is the type of cow that we use for getting milk (answering the question “what kind of cow?").
The more Swedish you learn, the more you will realize that even very common words are, in fact, compound words — a realization that might make it easier for you to remember them! For example, a vegetable is called grönsak, literally green thing, sandwich is called smörgås, literally butter goose and grandchild is called barnbarn, literally child-child. The question of why, however, is another, and longer, story.
One tricky speciality that Swedish has to offer is that a compound word can mean something completely different from the two words that it contains. This can be difficult for learners of Swedish (and even Swedes struggle with it). For example, a nurse is colloquially called a sjuksyster, but a sjuk syster means “sick sister." Or, if you go to the supermarket to buy chicken liver (kycklinglever), you’d be startled by a sign declaring “chicken is alive" (kyckling lever). Or, if you describe yourself as “röd hårig" instead of rödhårig on your online dating profile, it will read as "red and hairy" instead of "red-haired."
5. Now off you go! And start with the easy part
I’m saving the best news for last. If you are interested in learning Swedish, you probably already know the major selling point of the Scandinavian languages: no verb conjugation! Every verb is the same, regardless of person, so “am," “are" and “is" all translate to är. This means that you’re up for a really easy start and that you’ll be able to express a lot with little effort, as your brain won’t catch fire from the personal pronouns you’d have to start rattling off to get to the right verb form (yes, I have studied Spanish). I’ll even be so kind as to give you your first verbs right away.
är (am/are/is) as in “Jag är glad." (I’m happy.)
heter (am/are/is called) as in “Jag heter Elin." (I’m called Elin.)
kommer (come/comes) as in “Jag kommer från Sverige." (I come from Sweden.)
bor (live/lives) as in “Jag bor i Stockholm." (I live in Stockholm.)
pratar (speak/speaks) as in “Jag pratar engelska." (I speak English.)
Easy as a pancake, as we say in Swedish! To sum it up: Imitate the Swedes to find the rhythm and melody (perhaps without us noticing), don’t be confused by long words and the fact that spelling doesn’t always match the colloquial pronunciation and learn new words with their respective articles (or you will have problems later — yes, I have studied German before).