8 Struggles Swedish Learners Understand All Too Well

Are you “learning Swedish,” or are you suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?
frustrated guy with his head down on his desk swedish learners

On paper, Swedish learners don’t have much to complain about. Especially if they’re native English speakers. According to Babbel’s internal ranking system, Swedish is actually the second easiest language for English speakers to learn, thanks in large part to tons of cognates shared between the languages. (Cognates are words that both sound similar and stem from the same linguistic ancestors. Seeing as English and Swedish both belong to the Germanic family, this makes lots of sense.) On top of that, Swedish has relatively simple grammar rules. Did we mention there’s no verb conjugation?

Tell that to a Swedish learner trying to order a beer (öl) without alarming the bartender, though. Assuming they get their imperial stout and not an ambulance ride to the nearest hospital, then they still have to reckon with complicated compound words, suspiciously melodic pronunciation and the sinking realization that they’ll probably never sound truly Swedish until they develop the jaw muscles of steel required to eat Swedish candy.

Here are eight struggles all Swedish learners know intimately well.

8 Battles Swedish Learners Must Wage

1. To en or to ett…that is the question

At first glance, you might assume that the articles that come before nouns are the same as the grammatical gender you encountered in your Spanish or French lessons growing up. You’re wrong. What used to be the masculine and feminine in Sweden have actually melded together to become the common gender, which goes with en. There was once a third gender too, the neuter. Basically, there are no airtight rules that will help you figure out when to use en or ett. You just have to memorize them all. Bet you never thought you’d have to overthink the word “the” this much in your life.

2. Vowels. That’s it, that’s the sentence

So, the bad news is there’s more vowels than you’re probably used to. Nine, actually. And the even more bad news is that each vowel has at least two pronunciations. Assuming you even have 18 subtly different vowel sounds you’re capable of producing, then you’ll also have to figure out when to use the short or long version. All you have to remember is that you use the short vowel when it appears before two consonants or before a M or N in the final, unstressed syllable of the word, and you use the long vowel before one consonant or in a one-syllable word ending with a vowel. Simple stuff, really.

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3. Slurring your speech is good, actually

Wow, and you thought spelling was supposed to be literal? No one actually pronounces those letters. You know the ones. And good luck trying to enunciate it all clearly. God morgon? More like gomorron. Don’t look so insulted.

4. There are like four different spellings for the sound “sh”

Although this does increase the likelihood that you’ll pronounce things correctly if you just guess that every weird letter combination is “sh,” it doesn’t help lessen your confusion when you’re trying to read a sign and ask for directions. Or have critical menu-related discussions with your waiter. You might just have to be okay with everyone thinking you have a lisp for the first few months. And that’s perfectly okay.

5. There are also like five different spellings for the sound “sj”

At least “sh” is easy to pronounce. “Sj” is everywhere, and it doesn’t sound like any sound you’ve ever produced naturally on your own. To make things more fun for you, the Swedish rolling “r,” the “ö,” and the “g” all actually kind of sound like that too.

6. What is this, consonant soup?

Warning: words on the page are less threatening than they appear. Still, try to remember that when you’re confronted with a word like västkustsk.

7. What is this, compound word soup?

Swedish, like German, is a building-block language. Meaning there’s no end to the variety of 32-letter words you can create by combining shorter words. Compound words are both a beautiful and terrifying thing to behold. For instance: Nordvästersjökustartilleriflygspaningssimulatoranläggningsmaterielunderhållsuppföljningssystemdiskussionsinläggsförberedelsearbeten. Oh, and don’t assume you can just clump words together willy-nilly. Compound words can be greater than the sum of their parts. A nurse is a sjuksyster. But sjuk syster just means “sick sister.”

8. Try using bra (good), fart (speed) and slut (end) in everyday speech with a straight face.

You’ll get used to it.

When in doubt, take more Swedish lessons.
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