Swedish grammarSwedish language

Why the Swedish Language is hard

The last few days I’ve been in reflection.

About life in general, life in Sweden, and finding my place here.

When it comes to settling into Sweden, one thing that I’m constantly struggling with is the Swedish language.

Usually when Swedes ask me if the Swedish language is hard, and generally I say “no”. Grammatically, for an English speaker, Swedish is not that bad. A lot of words are similar, you just need to say it with a Swedish accent. Verb conjugation is so simple it makes me want to laugh, as they conjugate verbs just once. So “is”, “am”, and “are” are all one word in Swedish (är). And that is a irregular verb! The regular verbs, you just add an “r” at the end of it, and you are conjugated!

Swedish languageSure, words aren’t always pronounced as you think they should be, but that is the same with English. And sure, there are exceptions here and there, but that is the same in most languages. And yes, plurals in Swedish are completely out of control, but really, that is the hardest thing one needs to learn in Swedish.

After learning Czech, Swedish is, grammatically, very simple.

So if Swedish is so easy, why after a year and a half of living here, am I not speaking better Swedish?

Why the Swedish Language is Hard

1. Most Swedes speak really good English.

If English is your native language, you are in trouble. You will find so many Swedes that speak English very well. One of the greatest things about the Czech Republic is that most Czechs do not speak English very well. So 89% of the time you were forced into using your bad Czech to try to communicate with someone. And when someone did speak English, it was usually quite bad, so your bad Czech was not so embarrassing.

So when you are first speaking Swedish, you can be sure that their English is going to be much better than your Swedish. And you can expect people to switch to English quite quickly if they don’t understand you. You can also expect, if you ask someone “Vad betyder det?” or “Vad är det?” or “Jag förstår inte” that instead of explaining it to you in Swedish, the Swede will just tell you in English.

2. Prepare to say foolish things.

To learn any new language you must be prepared to make a fool out of yourself. It cannot be avoided. If you are learning to speak a foreign language, there will, without a doubt, be times where you say something foolish. Probably more often then you would like. People will laugh, because it is funny. And the hardest part about this is, the better you get at the language the more comfortable people feel to laugh!

When I was learning Czech, I was 20. I was already a bit of a fool, and didn’t mind making more of a fool out of myself. But now I’m 29. I don’t like being a fool as much. Its embarrassing. And I find it harder to use my Swedish because of this. Either that, or I picked up the Czech mentality of being shy when it comes to speaking a foreign language.

3. A lot of foreigners learn Swedish.

This is probably a deep psychological problem that I have, but the fact that so many foreigners speak Swedish, to me, makes it far less “cool” when I learn Swedish.

Nobody learns Czech. There are some expats in the Czech Republic who live there for 10 years and can’t say much due to the complexity of the language. So when a young American like me starts speaking Czech, Czechs are immediately impressed. Why in the world would I take the time to learn their complex language? And an American as well!

There are so many foreigners who live in Sweden and speak Swedish. Sweden seems to be obsessed with importing more and more people here, and they give great (or not so great, depending on who you speak to) resources for learning the language. So it is easy to find British, German, Dutch, etc etc etc, who live here, even in Skellefteå, for 10 years and speak perfect or near perfect Swedish. Even in this small town it is not impressive that you know Swedish. Big whooping deal, most of the other foreigners speak Swedish too.

A Swede has never said this to me, which is probably why it is more my issue than anything else, but I feel when I speak Swedish its “yawn, another foreigner learning our language.” I don’t like to make people yawn.

4. TV is in English

Whenever we watched anything in the Czech Republic on TV, it was dubbed. It was great when I was sick, I would lay around the house, watch TV, and practice my Czech at the same time!

We don’t have a TV ourselves, but here when we do go to a friends house to watch TV, most of the shows are in English! Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, Grimm, etc, all have subtitles. Whole channels like MTV, Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet are in English. It is so easy to watch a show in English. Sure, you can read the Swedish subtitles when watching a show in English. But it isn’t the same as having to listen to Swedish and try to figure out what they are saying.

 

These are my main problems when learning Swedish. Of course, there are solutions to some of these problems. So next week, I will write some tips for learning Swedish!

What do you find hard about the Swedish language specifically, or learning a foreign language generally?

26 Comments

  1. Youma
    November 28, 2011 at 03:01 — Reply

    Hard to imagine living in a country more than a few years and not knowing the language, seems like such a handicap.

    • November 28, 2011 at 14:16 — Reply

      Yes, it generally is but I think English speakers get away with it much more than not because English is such an international language. I know in Prague there were plenty of English speakers who lived there 10 years and couldn’t speak Czech well. And that is a country where most of the population can’t speak very good English!

  2. Sebastian Mets Wigenborg
    November 28, 2011 at 23:22 — Reply

    For those of you who don’t understand Swedish. Try google translate 🙂

    Bara för att jag kan, så kommer jag att skriva på svenska. Och jag tror då du nyligen skrivit att vi talar för lite svenska i Sverige. I alla fall på TV och så, så kanske en svensk kommentar glädja dig 🙂

    Otroligt trevlig läsning till att börja med! Hittade denna hemsida då jag, som svensk, letade efter recept på lussebullar. Tänkte bara dela med av ett tips vart du kan finna svenska att träna på, och det är Radio. Mycket radiokanaler spelar musik, även det på engelska. Men leta upp P1, P2 eller sådana radiokanaler. Där pratar de väldigt mycket. Tyvärr vet jag inte frekvens de ligger på i Skellefteå. Men ska nog google kunna svara på!

    Själv är jag bosatt i Glasgow, Skottland. Är dock ifrån Eskilstuna, en bit väster om Stockholm. Men har faktiskt en vän här som är från Skellefteå.

    Nu ska jag bläddra runt på sidan och läsa om det vackra landet Sverige! 🙂

    • November 29, 2011 at 16:09 — Reply

      Lussebullar är jättegott! Ja, radio är ganska bra för att träna svenska. Man kan lyssna gratis på http://sverigesradio.se. Och det är rätt att på TV det finns jättemycket engelska. Men i svensk språket också finns många engelska uttryck.

      Nu ska jag skriva (på engleska) någon tips man kan använda att träna svenska. Kanska nästa vecka ska jag baka lussebullar! 😀

      • Vaiche
        May 7, 2013 at 09:39 — Reply

        Honestly, whenever me or someone I know hear a native english speaker speak flawless Swedish, we are immidiately impressed. Native English speakers who actually take their time to learn Swedish is rare. Your swedish comments impresses me, even though I see some grammatical mistakes.

        I am a native Swede.

  3. […] Why the Swedish Language is hard […]

  4. KR
    November 30, 2011 at 10:36 — Reply

    I think I can put your mind at ease concerning your 3rd point. As a Swede, I’m always impressed by native English speakers making the effort to learn our language when they could quite easily get along just using English. No yawns from me, I assure you.

    • November 30, 2011 at 13:51 — Reply

      Thanks! It does help 🙂 I definitely should speak more Swedish than I do, and I have to say writing these posts makes me look at my own Swedish use and how I can improve! 🙂

  5. Constanza
    December 5, 2011 at 03:47 — Reply

    Interesting, I am learning Swedish by myself, my first language is Spanish and I think my English is pretty good. I love swedish, I love sauna, I love mead…and I fell in love with Stockholm, specially it architecture. So I am learning Swedish no matter how hard it be, or how long it takes me, because next time I go there I could understand what people say, and hopefully read the news paper and be able to fully understand. Please, does anyone knows a good link where I could learn this awsome and beautiful language for free. I took lesson one from Pimsleur, which is very good, but as I have another expenses to take care off now, I which I could find a free of charge one.
    Tack sa mycket (with the dot over sa ;))…

    • December 5, 2011 at 07:40 — Reply

      Yes! There is a section on the site that shows all the places you can learn for free, including some exercises put together by the Swedish government for foreigners. http://www.swedishfreak.com/swedish-language/learn-for-free/ I think you can easily learn the whole language from those links. Its written and oral exercises, very useful 🙂 Tomorrow I will write another post for some tips for learning in general, so stay tuned!

    • Treetopps
      March 3, 2017 at 14:05 — Reply

      Duolingo is good, I am a brit learning Swedish and this site has helped.

  6. Rachna
    January 24, 2012 at 16:28 — Reply

    I just had a chance to visit Swedishfreak.com and go through blogs. I must say your website and blogs give an insight to Swedish culture and the information mentioned here is really helpful for the travelers to Sweden.

  7. November 24, 2012 at 09:35 — Reply

    Hej! I am Gül. I live in Sweden since more than one year and I still can not understand Swedish perfect. So I am so happy to see I am not alone 🙂 I totally agree that grammar is not so hard except the plurals. I think the pronunciation is the hardest thing when learning Swedish.

    First I had seen it as the biggest benefit to be able watch my favorite TV Shows with Swedish Subtitles. But then I understood that I should really try the opposite more. One Swedish friend had told me that “Language is to speak, you should try to speak more, you can never learn it without trying it” I think he was totally right. But my reply was “Talking is not a problem, I can hope the others to understand what I say but what if I can not understand and respond them simultaneously?” This is why I usually spoke English for a long time. It is not hard when you feel yourself more confident in another language and your audience know that language already better than you. But actually I did wrong.

    Now I listen to TV and Radio “in Swedish” more and always start conversations in Swedish. If I don’t understand what they say, they already repeat it slowly or more simple. I should forget that I can speak English, otherwise I will keep talking “even”to that Swedish friend always in English.

  8. February 2, 2013 at 04:22 — Reply

    To successfully learn any foreign language, it is imperative to get over that shyness and fear of being embarassed. Back and forth conversation is the only way to become confident and fluent.

    • February 2, 2013 at 04:27 — Reply

      Very true! And if they don’t, just refuse to speak English with them!

  9. Saturn
    March 16, 2013 at 19:36 — Reply

    I understand what you mean about wanting to seem ‘cool’ and impress people with your language skills. I think native English speakers also expect extra kudos for learning foreign languages, because no one really expects us to do it. I think this is for two reasons. One is the obvious reason that English is the international language. The other is that English lacks much of the complex formal grammar found in many languages, and so people might be surprised to see that we have got our heads round something they imagine to be so complicated and alien to us. As you say Swedish grammar is not much more complex than that of English, and in some aspects simpler, so this could be another reason it doesn’t seem so appealing to bother learning it.

    I am a British native English speaker and I studied German and lived there for a while. I imagine my experience was somewhere in between your experiences of The Czech Republic and Sweden. The Germans tend to speak English reasonably well, but nowhere near as well as the Scandinavians. I imagine they speak it better than the average Czech, although I don’t know. But it would make sense. German and English are much more closely related than Czech and English, and they do dub their TV, so no shows are left in English. For the first month or so, they all wanted to use the opportunity to practise their English, and so I didn’t speak much German initially. However after that the novelty seemed to wear off and they spoke to me in German most of the time. This was when I learnt German.

    I always felt there was some kudos for having learnt German reasonably well as a native English speaker. The Germans themselves certainly deem their mother tongue to be extremely difficult, and it’s true that the formal grammar is much more complex than that of English, with cases, declensions, more verb forms etc. However I imagine it’s far less complex in this respect than many other languages, for example while the four cases are difficult for a native English speaker to grasp initially, due to our paltry two case system, some languages have far more cases than this. The other thing is it’s a very logical language, with a much more consistent structure than English, so once you do get to grips with the basic grammar it no longer seems that hard.

    I do admit that if I was considering learning another language I certainly wouldn’t go for Swedish for the very reason that I don’t perceive it to be as much of a challenge as most other languages.

    • March 18, 2013 at 19:03 — Reply

      The nice thing about the language being easy is that you can learn in quickly! 🙂

  10. Teaflax
    June 22, 2015 at 22:44 — Reply

    Unfortunately, few people – Swedish or otherwise – seem aware of the fact that Swedish is pretty much the only *tonal* Indoeuropan language.

    It is much MUCH more important to get the melody and double stresses right than it is to learn how to pronounce sj/sk/sh or åäö.

    But almost no one knows this, so it is hardly ever taught to foreigners wanting to learn the language. That makes is much harder on those who want to try (and exceptionally hard for those who do not have a musical ear).

  11. Brian
    January 18, 2016 at 03:34 — Reply

    I keep hearing how Swedes “Love to speak english”. Can I add a thought. I also believe Swedes disdain hearing their language slaughtered. They would much rather politely reveal their master of your language as opposed to the butchering of theirs.

    • January 18, 2016 at 11:47 — Reply

      It is easier to speak English. I don’t think they have a disdain for hearing their language slaughtered. You have to butcher a language while you learn it. Have you ever heard little kids speak? They aren’t very good at it.

      I personally don’t think the Swedes are that egotistical about knowing English. Could be wrong though.

  12. Luiz
    May 4, 2016 at 02:12 — Reply

    This post could have been more properly entitled, “Why it was personally difficult for me to learn Swedish” or something along those lines. The notion that you have to live in a country in order to master any language is a myth. The only things that matter are: the amount of time one’s going to dedicate to one’s studies; one’s personal, natural ability to acquire new languages; and how complex that language is, particularly in comparison to one’s own native tongue. While practising a second language, especially with native speakers, is always welcome, it is by no means essential to one’s mastery of it.

    From a grammatical point of view, Swedish is very similar to English. So Swedish could be considered a somewhat easy language to learn (when it comes to grammar) for someone whose first language is English; but harder for someone whose first language is, say, Japanese. Conversely, it is not so difficult to learn Spanish if one’s first language is Portuguese, but it would be harder for someone whose first language is English to learn it.

    So the statement “Swedish is hard” is subjective to what language(s) the person who intends to learn Swedish knows. All the points you made were personal, rather than empirical.

  13. Robert
    December 19, 2016 at 19:02 — Reply

    Wow. Your experiences with the Swedish language in Sweden are completely the opposite of mine! I’m an American expat who works in Stockholm (and lived there for two years) and lives in Uppsala (four years now). My Swedish is awful and when I try to speak it NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE, ever bails me out by speaking English to me instead! And whenever I ask if they can speak English they say “No”.

    I work for an American company and 75% of my co-workers are from the U.S. or U.K. so we only speak English in the office, but whenever I venture into the streets of Stockholm or even in the university town of Uppsala (where, ironically, all the courses are taught in English only) no one has the patience to try to understand my sub-par Swedish.

    Things must be dramatically different wherever you lived here.

    • January 10, 2017 at 12:53 — Reply

      You know what, it could have been the location. I bet you there are more expats down south than up north, so they are tired of hearing English and expect more out of you. Or use English so much with people who don’t bother to learn Swedish that they don’t mind speaking their native language.

      I bet up in Norrland they were just excited to speak English with an American. How mean am I?

  14. Lamont
    February 2, 2017 at 04:19 — Reply

    Good to know, thanks! If I’m in Sweden, I’m just going to learn the phrase “Please speak Swedish with me, as I was on a plan for 20 hours to get here, but you can speak English almost anywhere.”

    I can’t find a way on your site to contact you privately, so I’ll say it here but please don’t think I’m just being a jerk – I’m genuinely just trying to telp. Since your posts are all about language etc (Swedish I know, but still) – there is a little mistake in your English that I’ve noticed you make a few times. You write “then” when you mean “than”. Than is a comparison word like “Their English is better than your Swedish.” – Then is a time reference word. “We will go to the shops and then go to the game.”
    People have different grammar and spelling bugs that annoy them and other ones that don’t annoy them so much, and personally “then” in place of “than” is really annoying for me 🙁 – But I only go out of my way to pick you up on it because you right about language stuff so you might want to know (even if they’re just typos!) especially if you were writing about the Swedish words “sedan” and “än”.

    • February 3, 2017 at 13:21 — Reply

      No, thank you! I’m healing from surgery and on a lot of medications, so I’m blaming any errors I make on that 🙂 I know I get confused then&than in my head and sometimes look it up. I must have just missed it recently 🙂

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The Author

SwedishFreak

SwedishFreak

Hilary lived two years in Norrland, Sweden (Northern Sweden) and fell in love with the country. While she now lives in a place that is the complete opposite of Sweden (Arizona), she constantly tries to bring Sweden to the desert.