Learning Swedish in a country where everybody speaks English better than you do

I‘m currently on a semester abroad in Stockholm, Sweden. As I am a master’s student, all the courses that I‘m attending are held in English. I was able to receive a room through the universities housing office. I have my own room (bathroom included) and I’m sharing a large kitchen with eleven other international students. In those aspects of my life English is needed, in the other part of Swedish is the dominant language, e.g. grocery shopping. Therefore I’m going to divide my analysis into two parts.

English

English is the main language that I’m using during my exchange. I was looking forward to improving my English also in everyday life situations and not just in the classroom. And indeed I can see an improvement in my ability to communicate in English during the almost four months that I have been here. As an example, I am constantly adding new words into my vocabulary. This includes everything from words describing me being in awe of something (“immaculate!”) to kitchen utensils such as the clingwrap. Furthermore, I realized that I am automatically more open when I talk to someone in English. I think this is due to the fact that I’m using English additionally to academic purposes mainly in situations when I’m traveling and meeting other people. This goes even so far that I think I can talk more openly about my feelings in English, even if it is a bit harder to articulate the nuances of them in another language. As I’m now using the language primarily to communicate with non-native speakers, I was worrying that my English would actually become worse. If the people I’m talking to use expressions which they directly translate from their native language, it might not be formally correct and wouldn’t make sense to a native speaker. But I’ve come to the conclusion that including some words and phrases into my vocabulary that are not necessarily part of the English language yet is actually how new words are formed and how languages can evolve. So one day an English speaker might know what I mean if I tell them “I only understand train station” when I didn’t understand a word of what they just said. 

Swedish

I started learning Swedish via an online course about two months before the start of my exchange semester. After the first two lessons I was so frustrated that it took me four weeks to even look at the material again. Growing up in Switzerland I was used to hearing a lot of Indo-European languages, mainly from the romance language branch but also some Slavic languages are frequently spoken in this country. But I hadn’t heard anyone talking Swedish before. Luckily the Swedish language is also part of the Germanic languages, so after the first struggles is realized that the two had a lot of words in common, and also that the sentence structure is very similar. The only major hurdle is the intonation, which is very important but completely different to any languages that I’ve learned so far. Since my arrival in Sweden I have been attending the Swedish course for international students once a week, where we mainly focus on grammar and writing. Additionally, I watch Swedish TV shows and movies (for educational purposes only of course) to get a better feeling for the language and to master the correct intonation. Whenever I go grocery shopping, I try to handle the small conversation that you have with the cashier in Swedish. To me it was important to focus on learning the key words for such a conversation first (such as “påse” for “paper bag”). But as soon as I they asked something I couldn’t understand I would start to sweat, but now I just ask them in Swedish to repeat it slowly once more. Mostly, they will switch into English as soon as they realize that I didn‘t understand them. This is in my opinion the biggest obstacle that you face when trying to learn Swedish from scratch whilst being in Sweden: everyone speaks English and to accommodate you they will immediately switch to it as soon as you struggle. To avoid that, you constantly need to insist on speaking Swedish, even if it is more uncomfortable for both parties. Another important point is to celebrate the small successes, such as being able to read advertisements or understanding the conversation you’ve overheard in the metro. 

A take away that can also be applied to other areas in life: it is important to recognize the mistakes you are making and to see the room still available for improvement, but you shouldn’t get paralyzed by the perfectionism that might hold you back.

Michèle Grindat

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