Teaching myself Swedish – my toughest student is myself

As many of you know, I moved to Sweden earlier this year. As a lot of you also know, the last three years I spent in Australia I was a high school teacher, teaching English, History, and a little bit of Maths from time to time. But despite teaching probably over a thousand students, I don’t think I have ever faced one as challenging as myself.

The bureaucracy behind me migrating to Sweden from Australia as a British (and therefore European) Citizen is complicated – I am allowed to be here, but to get access to all parts of Swedish society I need the person number. In my unusual situation, the only real way to get this number is by having a job (there are other ways but they involve obtaining papers that would be too hard and take too long to get). But to get a job at most places I need to know Swedish, and to do any of the proper Swedish courses, I need the person number, and to get the…well you can see this goes round and round to no avail.

Here comes the part where I teach myself. I’ve spent a few months looking online at difference websites to help learn Swedish. There’s a lot of, well, very average ones, to be honest. I can’t afford anything I need to pay for, as I need my money to live on until I have a job. But then my girlfriend came across a playlist on Spotify (normally a music streaming service, if you’re not familiar – it’s the main way people listen to music here in Sweden) that featured various Swedish lessons. We listened to the first one together, on the pronunciations of vowels, found it was pretty useful, and have decided to use these alongside a couple of resources I have to try and teach myself the language as best as possible.

Swedish alphabet highlight vowelsThere are some drawbacks. The first one is that it seems some of these lessons are conducted by people from Stockholm. The capital city of Sweden has a quite unique accent that is very different from the Halland accent (where I’m currently living), or any of the Northern and Southern accents of the country really. As a result, the lessons could almost be teaching me things wrong because the accent disguises what I’m supposed to be hearing, especially when it comes to vowels. It’s not that the Stockholm accent is wrong, but it sounds different and only someone well versed in the Swedish language could see how the correct word is just accented, if I’m making any sense at all.

The vowels themselves are another issue. There’s nine of them, for a start. The five in English, plus y is a vowel, and also all three letters unique to Swedish are vowels –  å, ä and ö, pronounced roughly as orr, ehh and err (there’s a bit more to it than that though). But whether or not the pronunciation of the vowel is long or short completely changes the meaning of the vowel, and in the case of two of them the following consonant also can affect the word and pronunciation. So, in total, 9 vowels and 22 pronunciations of those vowels, each of which can and do dramatically change the word you are saying. For example, tack and tak could be pronounced similarly, but one of these words is thanks and one is ceiling. So the different sounding a is what varies the word in speech.

It’s one thing to know these rules, but another challenge entirely to follow them when talking in Swedish. Apparently I’m doing okay, though, despite my serious issues rolling my r’s which often distorts the entire word I’m trying to say. I also need to slow myself down – I like to talk a lot and fast, and right now I just can’t do that while learning Swedish. I also have to be patient – I can be very impatient when learning new things, but I must ensure I don’t become frustrated with this whole process as I need to keep it up.

I’m going to invest a lot of time over the next couple of months pushing myself through the language as fast as I can, to increase my chances of getting a job so I can finally sort everything out and get on with living in my new home. I suspect as I learn more there’ll be funny things for me to tell back here, and I will try and blog as much as possible (although I am going travelling around the country next month so I may go quiet for a week or two).

If you’ve ever gone through anything like this, whether moving to a new country with a new language or just learning a language for the fun of it, I’d love to hear from you and hear about your experiences! Or you can just laugh at me about mine. It’s all good.

12 thoughts on “Teaching myself Swedish – my toughest student is myself

  1. Oh I get your struggles. Although it is normal for the Swiss people to learn at least 2 languages from the age of 10 latest, it is always a struggle to learn to pronounciation of words. I remember being so bad at English speaking in school because I just couldn’t understand the little tricks, until I lived in Australia for a few months, which helped heaps. So I guess you have the benefit of living there and having a girlfriend who speaks it fluently. Matt, give yourself some time, if you’re too hard on yourself you’ll lose interest and fun in learning the language. Once you’re a little more fluent you’ll be SO proud of yourself!! I promise! I am very looking up to you for learning such a language, SO different to English. And you’re having the issue of not being able to speak the r like they do in Sweden. So don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re doing such a great job!

    • Yeah this is true, and people I’ve met here who have spent time in other English speaking countries like Australia or England are much more confident with their English speaking than other Swedish people. But thank you, and you’re right, I have to not be too hard on myself – it’s exactly what my girlfriend keeps saying to me as well, that I’m doing well and I need to acknowledge that and take it slowly. I’ll be speaking semi-fluently in no time, I’m sure! 🙂

  2. I love spotify! Over here the library systems have Mango to learn online languages for free, maybe in Sweden too- I hear their libraries are leaps and bounds ahead of us. I learnt German from a Scot so my accent has an accent too. Good luck

    • Hmm it sounds silly but I hadn’t really considered the library, despite visiting it quite a lot (our local library is really impressive and a genuinely beautiful building – mostly glass sitting by a river, I couldn’t think of a better way to sit with a book). Spotify is fantastic too, isn’t it? I’ve discovered a lot of amazing music thanks to it!

  3. I had been leaving in Helsinki in 2011 for 4 months and I learnt a little bit of finish (and few things in swedish actually! hur mår du? hahah)
    I did the same with czech in Czech Republic. I’ve just think foreing languages (speacilally the wird ones) are amazing. I’m not fluent in any of those languages because i didin’t spent so much time there (4 months per country as i said) but even I’ve just learnt the basics of the two of them I can tell you:
    It might be frustrating at first, but you just need to keep trying , be patient and you will improve! You just need time :DDD

    • Oh wow! That’s cool! I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself doing that down the track! Although I think Sweden will be my main home country in Europe, even if I do travel for long periods of time too. So maybe I’ll pick up bits and pieces of other languages eventually.
      But thank you, yes, I think you’re right – patience and time is the key. And persistance, of course! 🙂

  4. I tried learning Cantonese. EACH vowel can have 7 different tones. High, low, medium, high rising, high falling, low rising, low falling. E.g. mah ma má mà mā màh máh are all different words. I’m not kidding! I’m scared to try to order a chicken sandwich in case I’m actually insulting someone’s entire family or declaring war or who knows what.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard that language is crazy hard to learn! A lot of the Asian languages are, because the structure of the language is so wildly different. I’m fascinated and terrified by them all at once.

  5. I am really bad at learning foreign languages (for the same reason I’m bad at math, I think — too many rules to remember), so my heart goes out to you! Good luck! I hope being immersed in Swedish will help you pick it up fairly quickly.

    • Interesting that you connect foreign languages to math, but if you’re right then technically I should be good at learning languages because I’ve always been eerily good at maths (which confused my students who believed that as an English teacher I couldn’t possibly be good at math too). I guess time will tell haha. But I think you’re right, being immersed will help a lot. I think it’ll take a long time but then suddenly all at once it’ll fall into place and make sense. Fingers crossed! 🙂

  6. Oh dear god….. SWEDISH. I want to study Finnish linguistics and am trying to learn a bit of Swedish too, since it is also spoken in FInland. I swear, I have a harder time with languages related to English than with completely unrelated ones. Finnish, I get. It’s hard, and I can’t get through their stupidly long words without a breath. But I get it. Swedish is just………. I don’t even know what they’re doing over there! I think I even had an easier time with Chinese than with Swedish. Good luck, though!

    • Hahaha how interesting! I’ve seen a bit of Finnish and it just looks like total gibberish to me, although I would love to learn it. Swedish I can kind of understand and some words have strong connections to English, but it’s just trying to put it all together I’m having serious problems with. But yeah, the West Coast of Finland has a lot of Swedish speakers from what I understand?
      Good luck to yourself with both Finnish and Swedish! 🙂

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