Monday, October 27, 2014

Learning to speak Swedish

Gamla Stan  |  Learning to speak Swedish on afeathery*nest  |

I began learning Swedish at the beginning of this summer with nary a speck of familiarity and definitely no inroads, as it's not a Latin-based language. Apart from God Jul and tack, I knew no other Swedish words, much less had any idea of how to pronounce any that I came across. Unlike Italian, which I already had a head start in thanks to studying Spanish and the general presence of Italian in American culture, I came at Swedish from a completely different angle. That's probably why Day 1 and Day 2 of SFI (Svenska för Invandrare, Swedish for Immigrants, the foreign languages classes the Swedish government offers to newcomers for free), was so shocking.

But after a few weeks I started to piece bits of the language together and feel somewhat comfortable—or at least not completely uncomfortable. At least on paper. I advanced a level in SFI after one month, and then again to the final level about 6 weeks later. During the majority of the summer, though, I struggled with trying to keep three languages (including my own native one) straight, and then of course 10 days in Spain threw everything for a loop, but when we returned I focused so I could take the last exam to finish SFI the first week of October.

With the second week of October came good news and bad news.

Fall walk in Stockholm  |  Learning to speak Swedish on afeathery*nest  |

The good news was that I passed the exam and "graduated" from SFI. The bad news was that the rumblings we heard of the end of the very nice tax-free bonus of 12 000 SEK (~$1,650) to immigrants that completed the language course within 12 months of moving to Sweden was true and had ceased on July 31st of this year.

But since I was officially done with SFI, which is considered to be elementary school level Swedish, I could register myself for SAS  / SVA (Svenska som Andraspråk, Swedish as a Second Language), the next level, which is middle and high-school level Swedish and therefore Adult Education, so it's handled by a different department and comes with its own (still valid) set of benefits.

SAS, like SFI, is free (as is all education in Sweden), but even better, as a Swedish permanent resident I qualify for benefits from CSN (Centrala studiestödsnämnden, the Central Study Assistance Committee), which comes in the form of a monthly bidrag (subsidy) and a lön (loan). I applied for just the former, and while it won't be anything like an income, it will cover personal study costs (i.e., my textbook and the copying fee the school charges), as well as quite a few fikas.

Kungsholmen Polismyndighet  |  Learning to speak Swedish on afeathery*nest  |

When I looked into registering myself for SAS Grund 1 (SAS Basic 1) at the Komvux (Adult Education) center I found out that the last term of 2014 had begun the day before. I really didn't want to wait until January, when the next term begins, so I signed up for a "flexible" class, meaning you work independently and meet with a teacher 1-2 times a week for individualized help.

On the one hand, perfect! I could make up the week I had missed (since it takes a week to register I couldn't begin until the following week) and work independently, which I love. But on the other hand, the problem I'm having with Swedish is that I still don't speak it, despite having advanced out of SFI, so working independently wouldn't help at all with my verbal use of the language.

The thing is, I know myself and exactly how my mind works. While I was That Kid who asked for homework in third grade and loved to study, I'm also That Kid (adult) who tests well. Picking up context clues and figuring out what something means or logically determining which answer is right on an exam is something that usually comes easily for me, meaning that my reading and writing ability of Swedish far exceeds my speaking and listening ability, since with the former I can see how the words and grammar fit together. That's why reading a basic Facebook status, Instagram post or group chat message and writing a quick (super simple) email is manageable. But, if I put on Swedish news, I can only pick out a few words and not always the context. If I listen to a conversation on the subway I can maybe figure out the general topic, but nothing more.

Kronbergsparken and Bergsgatan  |  Learning to speak Swedish on afeathery*nest  |

I had the exact same process with Italian, so I know how this goes. I'm by no means fluent, but I do feel completely comfortable speaking Italian and don't (usually) have panic attacks when put in a situation where English isn't an option. And learning Italian was nothing like learning Swedish. I only went to three weeks of a summer school (in Sicily) and then picked the rest up by studying on my own (in the U.S.) and from R. and his family. What's the same, though, is that once I had a pretty basic understanding of the language, I still didn't speak in Italian for at least a year or two afterwards, even though by then I understand 95% of the daily conversations I heard.

I hope it won't take as long with Swedish, but given where I am now in my understanding, I'm already way ahead of where I was with Italian after the same number of months, so that's a plus.

A minus though, is that I'm a native English speaker learning Swedish in Sweden where Swedes have already perfected their English. I've been asked by a few people (Swedes), why I want to learn Swedish when almost everyone here (at least in Stockholm) speaks English perfectly (with American colloquialisms!). I understand their point, since when I squeeze out a few words of Swedish more often than not I receive a response in English. I think the Swedish way of thinking is, why muddle through a difficult, awkward exchange when I can put this poor girl at ease by speaking her mother tongue?

Vasastan  |  Learning to speak Swedish on afeathery*nest  |

Another minus of my own doing (since despite people thinking there's no reason to learn Swedish, I could never live in a country long-term without at least attempting to be marginally capable of handling daily activities in the local language), is that I'm not taking advantage of actually living in Sweden and speaking to Swedes I know in Swedish. Or of easily being able to watch Swedish television—though to be fair, there's not many Swedish-language programs. Apart from the news (way too fast), sports (eh), and a few DIY and cooking shows, the rest is American programming in English (Swedes don't dub).

There have been a few optimistic happenings recently, though.

This past weekend after dinner with my mother-in-law and her partner we watched Skavlan, a Norwegian-Swedish evening talk show program that's a bit of news, culture and human interest all blended together, and which I was able to follow pretty well, so there's that. And this weekend over dinner with family and friends where the entire evening was in Swedish I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to find myself following along just fine while the conversation ran for three hours and my understanding hovered around 70%. Granted it was over a congenial dinner so we (they) were talking about common, rather than complex, topics and of course the few times I piped in, I did so in English.

But still.

Kungsholmen streetscape  |  Learning to speak Swedish on afeathery*nest  |

While I work on mustering up my ability to speak the Swedish I know, I'm really loving my new school program. I attended SFI at Folkuniversitet in the city near Odenplan, but now I'll be checking in with my SAS teacher in Kungsholmen. While it's not as convenient to my favorite place for a fika, it is close to another "third place"of mine.

We're working from a textbook that I'm completely enamored with (no surprise at all that I asked for homework on the first day of third grade is it?). SFI was built around weekly themes, like home, apartment, work, etc., whereas SAS takes an entirely different tack.

We get to read interesting passages about historical events and then work with different exercises that help us learn—really learn, not just memorize—new vocabulary by testing us in multiple ways. Like filling in the blank from a list of words, filling in the blank without any prompts, pairing opposites and synonyms together, writing short answers, etc. And the entire book is digitized, so everything can also be done online where all the passages, instructions and exercises are recorded to help with pronunciation and listening skills. I feel like I've learned so much in just one week, which is always a nice feeling.

What's a slightly scary feeling, though, is that the curriculum also required us to purchase a paperback. An actual novel that we have to read (how, I have no idea) by the end of the term (i.e., Christmas). My class is reading För eller senare exploderar jag ("Sooner or later I'll explode"), better known to English speakers as The Fault in Our Stars.

I have a feeling that sooner or later in my attempt to read it I'll explode, too. TBD.


  1. If you like John Green (author of The fault in Our Stars) he and his brother runs a video blog on YouTube:

    And also several channels featuring educational content spanning a wide range of topics:

    If you have some time, here are a few more of my favorite educational content creators online:

  2. it seems like you have progressed so much in your Swedish. Kudos to you for being multilingual - you go girl.

  3. Thanks so much, Dixya!

    Trying bit by bit....and very, very slowly :).

  4. good job on the language progress!!! and you're so nice for thinking they want to put you out of your misery, i would say they just all want to selfishly practice english. In such situations i make a stupid look (good at it) and ask them in dutch "excuse me do you speak dutch?" then they get embarrassed and speak dutch.

  5. Thanks, dear!

    Once I get a teensy bit more comfortable, I'm definitely going to try your line to force them into helping me! :)


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