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Learning Swedish in Sweden

“No, I Don’t Speak English”

In a world increasingly English-friendly, living there is not always the golden ticket to learning a new language. 

Learning Swedish in Sweden

After one year of living and working in Sweden for my American-based company, I had built a decent foundation for my hope of learning the Swedish language.

Pronunciation? Check.

Top 500 Most Used Words in the Swedish Language? Check.

Learning where to correctly place the nouns, adjectives and verbs in a sentence? Check.

My Swedish was going as swimmingly as a Midsummer maypole raising or so I thought.

Living in a Country Where Natives Speak English Well

In an increasingly English-friendly world, where more and more people are learning English as their second language as early as elementary school, and enjoy every opportunity to practice their skills with native-speakers, learning a new language has become even harder for us already-deficient language learners who speak English, and often only English. I discovered this first-hand.

Swedes, like all Scandinavians, are excellent English-speakers. The schools begin teaching English in 3rd grade and by high school all Swedish students have the equivalent of a native-speaker’s middle school grasp of the language. This proved to be the downfall in my ultimately unsuccessful attempt to speak fluent Swedish. While the rest of the world has varying levels of English requirements for their educated citizens, English usage is only increasing worldwide.

Obstacles to Learning a New Language While Living Abroad

Living in a new culture does not guarantee your acquisition of the language. For those who do not have the opportunity for immersion language studies but find themselves working or living abroad for another purpose, the desire to learn the native language can be quite intense. After all, what better time to pick up a new language and at the very least impress friends back home, right? However, we may mistakenly believe that language-acquisition might occur by osmosis—by simply placing ourselves in that culture. We may assume that that the hard part is the life-adjustment and actual moving process.  Finding yourself in a position to learn in this way, no matter what the overall purpose of your journey, can certainly improve our opportunities to practice. Unfortunately, after moving to a new country, you must still make the daily decision to actually speak the language.

While having occasional English-speaking help when learning a new language is helpful, too much will eventually sabotage the mission. My purpose in moving to Sweden was to work, not necessarily to learn Swedish, but as a friendly cultural gesture, I made it a huge goal to acquire the native language during my 2-plus years as a temporary local. Since work and daily life chores remained as dominant abroad as they ever were at home, and successful communication between two human beings is always helpful to achieve daily goals, I admittedly found myself having the best of intentions to learn to speak the native language. But, despite friends’ and colleagues’ admirable attempts to patiently assist me, I was never quite able to grasp svenska.  

And the hardest part may not be sacrificing your own time and energy for daily activities as you strain to avoid defaulting to English, but rather accessing others’ necessary involvement in what is often a communal goal among expats. The hardest part is the often-uncomfortable situation of demanding that your native-speaking friends and colleagues sacrifice their time and energy in order to give you a chance to remember that elusive word and grapple with your sentence structure in order to express an idea in a remotely interpretable manner. Everyone around you intends to help you learn your new language and appreciates your desire to do so, but when that a deadline is pressing English may suddenly regain the upper hand.

Language Acquisition Tips

The following seven steps are useful tips for language acquisition when native-speakers know your first language almost as well as you do:

  • Do not underestimate the effect of the native English-speaking element in your attempt to speak a new language. I remember reading about the unexpected consequence of being in a highly-competent English-speaking country and thinking it was a good problem to have, and the least of my worries. Short-term, I was correct. Long-term, I was sorely mistaken.

  • Gain trusted friends and colleagues who will find time to assist you outside of the normal pressures of work or daily activities. Native-speakers will always appreciate the thought and effort to acquire their mother tongue and will be willing and able to help, but they will also value the forewarning and time set aside rather than add one more unexpected obstacle to their day, especially given that English is an option for a more efficient task completion. Coffee breaks are a universally-valued part of the day and a perfect opportunity to practice the native tongue with locals.

  • Watch TV! As a proud proponent of the evils of the boob tube, I had to reconsider my view that there is nothing redeemable about television. When abroad, the television is an invaluable aid in learning to understand a native language. Sit down with pen and paper and watch, writing down new words, questions to ask someone at a later time. You may glean keen observations and other discoveries from this helpful language tutor. It is an added bonus if you are able to turn on subtitles in the native language or even in English in order to compare what you hear with what you read.

  • Continual exposure.  Movies/Streaming Video, web sites, any community events or public settings, local radio, even speaking with older native-speakers who may have missed the English revolution all help to expose you to the language. Do not avoid unintended or unexpected daily opportunities to practice. You may end up speaking in the native tongue and listening in English within the same conversation, which can be an enjoyable and mutual learning exercise for you and your spontaneous native-speaking partner.

  • Classes. Taking a class is the most obvious way to put yourself in position to practice your new language. But to reiterate, if your main purpose in being in your new locale is not language-acquisition, but work or other demanding obligations, fitting in a language class one or two nights a week may be difficult on a practical level. Make it happen! As a bonus, you and your classmates may very well develop a community of expats, which, by way of cautionary note, does create one more environment in which to speak English.

  • Be consistent in limiting your exposure to English and your native country. The advent of the internet offers all expats a chance to have one foot in their new country and one foot in their native country. While the personal advantages are obvious regarding contact with friends and family at home, the more exposure you have to everything at home, the less exposure you will have with your new culture and country. Set aside specific time as “home time” (e.g. Sunday nights for phone calls, Thursday nights for podcasts and digital media, etc.) and spend the rest of your time “in” your current country.

  • Do not give up. If the ability to laugh at yourself is a sign of personal security, then language learning is a good exercise in self-growth. Just when you think you are not making any progress, you will. 
Related Topics
Language Learning Abroad
Living in Sweden: Best Expatriate Resources

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