The struggle of learning Swedish

Once upon a time I moved to Sweden to study. As I would spend the coming two years in this new country, of course I would learn the language. There are quite some similarities between Swedish and my mother-tongue Dutch, so how hard could it be…? Dream on. One and a half years has past, and my speaking skills reach about as far as saying ‘hej, hur mår du?’ (= hello, how are you?) and ‘tack’ (thanks). Which is pretty much the same as I spoke the first week. Yes, I do feel bad about this. Am I just a terrible person who didn’t put any effort into this? No. Actually, many of my international friends are in the same position. I think there are three main reasons for this.

  1. Swedes speak English too well.
    Young or old, it doesn’t matter, almost everybody is capable of speaking perfectly clear English. Meaning to say that even if you try to speak Swedish, when the friendly Swede notices you are foreign, she/she will switch to English for you. Even though this is extremely kind, it also never challenges your language skills. The Swedish language skills, I mean to say.
    Ranking of 2016. In the past five years, Sweden was placed as either #1 or #3 of best English speaking countries in the World. Source: EF EPI
  2. SFI is not efficient.
    Sweden offers free language courses for everyone staying long term, named ‘Svenska För Ivandrar’ (= Swedish For Immigrants = SFI). As a master student staying for a full time programme you are allowed to join this free education. Yeay! You don’t even have to purchase any course materials. I remember how delighted I was when I had my intake. However, motivation faded awfully quickly. After a full day of university it takes quite some discipline to jump on your bike once more to spend another two hours in a classroom. As the learning method is extremely slow and the classes are not progressive – you ‘level up’ once in a while – this doesn’t really increase motivation. Almost all of my friends started SFI, but one by one we’ve all dropped out…
  3. Swedes are perfectionists in melody.
    Swedish is a beautiful language to listen to, it’s very melodic. I can read Swedish quite well, I can write it to some extend, but no, I wouldn’t say I speak it. I’ve tried, I promise. But when you initiate a conversation with a Swede, they will interrupt you because you didn’t use the right melody for the word. You thought you were getting somewhere when you finally got the hang of the Swedish ‘vokaler’, but guess what, it’s not enough. I’ve repeated a word twenty times in front of my room mate before he thought I had the melody right. The problem is I didn’t hear any difference myself when I finally pronounced it correctly. Swedish melody is very – very subtle. As I have several friends with similar experiences, I find my international friends practising their Swedish with one another, but not daring to speak in front of a Swede any more.

Admitted, that’s a bit of a depressing list. Don’t lose hope yet! In spite of realising everything I’ve written above, it’s one of my new year’s resolutions to increase my Swedish skills. Therefore I’d like to present you another list: My best advices for those who don’t want to give up 🙂

  1. Use a language app and/or website.
    Whether you pick Duolingo or Babbel, I don’t care. But install the app on your phone or insert the website as your homepage. These programs are not perfect, but they are easy, fun and make you familiar with the language in multiple ways. Babbel is a paid service but includes the valuable training of your speech. Convince your friends to join Duolingo as well so you can compete with them in weekly rankings!

    According to Duolingo, I am 25% fluent, hooray!

  2. Listen to Swedish music and watch Swedish television.
    If you enjoy going out you’ll soon find there are a couple of catchy Swedish songs that will be played frequently towards the end of the night. All the drunk Swedes are singing to it, while you are awkwardly trying to continue dancing. However the next morning on your bike the melody keeps repeating in your head but you still don’t know the words… Youtube is your best friend! Go and find those lyric videos and sing along. Not your cup of tea? Turn on that Swedish radio, put up a Swedish playlist on Spotify or find a series you like on SVT. They come with Swedish subtitles!

    Double lyric video of ‘Vart jag mig i världen vänder’ by ‘Den Svenska Björnstammen’

  3. SPEAK.
    This is the hardest part. Even though your room mate might intimate you slightly with his perfectionism, after all he is only trying to help. Start with small things, try to talk Swedish with the cashier or keep it Swedish when ordering a pizza. I haven’t tried it myself, but have heard great experiences of so called language cafes, which are organised weekly in Uppsala. In the ideal situation you might find a Swede who is interesting in learning your native language, so you both benefit from helping each other out. Still nervous? Inform your Swedish friends of your attempt to learn the language and ask them for a little help.

    Image from

What do you think, do you agree with me or not? Or do you have more tips and tricks? Please share below.

Ha det så bra,


    1. Dear C Fran,

      If you would like to read more information on my experiences of the Animal Sciences master, I recommend you to choose the topic ‘studies’ in the menu in the right corner on top of the page. If you are looking for more formal or specific information on the programme I recommend to have a look at the website of SLU. I hope this was helpful, but if you have more questions, please let me know 🙂

      Kind regards,

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