Svenska för vinsten!

posted in: Personal | 5

(“Swedish for the win!”)

Something about this just feels like home
Something about this just feels like home

Recently, I began learning the Swedish language (Svenska), on a whim. It began a few years ago, with some genealogical research done by my uncle that pointed to some of our familial ancestry coming from a small town in Sweden (Sverige), not too far from Stockholm.

Or maybe it was because I love IKEA and their culture. I don’t know. It’s mostly irrelevant. People who hang around with me long enough will often eventually ask “What is it with all this Swedish shit, anyways?” (Vad är det med allt detta svenska skit, iallafall?)

After only studying for a few months (I think I started in March?), I am doing pretty well; I can converse basically, read and write a small amount, and my accent isn’t too bad (inte så dåligt).

Since my approach has been almost entirely DIY, I thought I would share some insight into the process I’ve been using, which balances speaking, listening, reading, and writing, using a variety of different resources. While I will cite my specific experience with learning Swedish (lära svenska), I would think this approach could be used with learning any foreign language (provided it’s not too arcane).

Begin with pronunciation (mainly listening)

My first instinct was to go for a book and start reading about the language, but I almost immediately realized that I had no idea how to pronounce some of the letters: ä, ö, å, and only a vague idea about the rest of them. I really didn’t want to learn how to read Swedish visually, while my inner voice is pronouncing things incorrectly, and then have to relearn all my pronunciations. Just as a quick example: the word for kitchen, kök,  sounds like “sheuhk”, and seven, sju, is prounounced “(s)hwew”. Yeah. Imagine being a foreigner and trying to say “through” or “mnemonic” in English, though. (On those links, click on the “speaker” icon in the lower-right corner of each of the boxes, and Google will speak the word for you, so you can hear it.)

Since I didn’t know anyone personally that spoke the language, and Cornell does not presently offer any courses, an audio book seemed like the best approach. Most public libraries have both computer media and audio books available, in general. My first thought was to get the “Rosetta Stone” software for Svenska, but I ultimately settled on an audio book to maximize on the free time I have while travelling by bus or walking.

Pimsleur offers a really stellar beginner course that teaches you very basic conversation that is actually useful, but then builds on it, lesson by lesson. Each lesson is just under 30 minutes long, and they suggest you do only one lesson each day. You can repeat them as necessary, of course.

In the beginning, when it was just audiobooks, I would practice one lesson every day, usually on the bus or while walking home from work. Sometimes, if I was reviewing one lesson and my brain still felt fresh, I would listen to two lessons. I think I probably did the first 10 lessons repeatedly until I felt comfortable enough with the pronunciation to incorporate reading and writing.

Every now and then, I would look up words and phrases on Google Translate; sometimes to hear a different prounciation of a word, other times simply to see how it was spelled. A phrase like “Jag förstår, och talar, lite svenska” has the word “förstår” (pron. “fer-SHTOOR”), which uses two of the three non-latin-alphabet letters.

Incorporate what you’re learning into your daily life

Flash cards for swedish learning
top to bottom: restaurant, eat, drink, beer, wine

Depending on what sorts of crowds you run around with, this may annoy your friends and family.

When I was learning Spanish (spanska) in high school, the moment I felt like I was becoming fluent was when I was able to bypass my inner-translator and think directly in Spanish. Getting to this point means integrating it into conversation, and other parts of your life, as much as possible, so that your brain isn’t confining it contextually to only a classroom.

I made little index cards with iconic symbols and the corresponding Swedish word, but no English, and placed them around my apartment. Whenever I saw the card, I said the word out loud and tried to picture what it was in my head (my aim was to simultaneously fire the neurons for the image / idea and the Swedish word, in the hopes that they will become more connected).

I discovered that, on my phone, I could easily access the extended character set by holding my finger down on the letter briefly; accessing the non-latin-alphabet letters became a simple matter, and I could pepper Swedish words into my electronic communications (generally, the context would convey the meaning, so there wasn’t too much lost in translation).

On the computer, I was able to add an alternate keyboard layout, and bind “control+shift” to indicate that I wanted to switch to the “SV” layout, or back to “EN”.

Selecting an alternate keyboard layout in Ubuntu
Selecting an alternate keyboard layout in Ubuntu


On Ubuntu

  1. go to Dash and search “keyboard layout”
  2. click the “+” in the bottom left corner and select the layout you’d like
  3. click on “Options…” 
  4. under “Keys to change layouts” select one of the available options
  5. close the Keyboard Layout window and you should see “en” with a keyboard icon up by the clock, sound, and network status icons (top-right)
  6. try pressing the key combination, and that “en” should change to the other layout; eg. “sv”

I’m not sure how to set it up on other OSes, but I’m sure it’s possible.

Begin with Reading & Writing

Get a very basic grammar book (bok), intended for foreigners. I found one simply titled “Swedish“, by Gladys Hird, at my local library. Check in the Non-Fiction 430s; other languages should be nearby. I like this book in particular because it has a lot of translation work; each chapter begins with a paragraph that’s about 10-15 sentences long. The paragraphs look formidable, but prove to be just challenging enough. Following the opening paragraph, the chapter discussed its lesson plan (declensions, conjugation, vocabulary, etc.) and then there were more translation questions; the focus was always on forming complete sentences, rather than recalling specific words, which I felt it to be particularly effective.

I keep that book, along with a notebook to write my answers down, in my bag, and work on it when I have time.

Children’s books are another great source. The public library had a few children’s books: one with nursery rhymes, another one with a story about a bear. If nothing else, this will give you a reasonable metric to track your progress, although there may be some dissonance among what you’ve learned and what the books have. (ie. Pimsleur teaches phrases like Skulle du vilja ta ett glas öl med mig?, which seems really unlikely in a children’s book, both in length and content.)

@sweden twitterstreamOne last, and surprisingly useful, source of great reading material is to find some people online that speak your language. I follow a few random people from Sweden on Twitter, and when they post in Swedish, I try to translate it myself before pasting their text into Google Translate. This is helpful because (a) they are speaking conversationally, so they will use words, phrases and idioms that are more contemporary than what some books may be using, and (b) they typically post throughout the day, just like everyone else, so there is a nice random influx of phrases to practice translating at any given moment.

If you are lucky, some of them may be willing to communicate with you in their native tongue; I am not at that point yet, but I suspect I will be soon!

Google Translate is also a great tool because when I am building a sentence that is new (eg. Behöver inte jag att du talar svenska med mig.), I can type what I believe to be correct into the box, and get instant feedback on the meaning. Once I have it correct, I can then attempt to pronounce it on my own, then click the “Listen” button to compare my pronunciation with the voice synth’s.

Extra Credit: Learn about the Culture

Barnens Dag flyerThis is entirely unnecessary to be able to conversationally speak the language, but reading about the history and culture of the nation whose language you are learning can be an insightful experience. For example, there has been some very recent talk about the use of a gender-neutral pronounhen, to be used in children’s books or other contexts (much in the same way that we use “one” as a gender-neutral-singular pronoun — ie. “one might say that this is ambiguous as to the gender of the speaker.”).

Since my own daughter is named Freyja, I’ve had an interest in Scandinavian Folklore anyways. I picked up Swedish Folktales & Legends from the library (look in the non-fiction 390s for other cultures). This book is a collection of Swedish folktales (think “Aesop’s Fables”, “The Three Little Pigs”, “Little Red Riding Hood”), collected and translated from a variety of sources by the author, who is a Dane (Dansk), but from an island that is closer to Sweden than Denmark.

Melissa gave me a similar book on the Norse gods.

There are also movies, such as the recent Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the one starring Noomi Rapace, not the one with Daniel Craig). In Swedish, the title was originally Män som Hatar Kvinnor. This movie is nice in that, despite the obviously hyper-fictionalized plot points, it shows scenery from the Swedish countryside as well as some cultural elements such as Barnens dag (Children’s day) and some chatter about how absurdly cold it gets in some parts.

What I’ve Learned So Far

Here is a short paragraph using what I’ve learned so far. Since I suspect I may need to look up a few words or phrases / conjugations, I will write those choice words in bold. Everything else will be done from memory.

Hej! Jag heter Aaron, och jag bor i en lägenhet i Ithaca, New York. Jag har två barn, en pojke och en flicka. Min son heter Sullivan och är fem år gammal. Min dotter, Freyja, är bara tre år gammal. Jag arbetar på Cornell Universitet, var jag är en webbprogrammerare. Jag tycker Ithaca är en valdigt vacker stad. Jag har inte en bil, så jag går och tar bussen. Det är många raviner och vattenfallJag skulle vilja att färdas till sverige någon dagmen bara nu, jag ska lära svenska. [Translation]

5 Responses

  1. Optimus Primate

    Nicely done. The swedish language is germanic like english, so I suspect there are salient similarities. It is beautiful.

    I’ve found from being a Spanish language interpreter that reading is easiest, writing is tougher, listening is tougher still, speaking is toughest BUT speaking on the phone is absolutely the toughest thing to do. The absence of body language makes communication in a second language wicked difficult.

    I am lucky enough to have a family member who I can speak with in Spanish. I also text/IM a friend who is a native speaker from time to time. I still laugh when she sends me a laughing text that reads “jajajajaja” or “jejejejejeje”.

    • Aaron


      I agree that reading is easiest, but I think we ultimately serve ourselves better in the long run by making sure we are pronouncing the words correctly.

      I have not tried speaking with someone over the phone yet, though I have tried watching movies in Swedish — I kind of wish they had Swedish subtitles; the people speak really fast and sometimes the accents are confusing. English subtitles just make it more confusing.

  2. John Westerdale

    Hej Aron. ganska accomplisment att gräva i ett nytt språk! Ska bli intressant att lära sig hur man talar detta språk. Eftersom Sverige var täckt med en glaciär 10.000 år sedan, måste språket vara från en annan? Hur är det? Hörde några mycket intressanta prat i Alaska förra veckan. Tlingit eller något annat First Nation språk?

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