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Learning Swedish: accept no substitutes

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18:31 CEST+02:00
Swedes might speak great English, but there's no substitute for getting your tongue around the Swedish language. Fiona Basile finds that learning the lingo needn't be a nightmare.

It's hardly a secret that Swedes are, in general, exceptionally good at speaking English. With the exception of the Netherlands, there is probably not a country in mainland Europe where it is easier to get by using the language of Shakespeare.

Yet many new arrivals find, sometimes to their surprise, that widespread understanding of English does not mean that learning Swedish is optional. To work, or simply to get by in daily life, anyone staying in Sweden for more than a few months will need to pick up more than the rudimentary 'stor starköl'.

For me, this general Swedish linguistic competence can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. Most Swedes I encounter are quick off the mark to demonstrate their bilingual prowess. Most have learned English from about the age of ten and love any opportunity to practice. While I gratefully received this when I arrived, six months and five new Swedish words later, I began to realize that there would be no substitute for buckling down and improving my Swedish.

As for many other new arrivals, this meant enrolling at a “Svenska För Invandrare” (Swedish For Immigrants) language course. These free courses are offered by adult educational facilities all over the country and usually take up around 15 contact hours per week. Some places also offer evening courses to cater people working during the day.

As I enrolled in my very first Swedish class, my impression of the language was still mostly gleaned from the Muppet's Swedish Chef. It was high time, I thought, to get beyond “hoo be doo be doo”.

One of the first things I faced, like all new students of Swedish, was the Swedish alphabet. According to Marina Revell, who teaches Swedish at Gotland's Komvux adult education centre, the alphabet is one of the major challenges for people starting with the language. The extra letters å (think 'autumn'), ä (as in 'apple' - at least if you're from Australia), and ö (as in 'urban') take a while for many people to get used to.

“Some of our students struggle with the alphabet as they've never read or written in another language before,” she says.

“Pronouncing the letters and words is also quite difficult as Swedish has a particular sound and flow. It's a very melodic language full of tones, dips and flows, so getting your mouth around these particular sounds can be very difficult”.

After two years of learning Swedish at Komvux, I am still getting my puckered-up lips around the subtle but crucial differences in the sounds of I, J, G and Y. It has everything to do with the synchronised placement of lip, tongue and throat muscles.

Jan Boström, principal of Komvux on Gotland, says students can take as long as they like to complete SFI.

“It really depends on the student and they're education background. There are a lot of factors that influence how long students may study SFI,” he says.

“In reality though, most of the students want to find work in Sweden and this is really difficult if you don't speak the language or have the right qualifications. Someone can't just come to Sweden with their skills and qualifications and start working here. They need to be able to speak Swedish and usually need to do a validation test of some type.

“So we do what we can to teach the language so that they have a better chance of finding work and improving their finances in Sweden”.

Once you think your Swedish is up to it, you can sit the SFI National Test which is held each year in May. Passing this test entitles you to continue studies in the Svenska Som Andra Språk (Swedish As A Second Language) course. This course is also free and the contact hours are around the same as SFI.

One of the aspects of SFI and SAS that many people find enriching is the sheer variety of people they meet. Sweden has experienced high levels of immigration in the past half century, and 12 percent of Sweden's population was born abroad. That's nearly 1.2 million immigrants, with the largest number from Finland (15.0 %), followed by Iraq (7.0 %) and the former Yugoslavia (6.3 %).

As autumn classes for SFI and SAS started again recently I took a quick poll of my classmates. It was pretty awe-inspiring to contemplate the diversity of this group of immigrants on Gotland. We come from Latvia, Russia, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, England, Romania, Turkey, Estonia, New Zealand, Somalia, Poland, Cuba, Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, Germany, the United States, Croatia and Ukraine and Equador. I'm the sole representative from Australia. We range in age from mid 20s to mid 60s.

Boström tells me “there are 130 students from 27 different nations studying SFI and SAS at Komvux [on Gotland]”.

“Most of the students at our school come from Thailand, Iran or Iraq,” he says.

Jan explains that many of the students at Komvux have moved to Sweden due to love.

“They have met a Swedish man or woman, and chosen this as their home. Others have come to Sweden for a chance at starting a new life - a better life than they had in their homeland.”

All this means that for many SFI becomes more than simply a free way to pick up the lingo; it's an enriching experience that let's you meet an extraordinary variety of people. Give it a while, and you'll confidently be able to answer English-speaking Swedes in their own tongue.

Getting Started:

Whether you intend to study, work or live in Sweden, you must first have a personal number (personnummer).

Take your passport/s and any relevant visa papers to your local tax office (Skatteverket) so that they can process a personal number for you. Once you have this, you should contact your local municipality office to ask about SFI courses in your area. Details of Stockholm's SFI courses can be found here .

Fiona Basile

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