Learning Swedish from Russia with love

With more students worldwide choosing to learn Swedish, The Local catches up with Marina Astashevskaya - a Swedish teacher in Russia - whose classes help bridge the gap between love-refugees and their families in Russia.

Learning Swedish from Russia with love

Marina Astashevskaya may not have perfect Swedish herself, but when it comes to her students’ learning, she is a perfectionist.

“Do you say ‘He’s a widower or he’s widowed’ in Swedish?” she asks on the phone from Kaliningrad.

“They both look right. I’m not going to say it to my students unless I’m certain it’s correct.”

Since February, Astashevskaya has been meticulously teaching the finer points of Scandinavia’s most widely spoken language to a class of almost 30 Russians.

But why are dozens of local Russians so keen to learn a language that’s essentially only spoken by nine million people in one cold country to the north?

“There’s a whole range of reasons why they want to learn Swedish,” the 27–year-old teacher explains.

“Some are older grandparents with family over in Sweden. Their children have married Swedes and have had kids of their own. But these kids don’t always end up learning Russian.”

As a result, there is a communication barrier between the Russians and their own grandchildren, Astashevskaya explains.

“So some of my students want to learn Swedish as it’s the only way they can communicate with their grandchildren.

“But it’s not just for family. Some of the students want to be travel to Sweden and actually converse with the shopkeepers, the locals. And some just find the language exotic.”

But Swedish language courses abroad don’t stop in just Kaliningrad. Students around Europe are flocking to similar classes, according to Erika Lyly, a language advisor and linguist from the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet).

“Universities are really into teaching Swedish right now. There’s a strong background in Swedish culture to thank, with (author) Astrid Lindgren and (director) Ingmar Bergman of course,” she tells The Local.

“But it’s also become a language for people wanting to talk business with Swedes. Another benefit is that Swedish is also understood in Norway, and some parts of Finland.”

When told of the Kaliningrad classroom, Lyly says the story is “moving”, and that it’s the first time she’s heard of older students wanting to learn Swedish to bridge a love-refugee gap.

“But I do know that Swedish lessons are getting more and more popular in Russia, with university courses in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Many people learn for business purposes, but there are also a lot of Russians who get married to Swedes and want to learn the language before they come here.”

Astashevskaya herself is a fan of the vernacular, and picked it up almost fluently over eighteen months while exploring and studying in eastern Sweden.

“Swedish sounds like a melody when you listen to it, and it was easy for me to learn because I already know English and German,” she explains.

Now back in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea, the 27-year-old runs the classes voluntarily, with no funding for any official textbooks.

While she occasionally asks students for some small change to cover printing costs, Astashevskaya runs the whole thing in her own time and mostly from her own pocket. She puts together worksheets and even audio tapes from memory, online courses, and her extensive class notes from her own time in Sweden.

“My style involves a much more creative approach and the students respond really well to it,” she beams.

The other students in her class, which is held twice a week in a library in central Kaliningrad, range in age from as young as 13 to as old as 65.

She even teaches a mother and daughter who are both obsessed with what they call a Nordic “paradise” and who plan to eventually relocate to Stockholm. It’s only a matter of time to determine if they can get residence permits, Astashevskaya explains.

While the 27-year-old teaches students who don’t know a word of Swedish, she finds that the class members are all quick to learn.

“They want to speak a third language. They usually speak English, German, or Polish and want to use their time to pick up another one.”

The best thing about her class, according to Astashevskaya, is that the students are motivated more than the typical language student in Sweden. They have come by choice, she says.

Astashevskaya, meanwhile, who doesn’t pocket a single rouble for her work, admits that she heads home after each lesson with a smile on her face.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people, even with the knowledge that I’m not getting anything for it,” she tells The Local.

“But knowing that these Swedish lessons may help my students in the future in some way is enough to leave me satisfied.”

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.