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Readers reveal: The songs that will help get you to Swedish fluency fast

From The Local's archive: What Swedish music has inspired you to learn the language? We asked for the tunes that coaxed readers deeper into the linguistic maze. Here's what we learned.

Readers reveal: The songs that will help get you to Swedish fluency fast
Veronica Maggio is one of the Swedish artists readers listen to. Photo: Thomas Johansson/TT

When we ran an article about how one Swedish band could spur the listener to learn the language, it got us wondering if many readers had similar experiences. 

The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’, with many readers picking up the lingo from contemporary singers like Veronica Maggio, or older acts like Ebba Grön. 

But what is it about songs that make them such a trigger for language-learning? Reader Sandra Clara Silva Paulsen put her finger on a big part of the answer when reflecting on what singer Lisa Nilsson meant to her.

“To learn a new language is not just to learn how to speak. It is also to adapt, understand, accept.”

Paulsen, from Brazil, says listening to Nilsson’s music at around the time of the Euro referendum in 2003 made her feel at home despite the negative focus in debates at the time on supposedly feckless southern Europeans. 

“It was a very special time for me, a time when I realized that maybe life would be easier if I only spoke English, but life would be much richer if I jumped in the water and decided to learn how to use that ‘strange’ language. 

“No doubts: music, and Lisa Nilsson in particular, helped me a lot!”

Lisa Nilsson. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Paulsen singles out the song Små rum as a favourite. Like the rest of the songs mentioned below, you can find the Lisa Nilsson track in this Spotify playlist

The invisible man

Helen Engelbarts is one of several readers citing Kent as a four-headed language teacher. The Eskilstuna band were hugely successful domestically before disbanding amid some serious fanfare in 2016. 

“I remember how immensely proud I felt when I knew my first Swedish song by heart,” says Engelbarts. 

“It was Den osynlige mannen by Kent. Only a short song, not a whole lot of lyrics, but still. Made me want to burst with pride. There’s a part that goes håll mig flytande and now every time I buy liquid margarine (flytande margarin) or even open my refrigerator door and see the bottle, I hear the voice of Kent’s singer reverberating ‘flyyyyyyytande’.”

Vick Art Strong echoes these sentiments, telling The Local in a Facebook chat that she missed Kent since they said goodbye to their fans last year. And another reader, Sonia France, is slowing making her way though the band’s vast back catalogue: “Thinking about it, the song that got me really hooked was Var är vi nu, it’s so beautiful.”

Kent played to a crowd of 30,000 adoring fans at Stadion in Stockholm in 2003. The band had asked concert-goers to dress in white and most obliged. Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/TT

‘Their fat necks’

Punk trailblazers Ebba Grön also tickled readers’ linguistic funny bones. 

“I think the pronunciation is the most difficult part in the Swedish language. So songs like Mamma Pappa Barn made me think in a different way how Swedes pronounce some words and phrases,” said Tatiana Romanov. 

“A lot of songs by Ebba Grön helped me to understand that but this song in particular was the first which triggered me to focus on pronunciation.”

Rad Addala cites arguably one of the best songs ever written about the power and the money (the money and the power), Ebba Grön’s Staten & kapitalet. He especially notes the part of the song where Joakim Thåström bellows the line about deras feta nackar (‘their fat necks’), which usually marks the exact moment when boozy Swedish dinner parties spiral headlong into oblivion.

Ebba Grön on stage in Södertälje in 1981. Photo Ingvar Svensson/SvD/TT

Everyone wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die

“I would add Alla vill till himmelen men ingen vill dö by Timbuktu,” says Addala. 

Anyone who lived in Sweden around 2005 will probably know this song very well indeed. It was a monster hit, catapulting hip-hop artist Jason ‘Timbuktu’ Diakité to vast new heights of Swedish stardom. 

Reader Marine Ch is also a fan.

“Timbuktu helped me discover a bunch of idioms and expressions that I had no idea of. His songs also helped with the pronunciation of sounds that don’t exist in French like in the word fallskärm“, (the title of another Timbuktu song).

“I listened to him in the very beginning of my learning.”

She also has another tip: “Södra Station is good for me to check if my level improves: it’s not very difficult but they use a lot of abbreviations and I’m trying to understand a bit more each time I listen to their songs.”

Also featuring prominently as Swedish tutors are Dungen, a band notable for having achieved success in the US and UK despite singing pretty much exclusively in Swedish. 

“There’s a wonderful song by Dungen, Du e för fin för mig, that I loved so much that I had to translate it all,” says Mia Salazar.

“There’s a line that says: Aj aj buff. I did some research and found that it was a children’s tale. A classic Nordic one! Trollmors vaggvisa [Mother Troll’s Lullaby].”

Salazar, a filmmaker and musician we have previously featured on The Local, adds:

“Dungen used to rehearse just below our studio and I started listening to their music because my colleague told me they were really good. I think the concert in which they played a projection of a classic movie and played on top of it, explained all the content of the record Häxan very well…I think that’s in my top-ten best concerts ever.”

Dungen frontman Gustav Ejstes. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

A long time ago, before Roxette

Sanya Lily, living in New York, remembers how her then Swedish boyfriend moved to be with her in the US before they made the trip the other way. “I used to know Swedish well (hah!) But struggled with pronunciation.”

Her boyfriend encouraged her to listen to Gyllene Tider and Eva Dahlgren. 

“I used to listen (to tapes!) as I jogged – especially Flickorna På TV2 and Ängeln i rummet.”

Per Gessle would doubtless be delighted to hear that his 40-plus-year-old song still gets a regular airing in New York. 

Flickorna på TV2 has a great beat for running, which I now do along the East River,” says Lily. 

Gessle, later one half of Roxette, clearly leaves an impression, with reader Kimberly Cooper also on the hook. 

“I still listen to Gyllene Tider to this day,” she said when we spoke to her in 2017, “and I am 53 years old. I have been back to Sweden a couple of times since and plan on returning,” she says, citing När alla vännerna gått hem as a particular favourite. 

Rossco Galloway meanwhile talks up the songs of Cornelis Vreeswijk, the brilliant but self-destructive Dutch-born songwriter who was one of Sweden’s best-loved performers (despite never actually becoming a Swedish citizen). 

“All of Cecilia Lind is really beautiful Swedish. I’m a songwriter so I learned it by only sounds then looked up the translation later.”

Cornelis Vreeswijk and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, 1979. Photo: TT

Bonus track: Helgen v. 48 by bob hund, a standout song from the album featured here: How this Swedish band helped me learn the language

FAMILY

Five Swedish children’s songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

You can't hide, and you can't even run. Sooner or later, even international parents will learn these Swedish children's songs. You may as well start now.

Five Swedish children's songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

Babblarnas vaggvisa

“Kom lilla du, kudden väntar nu. Inte läsa mer, Babba, dags att lägga sig.”

Come little one, the pillow awaits. No more reading, Babba, it’s time to go to bed – this repetitive modern lullaby is deceptively simple and soothing, loved and hated in equal measure by parents in Sweden. 

Loved, because it puts the most energetic of babies to sleep. Hated, because afterwards, you’ll be lying there in the dark in your own bed, the lyrics playing softly but insistently on repeat in your head. When you finally remember the order of the characters and their pre-bedtime activities (hint: it’s Babba [reading], Bibbi [listening], Bobbo [playing], Dadda [climbing], Diddi [drawing], Doddo [getting up to mischief]), congratulations, you’ve made it as a parent in Sweden.

The characters were originally created in the 1980s to facilitate children’s language development, but they got a rebirth in the 2000s with a television series for SVT and several new songs. Your children will be able to name them all and they will expect you to do the same. Who knew parenthood was this joyous.

Ekorrn satt i granen

Alice Tegnér is a name you need to know, because she’s the woman who’s to thank or blame for most of the Swedish children’s musical canon. Born in 1864, she was a music teacher from the town of Karlshamn in southern Sweden and composer of some of the country’s most well-known children’s songs. 

This one is about a squirrel who, just as he was sitting down in a spruce to peel some pine cones, gets startled by the sound of children, falls from his branch and hurts his fluffy tail. That’s it, that’s the plot.

Mors lilla Olle

Another one of Tegnér’s greatest hits, this one tells the story of Olle, who runs into a bear when out picking bilberries. To cut a long story short: he feeds the bilberries to the bear, his mother screams and the bear runs off, Olle gets upset that mummy scared his ostensibly only friend.

It’s based on a true story. In 1850, newspapers wrote about how Jon Ersson, then one year and seven months, met a couple of bear cubs at Sörsjön, Dalarna, and fell asleep next to them in the lingon shrubs. Ersson in his 30s emigrated to Minnesota where he was hit by lightning and died. Luck only lasts so long.

Prästens lilla kråka

Prästens lilla kråka, the priest’s little crow (optionally mormors/farmors lilla kråka – grandma’s little crow, or whoever wants to claim the crow), wanted to go for a ride but no one was around to give her a lift. So she took matters into her own hands, but, presumably lacking a driving licence, she slid THIS way and then she slid THAT way and then she slid DOWN into the ditch. Sung while rocking the child to one side, to the other side and then playfully dropping them to the floor.

It often also makes an appearance as a dance around the Maypole on Midsummer’s Eve. 

Lille katt

Astrid Lindgren is not only one of the world’s most famous children’s authors, she is also behind many of the most well-known Swedish songs for children, featuring her beloved characters.

This one starts off “Lille katt, lille katt, lille söte katta. Vet du att, vet du att, det är mörkt om natta” (little cat, little cat, little sweet cat. Do you know, do you know, it’s dark at night – it rhymes in Swedish), followed by similar verses about other animals and family members. It is sung by Ida, the little sister of prankster Emil in the books and films about Emil of Lönneberga. Jazz musician Georg Riedel composed the music, as well as the music for several other Lindgren movies.

Other famous tunes by Lindgren include Här kommer Pippi Långstrump, Idas sommarvisa, Luffarvisan, Jag är en fattig bonddräng, Mors lilla lathund and Världens bästa Karlsson.

These five songs do not even begin to form an exhaustive list of Sweden’s wide, wide, wide repertoire of children’s songs. Which ones can you not get out of your head? Let us know in the comments below!

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