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Five reasons why it’s actually quite easy to learn Swedish

OPINION: There's a myth going around and I don't know how it started. The myth: that the Swedish language is really hard to learn.

Five reasons why it's actually quite easy to learn Swedish
Is Swedish easy to learn? That's what Oliver Gee thinks. Photo: urf/Depositphotos

Opinion piece by Australian Swedish speaker Oliver Gee. Read more membership exclusives here.

The Swedes say it (often). The expats who struggle to learn Swedish will say it too.

But it's simply not true.

In fact, Swedish, in theory at least, should be very easy to learn for English natives.

Now, I realize that this is a bit controversial, and I probably already sound like a know-it-all – so let's get some disclaimers out of the way.

I speak Swedish. I'd say fluently, even. And it took me a year to learn it to a decent level, which I realize is quite quick. But even today, seven years on, I'm not going to trick any Swedes into thinking I'm a native. I make mistakes left, right and centre. But I can hold my own in a conversation and that will do for fluency, if you ask me.

And one of the first things that Swedes say when they hear me (or I suppose any foreigner) speaking Swedish is: “Woah, you speak Swedish? But it's such a hard language to learn. It's meant to be one of the hardest languages to learn.”

Where the heck did this come from?

My theory is that there are so few English speakers who learn Swedish, and as a result, an English-speaking native who is speaking Swedish will always surprise a Swede.

But let's get one thing straight: Swedish isn't actually that tough.

According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the US government's diplomatic training agency, Swedish ranks as one of the ten easiest languages for English speakers to learn. Others include Italian, Norwegian, Danish and Portuguese.

In fact, if you google “easiest languages to learn” then Swedish will time and time again come up as one of the top hits.

So, according to me, here's why Swedish isn't so hard to learn after all.

Swedish and English are family members

Swedish and English are both in the Germanic family tree (Swedish is north Germanic, English is west Germanic).

Essentially, this means the two languages have a similar sound (fairly similar vowel sounds, for example), and the sentence structures follow a similar order.

We could get really nerdy here, but in brief: the syntaxes are more or less exactly the same: subject is followed by a verb which is followed by object. For example: the man throws the ball (mannen kastar bollen).

The verbs are easy

Sure, there are tricky, irregular and annoying verbs in Swedish. But unlike in English (or worse, French), you don't need the verbs to conjugate. English: I talk, he talks. See how 'talk' became 'talks'? No such problems in Swedish: jag pratar, han pratar, de pratar etc.

You only need to learn three new letters

Imagine you're an English speaker setting out to learn Swedish. Guess what? You already know the alphabet. It's almost exactly the same. All you really need to do is add three new letters: å, ä and ö.

Now compare that with learning a Greek or Korean alphabet. Or perhaps harder still, learning Arabic where everything's written right to left to make matters even more complicated.

1,558 words are exactly the same

The Lexiophiles website has counted how many words are exactly the same in English and Swedish. Same meaning, same spelling (though sometimes slightly different pronunciation). And there's a whopping 1,558.

Words like absurd, accent, alligator, april… they're all exactly the same – and they're just a few of the As.

Add to this the fact that there are loads and loads of words that are essentially the same but spelled differently – like telephone and telefon. Or: “a cup of tea” is “en kopp te”.

It doesn't take a professor in linguistics (professor i lingvistik) to know the languages are more or less the same.

As Lexiophiles points out, there are only around 40,000 words in common use in Swedish, meaning you only need to learn 38,442 more and you're fluent…

Everything's in English

And lastly, this is an unusual one, but bear with me. In Sweden, every internet page, every instruction manual, every museum – it all has the optional English translation. While this is an easy shortcut to avoiding Swedish altogether – it's also a very handy cross reference point for those trying to get a handle on Swedish. Try it in Swedish first, then check the English translation provided to make sure you're right.

In France, where I've spent the past three years, you'd be extremely lucky to find anything in English, because the French are very protective of their language and don't want to budge an inch for the English. As a result, French learners are often left scrambling for help or for a dictionary to understand why all the trains are cancelled.

No such problems in Swedish. You can even call the tax office, bus stop or doctor and simply ask if they'll speak English for you.

Now, the only real challenge is trying to get Swedes to actually respond to you in Swedish when trying to start a conversation in their language.

READ ALSO: Dear Swedes, please let us speak Swedish with you

Oliver Gee has worked for The Local Sweden and The Local France. He currently hosts The Earful Tower podcast in Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.

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For members


OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.