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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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