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OPINION & ANALYSIS

My first time learning Swedish: Why I’m so excited about SFI

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

My first time learning Swedish: Why I'm so excited about SFI
File photo of a Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) class. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

A Swedish former colleague would unconsciously say nej instead of no when speaking English and there was the Hej! that Ikea uses worldwide. That was the extent of my Swedish when I moved. Not much to go on but in a country where English is so widely spoken, I was not too concerned.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t interested in learning Swedish. Ever since I had learned German as a kid while we were living in Switzerland, a new country always represented the opportunity of learning a new language. With varying success.

The ten years in Hong Kong, where I took Mandarin lessons twice a week with an increasingly exasperated teacher, resulted in what is now basically a party trick: I show people how to write Chinese characters on their smartphones. It never fails to impress but I would not be able to buy a train ticket in Beijing if my life depended on it.

So, after settling in, I registered with the closest state funded school providing the Svenska för Invandrare (SFI) course and took their intake assessment. My confident grasp of nej and hej put me firmly at level B: knows how to read and write – in other languages than Swedish, that is.

From various online forums I understand that experiences with SFI courses vary but I have to say: I’m excited.

First of all, the teachers I’ve encountered have been excellent. You meet quite a few of them because, for reasons never really explained, they rotate in and out of classes constantly. This may sound like a bad thing, but it actually exposes you to a variety of accents, teaching methods and materials which keeps things fresh.

The materials were another pleasant surprise. The course doesn’t use a textbook. The teacher collects different texts, videos, and other media focusing on a special topic for a couple of lessons. That topic can be anything from the more obvious, such as “regions in Sweden“, ranging to “music from my home country” or “love“.

This is a far cry from what you would find in the books that are normally used to teach beginners in which the basics of a language are without fail explained through stilted dialogs between foreign students in a new country presented with a dated dilemma. “Hi, my name is Jean-Pierre, I am from France. I’m a student in this country, learning the language. I need to use the payphone, but I do not have a coin…” Riveting stuff.

But the most appealing part of the programme for me, is that only Swedish is spoken in class. In a group with as many students as there are nationalities – unlike in normal daily life in Sweden – it is not a given that everybody speaks English. So twice a week, I’m forced to venture beyond nej and hej to explain to a 20-year-old from Kyrgyzstan – who speaks Swedish maddeningly well – that “My name is Alex, I am from Holland…”

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. If you already have English, German and Dutch, then Swedish should be relatively easy for you – especially when it comes to vocabulary where many words look similar albeit with different pronunciations – or with similar pronunciations but very different spelling (often phonetical). Swedish grammar is also relatively simple, particularly when compared to German or French grammar.

    My experience has been to also learn to write Swedish well. Swedes will respect you for it. And these days it’s very useful to be able to write in a ‘Chatt’ session when communicating with a supplier or the phone company etc through their website. Doesn’t have to be perfect, but nonetheless reasonably fluent. Also, often much shorter queues for Chatt compared to the telephone 🙂

  2. My experience on trying to learn Swedish has been very disappointing. They plonk you in the middle of a course session so instead of starting from the basics and building up from that you struggle with complex and more advanced structures.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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