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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

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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