Learning (and teaching) Swedish

As we work on offering you more opportunities to practice your Swedish, we had the opportunity to hear from a teacher of Swedish in Sweden.  

  • Urban Östberg photographed by Anna Hallström.
  • Urban Östberg introduces us to a variety of things he encounters in his classes, and prepares us for more lessons we'll bring you this fall. Here you can practice your Swedish on the subject of practicing Swedish.

  • I have taught Swedish as a foreign or second language for many years, mainly at universities in Sweden and abroad, and only for adult students. The main difference between older and younger learners is that adults learn a new language in a more conscious and structured way, while children are more intuitive and subconscious in their learning process.
    At Stockholm University where I now work, we teach students from a variety of countries and with various backgrounds: guest students, foreign guest researchers, immigrants, foreigners, etc. The common first languages are English, French, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian and Finnish - but many other languages are also represented.

  • The difficulties for English-speaking students to learn Swedish are largely similar to other language groups while some language difficulties may be specific. Similarities in vocabulary and structure between related languages such as Swedish and English are of course an advantage, but can also lead to unnecessary errors when translating similarities and not realizing that many words mean something completely (or partially) different in Swedish. One usually calls these “false friends.” The examples are countless, but some I’ve recently encountered are:
    English: public Swedish: allmänhet (not: publik, which means “audience”)
    English: not even Swedish: inte ens (not: inte även, which means “not also”)
    English: number Swedish: nummer and antal (the latter in e.g., the context of “a large number of people”)
    English: copy Swedish: kopia and exemplar (kopia made in the copy machine while the latter refers to e.g., “borrowing your copy” of the text book)

  • Difficulties in grammar for English speakers (and actually all students) are exemplified here:
    • The Swedish reverse word sequence - the verb comes before the noun as opposed to English (English: Then he came = Swedish: Sedan kom han - “Then came he”)
    • The double identifier - Swedish has a definite standalone article before and a specific ending after a definite noun (English: the little house = Swedish: det lilla huset - House=Hus)
    • Prepositions (English: in a year = Swedish: om ett år) and particles (the small words which resemble prepositions but belong to a verb) are also a general difficulty (English: hold = Swedish: hålla i ) (English: love, be fond of = Swedish: hålla av) (English: be busy with =Swedish: hålla på)

  • In pronunciation, some sounds are particularly difficult like the vowels ‘u' (hus, hund = house, dog in English), ‘y’ (by = village in English) and ‘a’ (hat = hate in English) as well as our sje- och tje-ljud (skina/Kina = shine/China in English).
    In English the unstressed end vowels are often pronounced about the same - which is perceived like the ö-sound for a Swede (e.g., barber, scholar, collar) - while one in Swedish must distinguish between the pronunciation of, for example, the ‘e’ and ‘a’ in pojkar (boys), vänner (friends), pratar (talking) sjunger (singing).
    Concerns in so-called international words (usually from Latin), which we have in common in several European languages, usually differ between Swedish and English. Compare interview / intervju, telephone / telefon, climate / klimat, where English's main emphasis lies on the first syllable, while in Swedish it’s on the last.

  • A recurring difficulty for English speakers, as witnessed by several of my students, is that Swedes generally are so fond of practicing their English that a student from the U.S. doesn’t get the opportunity to practice their new language: Swedish. At the slightest hesitation, the Swede fills in what he expects the English-speaking second language student wants to say. On the other hand, some with English as a mother tongue become a bit "lazy" because they know they can likely be understood despite language mistakes, and they sometimes mix Swedish and English in a fascinating way. Many Swedes may think that this language mix is quite functional, maybe even charming - and also reasonably understandable. (Compare with Swedish immigrants’ “Swenglish” in the U.S.)
    The ability to acquire a new language such as Swedish varies greatly between different students, and their mother tongue / first language is just one factor of many. Age, motivation, language skills (whatever that means) and knowledge of other foreign languages are at least as important as well as the learning situation and the teacher.

  • Urban Östberg

  • Urban Östberg teaches Swedish at the Institutionen för Svenska och Flerspråkighet at Stockholm University in Stockholm, Sweden.