The Most Difficult Things About Learning Swedish

Swedish is spoken by 8.7 million native speakers throughout the world with the large majority found in Sweden and Finland.  Believe it or not, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Swedish is actually one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn, due to its apparent similarity. All languages have things about them that are difficult to learn, and Swedish is no exception to that. Here are nine things that learners of Swedish find difficult:

English is so well spoken

It is a little embarrassing to be reminded that native English speakers are not renowned for their language skills. So imagine how an eager learner of Swedish feels attempting to order something in their local cafe, to be answered in perfect English with a range of choices. It’s more than a little frustrating. 83% of the people living in Sweden speak English, and 8.2 million of them do so as a second language. That is a lot of people who already beat you in the language learning race.

Don’t talk to strangers

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Photo via Flickr /Flickr

If you’re able to push through their near-native English-speaking abilities, the next trick is finding a Swede who has the time to chat. Speaking to strangers without a specific reason, like asking directions or the time, just isn’t part of their culture. It isn’t like England where you become temporary best friends with the person in the queue at the supermarket.

Long compound words

When you think of compound words, the first language you probably consider is German. But it is not alone. Swedish is also guilty of the compound word. As examples of the minefield that is compound words, how does arbetsmarknadsdepartement (ministry of employment), kunskapsutveckling (knowledge development), or jämställdhet (gender equality) sound?

Confusion with the other Nordic languages

We’ve said this before and we’ll likely say it again: the Nordic languages are all very similar. The problem with this is that there is a lot to mix up. A word you might hear as Swedish may in fact turn out to be Norwegian or Danish, and vice versa. Because tonally and phonetically they are all so close, there is overlap, there are cognates, and there’s not much you can do but plough your way through, hoping for the best.

Tongue twister pronunciation

We could break down individually what all the different confusions are in terms of Swedish pronunciation but we’ll just give you one example. The word for seven, sju, is thought to be one of the hardest Swedish words to learn to say. It sounds a little like shoe, but not quite, and you’ll always be able to spot a non-native Swedish speaker with this simple little word. Here's some Swedish tungvrickare (tongue twisters) to give you even more of a taste.

There are more vowels than you are used to

Okay, so we said we wouldn’t break down all the pronunciation difficulties, however, vowels deserve a section of their own. On top of the regular a,e,i, o and u, there are the additional ä, ö, and å. For a student of Swedish, trying to use these vowels correctly and not mistake them for a very English a or o is a very hard task indeed. Take the word röd(red). If we pronounce it the 'English' way, it would sound like 'rod', when in fact the ö sound more like the u in fur. Rod doesn't actually have a function in Swedish, other than to identify you as a non-native.

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Little Dragon via Wikipedia/Wikipedia

Always the tone

On top of the difficulty of the pronunciation and vowels generally, the tonality of Swedish makes you feel as if you are living in a musical. Well, not quite. But the two tones, acute and grave, can completely change the meaning of a word. The most common example giving for students of Swedish is the word anden, which can mean 'duck' or 'spirit' depending on the tone. So you’ll have to be very sure of what you are trying to say.

Gender issues

It’s one of the first shocks of learning another language for English speakers; nouns have gender. And why shouldn’t they? Well, it would be nice if they didn’t if it were only for the ease with which to learn a language. Swedish uses two genders, the common and the neuter, or the 'n' gender and the 't' gender. en flygplats (an airport) but ett flygplan  (an airplane). Which works if your articles are indefinite. If they're definite, then they are suffixed: drömmen (the dream) and hjärtat  (the heart).

Feeling tense?

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Photo via Wikimedia /Wikimedia

For English speakers who are constantly telling us what they are doing in the present, whilst they are doing it, they will feel a little restricted attempting to do the same in Swedish. Why? Well, simply because there is no continuous tense in Swedish - the present simple and the present continuous are one and the same. It may seem like a good thing, one less tense to learn, but when you are used to expressing yourself in a certain way and that is taken away from you, well, forming continuous thoughts gets confusing.

So there you have it. As ‘difficult’ lists go, this really isn’t the worst list in the world, and it's fair to say that there are harder languages out there to master. Learning Swedish is, perhaps, only as difficult as you make it. Either way, we say Swedish is a glorious language to learn, but that might be because we've been listening to Lykke Li and José González on repeat all week, who, despite both singing in English do originate from Sweden. We also think that there is a beautiful, lyrical sound to the Swedish language and would love for you to find that out for yourselves. Why don’t you do it in good company? Contact us to see what courses we have on offer!