Sweden is a country where almost everyone can speak English. So why bother to learn Swedish? Edina Varnagy from Hungary managed with English for a whole year but then found that Swedish could open doors — to a job, a social life and greater understanding.
Edina Varnagy from Hungary now speaks Swedish. Photo: Maria Kapla
When Edina Varnagy, 39, arrived in Sweden she had no plans to learn Swedish. In fact, she was hoping to improve her English. Having recently obtained a degree in horticulture she wanted to gain some international experience and do some rewarding work before looking for a job back home in Hungary. Her plan was to spend two semesters in Sweden, gaining work experience at an ecological wastewater treatment plant and attending an English-language course about the Baltic Sea.
“I didn’t feel I had any need of Swedish at that time and I was planning to return home when I was through,” she says. “But then I heard of a course in Swedish at a study association (Folkhögskola) about living off the land. It was a unique course and I felt I simply had to take it.”
Different ways of learning
So, how do you go about learning Swedish in Sweden? That depends in part on how permanent your stay will be. If you are a registered resident of a municipality you are entitled to study Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), which is a free basic language course. However there are alternatives. If you are here on a more temporary basis, a summer course at a high school or a university is one option. Exchange students are offered introductory courses at Swedish universities and colleges.
Varnagy took a more unusual path. She was given the chance to study together with Swedes who had writing and reading difficulties. Since they use short texts and simple exercises she was able to keep up.
Taking a summer course at a high school or a university is one way to go if you want to learn Swedish. Photo: Mathias Klang/Flickr (CC BY)
“I was already used to studying and I think that helped me tremendously,” she says. “Also, I already spoke English, which made it easier to absorb a third language. You could say that I learned Swedish through English. I also borrowed audio books from the library, read children’s books like Pettson and Mamma Mu and watched films with subtitles on TV.”
Although Varnagy learned Swedish relatively quickly, she found the language hard at the beginning. Distinguishing between masculine and feminine nouns (which take either "en" or "ett") and between "hans" and "sin" (which both mean "his") proved difficult.
Had Varnagy anticipated just how useful the language would be before she came to Sweden, she could have studied Swedish in Hungary. Online courses are available and Swedish is taught at a university in Budapest and at more than 200 other universities around the world. She could also have started borrowing books and watching TV: e-books are available via the Swedish Institute and many Swedish TV programs are available on the Internet.
Edina Varnagy learned Swedish through audio books, children's books and by watching films. Photo: Stefan Sjöberg
Swedish for socializing and working
Varnagy soon noticed other reasons why learning Swedish is a good idea, in addition to it being a requirement for courses at study associations. On the social front she increasingly found that language could both open doors and shut them.
“I don’t want to be the kind of person who need special consideration from others,” she says. “Communicating with one or two people at a time was no problem, but when I was with a whole group of people English didn’t really work. People kept switching to Swedish and I had to interrupt them and ask them to translate so I got left out and that’s no fun. The only thing I could do about it was learn the language.”
A new language — a new world
When Varnagy fell in love and decided to stay on in Sweden the benefits of speaking Swedish increased. At her job at a garden center everyone speaks Swedish, and Varnagy felt that this was just what she needed to complete the switch herself. She’s now been living in Sweden since the fall of 1996. On completion of her studies she took her Swedish B exam.
“I went on speaking English for a long time, though, with people I’d known from before. That was what we’d got used to. Then when I switched languages I remember thinking: ’Oh dear, what are they going to say now?’”
She didn’t need to worry. Switching languages meant that her relationships with people often deepened. At the same time, she acquired a greater understanding of Swedish society and the Swedish mentality.
She thinks discussing concepts like "Swedishness" and "the Swedish soul" is tricky, but remembers experiencing "Aha!" moments time and again as her ability increased. The way you construct words, for instance, may reveal how you view people and life. As an example, Varnagy mentions the expression surtant (which translates roughly as a "sour old woman"). It’s easy to understand yet has no pithy equivalent in either Hungarian or English. The Swedish word is evidence of a condensed, boiled-down way of describing reality.
“In Hungarian, we have a saying that goes roughly: ’You are as many people as the languages you know’. New languages give you access to new worlds.”
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Maria Kapla and Johannes Ståhlberg
Maria Kapla and Johannes Ståhlberg are freelance journalists specializing in language and education. They have previously worked as senior Swedish teachers in Russia.
The authors alone are responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation: Stephen Croall
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