Swedish is not a language many people study just for the heck of it. Romance languages, German, Chinese or Japanese—not too out of the ordinary. But Swedish? Not so much.
Nonetheless, when in Rome…
For expats and all language learners, here are my top 15 tips for kick-starting your language learning, even when it’s rough going, even if you’re shy, even if you think you can’t.
8. Be brave!
Learning a language is not for the faint of heart. It’s important to be kind to yourself during this process by taking breaks when you need them, allowing yourself to be imperfect, whining about how difficult it is (we’ve all been there!).
As soon as you’ve gotten that out of your system, though, you have to be brave! You have to get out there, you have to talk to people, you have to let yourself be vulnerable. Above all, do not allow yourself to be shy.
Shyness is the language killer. Don’t kid yourself that doing an endless number of grammar exercises is going to result in your waking up one day and suddenly being fluent! You have to talk.
I’ve gotten pretty good with my Swedish, but there are still times when I suddenly feel shy or nervous for some reason. When that happens, I try to trick myself into being brave. For example, I’m the oldest of three girls, and I am very protective of my two little sisters. (Not that they’re little, really, but I will think of them that way for the rest of my life.)
If I tell myself before I go into a shop that I’m going to do something for them, I am automatically 5 times more courageous and more determined than I would be on my own. It’s not me that wants the coffee, it’s my sister! For some reason, creating a scenario like that pushes me out of my own shell and gives me that extra edge that I need.
9. Take breaks when you need them.
Some people say that the key to learning a language is swearing off your native language until you’ve become fluent in the target language, but I’m not one of them.
Practicing a language is like weight training—it’s good to push yourself, but you have to expand your limits gradually, and it’s also important to take a day off and let your muscles recover. Persistence is really important when you’re learning a language, but when you just can’t take it anymore, take a day or few off. Then get back at it.
10. Find a friend who expects you to be there.
If you want to start working out, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to find a gym buddy. Having a gym buddy will make you look forward to working out by reframing exercise as a social event, inspiring you to keep trying, and holding you accountable.
Finding a “Swedish buddy” is important for the same reasons. You can be friends, allies, and compatriots in the giant struggle against the language you’re trying to learn. For some reason, we (humans) tend to feel better when we know that someone else is struggling with a similar situation, and this helps a lot with improving your attitude (Tip #3), starting speaking (Tip #6), and hanging in there (Tip #15).
You can find a Swedish buddy in your language class, in an international networking group, online, browsing the English language section at the library, in the grocery store… basically anywhere you might find people. Once again—don’t be shy. You two need each other!
11. Listen carefully and analytically.
It’s a well-known fact that writers need to read analytically to figure how to write more skillfully. The same principle applies to football players who spend hours watching game tapes to see how different teams work together as a unit or how a player executed a move that totally killed the defender.
The same principle applies to you, too. Sentences are built in different ways in different languages, and if you don’t start picking up on the patterns of speech around you, you’ll be stuck trying to translate your thoughts word-for-word.
You don’t want to be stuck translating word-for-word because (a) it’s painfully slow and (b) it won’t work. Instead of sticking to your own way of formulating sentences, you have to start listening for patterns that work well in the language you’re trying to learn.
Takeaway: take out the earphones and start listening to the conversations around you. I’m talking hardcore eavesdropping.
Lots of people say that you should watch TV, but that’s scripted, so make sure you’re not just watching TV. You can listen to the radio online or actually watch a lot of radio shows on YouTube so you can get a little more context from the speakers’ facial expressions and body language. (Click here for SverigesRadio’s YouTube account, Vakna med The Voice! Stockholm pop radio YouTube account)
12. Get out there and do something!
Learning a language is hard, so sometimes you get depressed and unmotivated and don’t want to leave the house and whenever someone asks you how it’s going, you say you’re watching a lot of TV and making slow progress.
The time has come to get off your tush and venture out into the wide world beyond your front door. Why?
You learn faster and better when you’re motivated, and you’re more motivated when you see the need to do something, and you’re more likely to need to do something in a foreign language if you get off your couch.
You learn faster and better when you’re interested in a subject, and you’re more likely to get interested in Swedish, for example, when you go out and see things like “slutspurt” written in giant letters on a shop window.
You learn faster and better when you’re in constant contact with the language, and there just so happen to be lots of people who speak different languages right outside your door.
There are more reasons, but you get the point…
Hello! Verb tenses aren’t going to learn themselves! Vocabulary doesn’t stick in your brain by magic! Teachers assign homework for a reason, not because grammar exercises are nonstop fun to correct in class! Sit your butt down and study. No excuses.
If you have trouble motivating yourself to study, just say to yourself that you’ll study for 5 minutes. Reading flashcards on the bus counts. Chances are, once you get started, you’ll get kind of involved in what you’re doing and stick with it for longer. But for heaven’s sakes, don’t kid yourself that you can just “pick up” a language.
Check out Marie Forleo’s video blog “How to Get Motivated When You’re Stuck in a Rut” for more tips on getting going.
14. Put yourself in a work situation.
My Swedish started really taking off when I had to use it for work. I had to teach an Elementary English class for the first time, and I went out of my way to learn the Swedish equivalent of every lesson I taught because I was driven not to fail at my job.
Finding work can be tough in a foreign country, but finding a work-like situation is a lot easier. For example, you can find volunteering opportunities through international networking groups, at Amnesty International, through veterinarians and women’s shelters. You could also join the board of a group or start a new group of your own—anything that gives you a set of responsibilities that you must take care of.
For most people, feeling the impetus to perform well in a work situation will push you to succeed far more quickly than learning for pleasure will. Don’t get hung up on whether it’s a real job or not—focus on the part where you’re responsible for doing something meaningful, and work on that.
Another plus is that this is also a great way to get a foot in the door for a job later on, either at the place you’re volunteering or by networking through people in the group you’ve joined.
15. Hang in there.
Even when it feels like learning a language is an uphill-only marathon, even when it feels like you’re getting worse, even when you hate Swedish and feel like it hates you back, hang in there.
Like any other skill, you’ll have good days and bad days, just like tennis players have days where they double fault every other serve and actors have movies that flop and singers have albums that just don’t sell. It just happens! It doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless or you should give up. Everyone has their down days. Just refocus and start again.
Final words: don’t stress, don’t hold yourself to impossible standards, and most of all—don’t give up! You can do it!