I’ve lived in four different countries and studied four foreign languages, plus I work as an English teacher. Thanks to these experiences and, well, my personality, I have developed some strong opinions about languages and language learning.
Regardless of whether you’re planning on moving to Sweden or just visiting, I’ve decided to share my tricks for kick-starting the language learning process so you can be a Swedish whiz by the time you get here.
ONE ESSENTIAL REQUIREMENT: You must be brave. You can memorize verbs, build your vocabulary, and study grammar until the day you die, but unless you start speaking, it won’t do you any good when you actually want to use it. (NB: It’s not cheating to strengthen your resolve with alcohol.)
My trusty Swedish pocket dictionary has been a real lifesaver from time to time. Photo: Kate Wiseman
Step 1: Focus on the present tense first.
This is one of the best pieces of advice I got when I first moved to Italy. I was stressing about my lack of language skills when one of our study abroad student advisors overheard me and decided to nip my stress in the bud. “Don’t worry about all the different verb tenses you use in English,” he said. “Focus on the present tense first.” It was like a light bulb going off.
In everyday situations, people will understand you perfectly well if you use the present tense correctly. It’s a focused, simple, concrete goal to get you started. If you’ve studied a foreign language in school, you probably learned it the same way I did: step-by-step, one verb tense and vocabulary set at a time. Then I realized that I had taken Spanish lessons for about ten years, and I didn’t have that kind of time.
If your goal is communication and your time is limited, focus on the present tense first.
Step 2: Learn the past and future forms of to be, to want, to need, to have, to like, and to go.
Having these six verbs at your disposal will take you far in your everyday life. This trick I got from one of my high school Spanish teachers, who always drilled us on the DISHES verbs in Spanish: Decir (to say), Ir (to go), Ser (to be), Hacer (to have), Estar (to be #2), and Saber (to know). A few years and a little re-configuration later, and I’ve found that to be, to want, to need, to have, to like, and to go are the essential, must-know verbs.
The bad news is that due to a strange twist of fate, these verbs are usually irregular, and therefore it’s going to take a little effort. Your hard work will pay off, though. I promise!
Step 3: Build your vocabulary.
A few verbs and some basic knowledge will take you a long way, but eventually you’ll need, you know, words to make the rest of the sentence. Building your vocabulary can be an ongoing, casual affair or an intense, I’m-not-moving-until-I’ve-figured-out-every-word in this Swedish Elle article. Do both. Mix it up!
My best tips: Carry a pocket dictionary with you, or if you have a smart phone, download a dictionary app. Norstedts Dictionary is really good for Swedish-English translations. Make notes on index cards, notepads, newspapers, whatever and wherever. Review your notes a couple of times a week. Refresh your memory. Say the words out loud.
Just a few of the piles of index cards of words that I made... great for pulling out and flipping through when you're waiting in line or sitting on the bus. Photo: Kate Wiseman
Some people say the best way to learn vocabulary quickly is to watch tv. That’s never really worked for me, but try it and see if it helps you. Read the free newspapers you get on the trains. Try to figure out signs. Go to the grocery store and read all the labels for foods and home items.
Some phrases you won’t pick up at the grocery store but are useful to have are connector words or phrases of time: at the beginning, at the end, usually, sometimes, always, never, etc. Pay attention to the words you use when telling a story and you’ll collect more.
Step 4: Speak… all the time.
I’m serious about this “all the time” thing.
Being shy is an obstacle. Being nervous is an obstacle. Being worried that people are going to laugh at you or make fun of you or just not understand you is an obstacle. These are all obstacles you can conquer, though, so it’s time to muster up your gumption and speak!
You can ease your way into this by telling stories in your head. Describe things to yourself internally as you walk through the city. Read a newspaper article out loud in the safety of your own home. Talk to children. Find the tiny fruit and vegetable store run by an old woman/an under-stimulated employee—somehow, there always seems to be one just down the street from me no matter where I am in Europe—and talk to the people there. Chances are, they’ll be kind and patient with you as you stumble along.
A few of my Swedish books. They're great, but most important... start speaking! Photo: Kate Wiseman
Step 5: Stay positive.
So much of expat life is like one long test of your character, and sometimes it helps to think about it that way. There are highs and lows, ebbs and flows, and especially when you’re trying to learn a new language, there will come a time when you feel like you’re not improving anymore or—more depressingly—that you’re getting worse.
When this happens, know when to take a break and when to keep pushing through. Some people advocate never speaking English from the moment you enter a foreign country to the second you leave, but frankly, learning a new language is hard. You get unbelievably tired, and at the end of a long day, sometimes the best thing is to retreat into silence or call home and speak in your own language.
That said, enjoy small victories when they come. Put yourself in situations that challenge you, that take you out of your comfort zone, and then feel a well-deserved sense of pride when you’re able to order a coffee, ask for directions, or make a doctor’s appointment.
More tips? More ideas? Questions? Comments? Let me know what you think in the comments.