Adventures in Learning Swedish

by Brian on February 20, 2016 in Autodidacticism,Foreign Languages,Random Experiments

Adventures in Learning Swedish

Thanks to Viggo for the sweet set of Swedish dictionaries!

tl;dr – I watched the Swedish sci-fi series Äkta Människor (Real Humans) and it’s now one of my favorite shows of all time. While the show had English subtitles, it inspired me to learn some Swedish for a more complete viewing experience. This post discusses the Swedish learning experience and links to some Swedish learning resources.

Ten years ago if you had asked me about Sweden the first things that would have come to mind are the Swedish Bikini Team (which it turns out aren’t even Swedish), vikings, Ikea, and the country that Jamie Lee Curtis’s character lies about being from in the movie Trading Places. It just wasn’t a place that I knew much about or had been on my radar.

Even after having worked for a Swedish-owned company for nearly four years, having had daily contact with Swedes, and been on a business trip to Sweden I only knew about one word of Swedish–“Hej,” meaning “Hi” and pronounced like “Hey” in English. They often say it twice in a row and I had giddy, child-like fun running around Stockholm saying “Hejhej” to everyone.

It wasn’t until I went looking for foreign language sci-fi shows to watch and discovered a series called Äkta Människor (Real Humans) that I became motivated to try and learn the language.

Fortunately, having learned Japanese and Korean to a fairly high degree and attempted several others, learning foreign languages is something I had a pretty good idea how to go about.

Swedish learning goals

First a dose of reality. People who’ve never seriously studied a foreign language before are often grossly misinformed about how much time and work it takes to become fluent in another language. Becoming fluent enough to understand a foreign language TV show in a very short period of time is completely unrealistic. You’re just not going to listen to a couple language tapes and be like “pow, I speak Swedish now.”

And watching TV shows is actually one of the worst ways–at least for absolute beginners anyway–to learn a foreign language. Why? Because the level of language spoken is way beyond where you are now, and typically spoken at speed far beyond your ability to pick up even the parts you ostensibly know.

That said, watching Äkta Människor was not a language learning tactic but rather my raison d’être here, so I had to adjust accordingly. My expectations for what I would be able to achieve in Swedish in the immediate future were low. Very low. In fact, my goal was only to be able to pick up the occasional word or sentence here and there.

Watching the show was still going to be primarily a “reading English subtitles” affair, my aim was simply to accent it with a little bit of Swedish flavor here and there.

Swedish study plan

Since my goals were very modest, I was pretty casual about my study plan. The first thing I did was listen to Unit 1 of Pimsleur’s Swedish which you can get for free.

Pimsleur’s speaking only approach is good for learning some basic phrases and getting an introductory feel for how the language sounds and is pronounced. However, completing an entire level of Pimsleur lessons is an exercise in intense boredom and you come away knowing breathtakingly little because there is so much repetition. Pimsleur isn’t cheap either, so after the free first lesson I moved on.

My next stop was the FSI Swedish Course. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) released many of its courses into the public domain a few years ago and they can be found online free. I’m often not impressed by FSI courses, but FSI Swedish is very well done. The introductory unit on Swedish pronunciation and spelling may be the best I’ve seen for any language ever.

In my view the most productive exercise in the early stages of learning a language is being exposed to a firehose of vocabulary within a common sentence pattern. “Can I get… X,” “Do you like… Y,” “A is B.” That type of thing. From the sentence patterns you learn basic grammar and get a feel for how things are phrased in the language. The goal is not to master the firehose of vocabulary, however, but just seed it in your mind for when you encounter it again later.

Fortunately the FSI Swedish course is designed with just such an approach. It may actually introduce too much vocabulary up front, and so that’s where it was nice to have done the free unit of Pimsleur first.

Finishing the whole FSI program meant I’d probably never get around to actually watching my show, so I just did the first couple lessons and called it good enough for now.

Learning Swedish while watching the show

It’s a big help to have both the English and Swedish subtitles on hand when watching Äkta Människor, so you can switch back and forth as needed. You use the English subtitles so you can understand the show, and the Swedish so you can see for certain what is actually being said.

If you don’t care much about picking up Swedish, you can just watch the show straight through without pausing or stopping. You won’t learn much–or probably any–Swedish that way. If, like me, you do actually want to pick up something from the show you need to do something different.

While watching the show I would constantly pause, rewind, and check things on Google translate. I didn’t try to understand every word as that would have been utterly futile. I just paused it when I heard words that sounded like something I knew, or they said phrases I thought might be interesting to know. Often I would have to listen to parts over and over again to be able to distinctly hear all the words that the Swedish subs said were supposedly in the sentence.

Watching the show this way takes longer. Way longer. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend 2-3 hours watching a 50 minute episode. However, since it was a labor of love it was time joyously spent. I love looking up words and figuring out what things mean. I’m one of those people who’s always Googling things and looking up things on Wikipedia even when I watch English language shows.

After a while it became clear that I wanted something more than just Google translate. If you have ever used it then you know that the machine translations are often exceedingly crappy. I wanted to take things to the next level and start using a proper dictionary. I wanted to find something that was like what Merriam-Webster or the OED is to English.

Not really knowing anything about Swedish dictionaries or what the Swedes use, I reached out to one of my former bosses from my days working for the Swedes. He said that Svenska Akademiens Ordlista contains the “official” list of words that belong to Swedish, and Norstedts Svenska Ordbok is the go to dictionary. He even very kindly sent me a sweet set of Swedish dictionaries! The picture at the top of this post is of them.

An unexpected property of Swedish that makes it particularly foreigner friendly

The unequivocally hardest part of learning a foreign language is wrapping your ear around it and actually being able to hear what’s being said at native speeds. It’s even worse when you’re watching TV and you don’t have a conversation partner who is adjusting to your ability level.

Fortunately, Swedish has a unique property that makes it particularly foreigner friendly. Swedish long vowels are pronounced very long. They are pronounced so long that you can go out and get a cup of coffee and come back before the syllable is over.

For example, just listen to how long the -ol sound lasts when this native Swedish speaker pronounces the word pistol. These very long sounds slow down the dialog and add clarity to words making them easier to pick up.

By way of contrast, Danish is a very, very similar Scandinavian language I’ve also experimented with that is pronounced quickly and mumbled making it extremely difficult to pick up on even the most basic dialog. Side note, I imagine this is how non-native English speakers feel about English.

How much of the show was I actually able to understand?

The short answer is not that much, but more than I expected. In addition to the long Swedish vowels, there were several things going in my favor.

If you were to start categorizing things, it feels like 50% of the dialogue in TV shows is just people greeting each other, saying goodbye, saying “I love you,” saying “I’d like to talk to you,” or saying “yeah, sure” or “no” to things.

It also helped that for a sci-fi show, much of the dialog in Äkta Människor uses fairly basic vocabulary. There is some code that makes the humanoid robots “alive,” but the language never really gets that technical. There were lots of sentences about having the code and looking for the code, but no one explaining the theoretical basis of the flux capacitor or trying to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.

You may not know it, but English is classified as a Germanic language. Swedish also belongs to the Germanic language family, which means there is meaningful overlap between the languages.

People who have studied even a little Spanish or French know that there is a broad base of common vocabulary inherited from Latin. These are often somewhat more technical or formal words like “acceptable.”

With English and Swedish many of the most basic words are shared between languages. English words like hear, go, and me are basically the same as their Swedish counterparts höra, , and mig (pronounced like “may”). More than a time or two I found myself understanding a sentence perfectly well even though it contained words I was hearing in Swedish for the first time.

Sometimes even long-ish sentences are word-for-word the same as English and just sound like English with a thick accent. Just listen to what “kan du höra mig” sounds like on Google translate.

Swedish and Danish sentences that are the same in their respective languages as they are in English have actually become a fascination of mine. It’s a refreshingly different experience from learning Japanese and Korean where the languages are completely different from top to bottom (well, except for a few English loan words).

Anyway, to wrap up, given the goals I started with I would have to say mission accomplished.

I’ve also found that I rather enjoy the Swedish language for its own sake, and my appetite is whet to check out some more Swedish shows.

Swedish learning resources

Äkta Människor (Real Humans) – imdb, Wikipedia

Svtplay.seStream Swedish TV shows from Sveriges Television. Many shows are region restricted, but quite a few are available “utomlands.”

Pimsleur Swedish – A speaking only language course, free first lesson

FSI Swedish – Foreign Service Institute’s Swedish Basic Course, particularly good unit on pronunciation. Public domain and free.

Google translateFree Google translator app. Machine translations are often suspect, but still very useful.

Norstedts Online – Norstedts is the go to Swedish dictionary. Limited version of the Swedish-English dictionary available online free. The full version and Swedish-Swedish dictionary are only available online with a monthly subscription. – A crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Listen to native speakers pronounce words. Very good coverage.

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