Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Alana talks Swedish.
Systembolaget [syˇsteːmbuˈlɑːɡet] n. Language: Swedish. Meaning: An essential word which literally translates to “the system company” but is more importantly the name of the government-run liquor stores which are the only places one can legally buy alcohol in Sweden! (Excluding restaurants and clubs.)
I’m Alana, a third generation San Jose Californian. I’m 21 and study linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This past year I began taking learning Swedish because I was studying abroad in Sweden, and wanted to avoid taking real classes because I am a child. So I stuck with Swedish classes, and don’t regret it for a minute.
Numbers for Words
1. How many years have you been learning Swedish? One year.
2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) I would say about a 4. I can read and understand other people’s conversations but coming up with sentences all by my little self is a challenge.
3. Rate difficulty in learning Swedish, on a scale of 1-5, for each of the following categories:
a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 1. Pragmatics are pretty much the same as English, though swearing is more acceptable in Sweden than in the US.
b. Grammar 1. Word order is very similar to English and there are only two genders. The only major difference is the fact that the definite article (the, in English) is not its own word and is realized as a suffixal morpheme bound to the noun.
c. Pronunciation 3. There’s a velar fricative (similar to a soft English ‘g’ sound) in some Swedish dialects that can be tricky for English speakers. Also there are wayyyyyyy more vowel sounds than English and it can be hard to hear the difference between them. But the spelling is phonetic so once you get the hang of it, it isn’t difficult to remember how words are pronounced.
d. Vocabulary 1. Swedish words are fairly short as it is a relatively isolating language. The number of words seems about comparable to English.
e. Spelling 1. Spelling is pretty phonetic. They use the Latin alphabet, with the addition of three letters, å, ä, and ö /o, ɛ, and ʊ/
[Editor’s note: With almost every category ranking at a ridiculously easy 1, why aren’t we all learning Swedish?!]
Language Meets Culture
1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;)
Swedish cultural is very minimalist and the Swedish language is as well. The words are fairly short, the sentences even shorter. The entire language seems to be an exercise in fitting as much information into as few syllables as humanly possible. Minimalist furniture, minimalist fashion, minimalist language.
2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?
I was inspired to learn Swedish after being forced to take a two-week intensive language program for my year abroad. Then I was like, Real Classes? Nahhhhh I’ll just take Swedish classes, thanks . . . . and I am now continuing to learn Swedish in case I want to work there, as it is near impossible to get hired anywhere in Sweden if you don’t speak Swedish.
3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad.
Speaking at least a little Swedish definitely helped when meeting my boyfriend’s family. Although virtually all Swedes speak English, some Swedes are very uncomfortable speaking it (especially older and less educated individuals) and appreciate being able to speak their native tongue. Also, immigration to Sweden has increased exponentially in recent years and there is a growing fear of losing traditional Swedish culture as well as the language. Basically, if you want to earn major points with your Swedish boyfriend’s family, learn Swedish.
4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?
First of all, if you speak English, Swedish will be incredibly easy for you. If you speak both English and German, you probably don’t even need to take classes. Also. Have you ever seen a Swedish person?!? HOW ARE ALL OF THE PEOPLE IN SWEDEN SO HOT. (Also there are some nice low-back vowels that make it sound like everyone is trying to seduce you when they talk to you.)
[Ok, case made.]
Some Fun Stuff
1. Favorite word in the language.
Jordgubb [jo:dgub]. It sounds adorable. Also it means strawberry but literally translates to “old man of the earth.” Okay.
2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English.
Lagom [lagom]. It means not too much and not too little. Like don’t be loud and obnoxious but also don’t be an antisocial weirdo. Just be cool, man. Keep it lagom.
3. A gesture in this language that differs from English.
Swedes hold their thumbs for luck instead of crossing their fingers.
4. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made while learning Swedish.
The words for “fox” and “anus” are inconveniently similar, so if you’re trying to sing a children’s song to your boyfriend’s nephew and there’s a fox involved, be careful.
And in conclusion . . . .
Ska vi fika? “Shall we have a coffee break and a piece of cake in the middle of the day as if that were a normal thing to do every day?” Because in Sweden, it is.
Thank you so much, Alana! I wish I could enjoy some fika with you in Sweden. To read more from heroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here. And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!