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How I learned Swedish during my Master’s studies

Sign with the text "Talar du svenska?"

Photo of the writer of the article

In this post, Reynir Ragnarsson, intern with the Alumni & Employability team autumn 2022, reflects on his journey toward becoming a fluent Swedish-speaker.

Reynir studies the Master’s Programme in Strategic Communication at Campus Helsingborg. He is originally from Iceland but has lived half of his life in the US.

The only way to learn any language, is to fully immerse yourself in it

Prior to moving to Sweden in the summer of 2021 to begin the Master’s Programme in Strategic Communication, I decided one very important thing; that when I moved, I would not merely exist there as an “outside observer” living a separate life from locals and only mingling with other international students, but really live there as a member of that society. Because the way I see it, what is the point of studying in another country if the intention is not to see and experience that country’s culture and people? Although making connections with fellow international students is great, I figured that if I were to only socialise with other newcomers, I risked finding myself in a “bubble” without any connection to the larger society. Naturally, the only way for me to do that was to be able to speak the language, and so I decided to learn Swedish.

I can’t say exactly when I committed to learning Swedish because it was very much an on-and-off process, but by using the app Duolingo a few minutes a day, reading Swedish news, and consuming Swedish media, I gradually began to understand Swedish. After about two years I could understand everything and speak about 80-90%. However, I never took a single class in Swedish, I simply immersed myself in that world.

No formal lessons and no SFI

Of course, it must be said that as an Icelander I had a bit of a head start in learning Swedish as compared to someone from a romance-speaking country, since both Icelandic and Swedish belong to the so-called “North Germanic language group” along with Danish and Norwegian, which all ultimately stem from the same “old Norse language” that was spoken in Scandinavia some 1000 years ago. Nevertheless, despite our common origins, Icelandic is not mutually intelligible with Swedish in the same way that Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are to each other. An Icelander would not be able to understand a Swede any more than a Dutchman would if neither had any experience with the language.

The word language highlighted with pink penRegularly exposing myself to the language through informal means (watching a Swedish TV series with Swedish subtitles for example) was therefore one way to become familiar with words and how they were pronounced, alongside five minutes of Duolingo during my daily commute or lunchbreaks. I wouldn’t say I have any better grasp on language-learning than the average person, but I did have a strong desire to be able to communicate with Swedes in Swedish as soon as possible, and that proved to be the most important factor.

When I was in high school, for example, I took three years of Spanish. But despite that, I learned more Swedish in a year from Duolingo and consuming Swedish media than I ever did in my three years of formal Spanish classes. The main reason is precisely that…that it was just classes. In my mind I was simply doing what needed to be done to get a certain grade, but in my heart I hadn’t decided that I wanted to learn Spanish and thus no matter how much homework we did, it was doomed from the very start.

You can read thousands of books on how to swim, but eventually you must get in the water

diver in water

A common thing that I hear from other international students is that they are in fact very knowledgeable in Swedish and can understand a lot, but somehow, they hesitate to put into practice what they’ve learned when the time comes to actually speak Swedish. Even when they’re in a situation where they should be able to hold a conversation, somehow the idea that their pronunciation or vocabulary is not “100% fluent” leads them to abandon speaking in Swedish altogether, and just switch to English for convenience’s sake. The great irony of this is that if you never accept that you will speak a bit different in the beginning of your journey, then you will of course never get to that point of sounding fluent. You simply must accept that the first Swedish words to come out of your mouth will naturally not sound like a native-born “Stockholmer” and you will have an accent, but once you’ve said those words enough times, they will begin to sound more natural. The good news, however, is that in my experience, even when you just attempt to speak the language of the country you are in, people will not only appreciate it but be overjoyed! Even if it is just one or two words, they appreciate the fact that people outside their own culture would make such an effort, and this in turn can open the doors to eventual friendships (which many people often complain is hard to find in Sweden). But to this I say it’s just a matter of leaving the comfort of “the bubble” and mustering up the courage to jump into the deep end of the pool and testing out what you’ve learned.


One of the early benefits of my newly acquired Swedish knowledge, was that I was able to find my student apartment in Helsingborg, which was actually cheaper than the apartments being marketed to international students. But here was the thing…my future apartment was only being advertised in Swedish and thereby most international students wouldn’t even have known about it from their Google searches. The unfortunate effect of this trend is that Swedish students will often live in one building that is composed of mostly other Swedes and international students will live in another that is almost exclusively international students, with very little chance for mingling. Perhaps it’s no wonder that many foreigners find it hard to meet other Swedes, but I sincerely believe that the language of the place you are in is the key to all the doors which might otherwise be locked to you: making friends, getting a job, and simply living there rather than existing as a “permanent tourist”. So next time you’re at the bar, try saying “en öl tack” instead of “one beer please”. Consider this: an accent is often perceived as attractive!

city view from Lund

For many, studying abroad is also an opportunity to establish themselves in their host country to be able to work there after their studies. This was one of my other strong motivations for using my time as a student to learn Swedish. That way, when I graduated and was ready to enter the labour market, I could just as well begin my career in Sweden and my options would not be limited to English-speaking positions. As a preemptive measure to this possible future, I decided to test out my Swedish capabilities in a professional setting by applying to a Swedish-speaking internship position. Naturally I was quite nervous about doing a job interview entirely in Swedish, since speaking Swedish in a job setting is a lot more intimidating than within an informal social setting. Nevertheless, my employers were not put off by my accent and offered me the position. This experience ultimately helped me even more by giving me time to get used to writing emails, partaking in meetings, and speaking with colleagues entirely in Swedish. Had I not done my internship, I maybe would have lacked the confidence to apply for such jobs in Sweden, but after my time as an intern at the External Relations Department within Lund University I feel confident about beginning my career here!


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