One-month Sprint Challenge: Swedish


At the time of writing, I’ve been in Sweden for around a month and a half. I’ve sure been having a good time, hanging out with friends from all over the world. But what’s been happening language-wise? On surface, not much. I mean I’ve made some Swedish friends, in addition to local students on the same corridor, but they aren’t really someone I say ‘hej’ regularly to. And of course, all the rumours about swedes being ‘too’ proficient in English or difficult to befriend kick in (I mean they aren’t really rumours – just facts), leaving me in this terrible fear of talking to people and trying to make friends.

So so far what I’ve been doing is studying quite intensively: listening and reading on LingQ, going through a quite academic book while copying vocabulary – like the good old days in school – and talking to myself, in hopes of reaching that ‘critical point’ where I can understand what’s said to me and speak something that at least makes sense. I have a feeling that deep under, I’m improving by leaps and bounds, but it just doesn’t come out. I feel defeated whenever I have to ask ‘vad sa du?”, my tongue ties or I receive a reply in English. (From an immigrant!) I decided I have to change this: I have to make a shift from input to output. And I’m giving myself a challenge to do this.

Goal and reward

In one month, on the 27th and 28th of October, there’s a test held in my host university, Lund University, called TISUS (Test in Swedish for university studies). As the name implies, it gives students the ‘permission’ (that’s how I’m calling it) to study in Swedish – which of course means I have to reach that level too. This usually requires 2 or 3 years of study, in particular as a university major, but I’ve decided to go all Benny Lewis here and go for it with just half a year of self study behind me.

The reward? Why, I’ll get to study in Swedish and have Swedish classmates of course! (There are painfully few English courses that aren’t limited to exchange students, especially in fields that interest me.)

Now I have to mention that it’s not the end of the world if I fail this test. All I have to lose is around 1600SEK (OK that’s not so cheap but fine), and maybe suffer some psychological pressure. And I’ll have to take quite general classes. But just as in any language challenge, I’m using this pressure to give me intense motivation to improve.

My current level

Reading: I can understand most of the texts in museums (my favourite reading material) and movie subtitles, but the book I’m currently reading (Inblick i nordisk mytologi) contains a lower proportion of words I know.

Writing: I’ve hardly ever written anything other than that one short essay at the end of the intensive course during the orientation period, and several diary entries. I’ll surely be having problems with academic writing.

Listening: here’s a fun story: I was in Vasamuseet in Stockholm a week or so ago (the one with an ancient warship), and I joined a Swedish guided tour – in which I was the only visitor! Thankfully due to having eavesdropped on an English tour in advance, plus some extrapolation skills I’d acquired, I managed to grasp the content. Also I’ve been listening to podcasts and news, but I’m always running into this problem of “understanding every word but not the message” – anyone else out there?

Speaking: this is the most important (especially outside the test) and the most worrying part. I can’t say a single sentence without forming it in my head first, let alone more complex topics. It’s a long way towards my favourite definition of fluency: to start a sentence without worrying how to end it.


Strategies for the sprint

Judging from my experience, I think what I’ve done so far is in the right direction, just not sufficient. So I’m planning to kick it up a notch, plus some other activities:

  • finish reading at least the two books I’ve borrowed, on Norse mythology and astronomy respectively. Also going through a textbook called Text i Fokus to train reading comprehension and expand vocabulary.
  • write a blog post in Swedish at least once per week on an ‘impersonal’ issue, i.e. anything but diary-ish blogging. I’m aiming for 700 words, just like our English writing paper in the public exam (though I used to write 1000+ haha). I’m planning to write about some social stuff if I can come up with that, or something about languages. So if you can’t read Swedish, just skip those – or wait for the translation!
  • NOT forget my daily dose of news. I just wish there were a daily news podcast that isn’t in ‘simple Swedish’… Also I’m continuing to listen to Herman Lindqvist’s audiobook and subscribing to Simon Lussetti, Sweden’s most popular YouTuber. He just happens to speak the southern dialect, i.e. the one around my area, and it’s quite a thick accent indeed!
  • Yes, it’s time I got my a** out there. My minimum for speaking is joining all language cafés that the university is organising, i.e. every Tuesday and Wednesday, sometimes Thursday too. Besides, I’m definitely staying after my orchestra rehearsals to drink and chat (if only I could come up with more common topics..) That’s all I could come up with for now, sadly – tell me if you have other suggestions! (Like videos or something?)

Thanks Ramon for his inspiration.

My biggest hurdle

I contemplated on it a bit, and realised that the biggest hurdle isn’t the fact that Swedes speak perfect English, no. I’ve been telling everyone and myself that, until I met Mojtaba, my host in Stockholm. He’s Iranian, just as Asian as I am, but has hardly spoken a word of English since he arrived in Sweden years ago. Turns out it’s (mostly) not the Swedes’ fault that they speak English to me but my own: by convincing myself that they wouldn’t speak to me in Swedish, I’ve been putting myself off trying, or even giving up without a fight. That’s why this is the time I got over the imaginary hurdle, challenged the myth and set myself the ‘no-English’ rule: always Swedish with anyone who speaks it!

Wish me good luck and see you on the other side.