swedish mistakes

3 mistakes you’ll probably make when learning Swedish

This is a guest post from Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux at Bee Swedish.

…and how to avoid them

Walking to North America for the holidays

Swedish and English can seem so similar. And what would make more sense than using går as a direct translation of go? Only that går, if you are talking about modes of transport means walk. If you are not using your feet, the verb is åker. There are plenty of cases like this, where my students translate directly from English to Swedish and end up conveying a completely different message.

The importance of this is self-explanatory, but what is the solution?

Instead of treating words as separate items, try to memorise complete sentences. There are many advantages to this. In my experience, it does not take more ‘effort’ to memorise a whole sentence than a single word. In fact, by contextualising words, you are much more likely to remember them. Added, you will store information about sentence structure, verb tenses, prepositions, collocations, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and adjectives.

Instead of treating words as separate items, try to memorise complete sentences. There are many advantages to this. In my experience, it does not take more ‘effort’ to memorise a whole sentence than a single word. In fact, by contextualising words, you are much more likely to remember them. Added, you will store information about sentence structure, verb tenses, prepositions, collocations, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and adjectives.

Using a Latin word order

In Latin languages, and in this case, including English, there is a simple rule that the subject should always follow the verb. This is not the case for Nordic languages, including Swedish. In main clauses, the verb always needs to come second, unless it is a binary question.

Idag är det kallt.
Swedish word order: [Adverbial – verb – subject – adverbial]
Today, it is cold.
English word order: [Adverbial – subject – verb – adverbial]

Why does this matter?

Studies have shown, that if you use the wrong word order when speaking to native Swedes, it will take longer for their brains to process the information, and that they will miss parts of what you say when they are trying to re-organise the words. Also, this is such a common mistake that when Swedes meet non-native speakers who master this rule, they are greatly impressed.

The solution?

Revising grammar like crazy does not seem to work, in my experience. Your brain will still trick you to sustain and repeat what it believes is correct, and in fact, this will be automatised as you (and often, your fellow students) will apply a faulty rule over and over again. Instead, I believe in the power of automatisation, which is a an underrated learning method among the majority of my students. Reading out aloud from your textbook or other ‘correct’ texts is a great way of implementing a subconscious and applicable knowledge of the correct sentence structure. We should remember that learning a language is much more than grasping the theoretical part, it is also a practice, like dancing, where muscle memory plays a huge role in achieving proficiency. That means, your lips will help your brain to get it right!

Not taking the prosody into account

Do you struggle with what your Swedish teacher probably calls long and short vowels? Are Swedish phrasal verbs something you either hate, or never heard of? Do you think native speakers speak too fast for you to grasp a thing? I know your case. It is very likely that you have not been properly introduced to the particularities and the importance of Swedish prosody.

Prosody, if you are unfamiliar with the concept, is, basically, the rhythm of spoken language. There are long and short syllables, as measured in time. Vowels can be long. And consonants can be long. Important words in a statement or question are marked with one long syllable, or a maximum of two long syllables, each. Words that carry little information, such as prepositions, pronouns and the verb part of phrasal verbs, are usually short. Shortness is defined as being short in contrast to a long syllable in the same sentence.

For example, musik [music] is stressed on the second syllable – everything apart from a very long i is very short. In contrast to musik, both talar [speak] and tallar [pine trees] are stressed on the first syllable. The difference between the former and latter is that talar stresses a long a, and tallar a long l. This is also reflected in the spelling: one consonant = long vowel, two consonants = long consonant.

What to do?

The good news is that this is something you can start practising yourself, as soon as a you get a thorough understanding of how it works. You can get really far with some experimenting and a plenty of courage. I tell my students that if when speaking Swedish, they think they feel stupid, they sound normal. If they feel normal, they sound stupid. The last part is not completely true, but I enjoy ignite some fear in them once in awhile.

The bad news is that you need a really good teacher to introduce you to this. The very bad news is that many otherwise excellent teachers of Swedish are not always proficient in this particular topic to. If they try to make you pronounce a ‘short vowel’, run! (By focusing on the short sounds, your brain will be tricked into making it long.)

Why is this important

First of all, this impacts your listening comprehension. Second, if pronounced correctly, Swedish is much easier to speak. And most importantly, Swedes experience huge difficulty when listening to their language being spoken with no respect to the prosody, and by improving this skill, you will soon discover that Swedes will actually enjoy a proper conversation with you, rather than telling you that your Swedish is very good.

A little about Sofi

Sofi has helped internationals to communicate effectively in Swedish and with Swedes, since 2008, in Sweden and the UK. Originally trained as an architect, Sofi has developed a way of thinking that is analytical and critical at the same time as being creative and playful.

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