Assuming that you’re capable in general of learning another language and that – as you are reading this – you speak English, Swedish is relatively easy to pick up. Compared with Finnish, the language seems almost reassuringly familiar. Partly this is because Swedish and English share the same Germanic roots, so have similar traits.
“We have students learning Swedish from all over the world,” says Jenny Kajanus from The Swedish Adult Education Centre of Helsinki (Arbis), “most of whom are married to Swedish-speaking Finns or need the language for work.” For Kajanus, Swedish is a relatively easy language to teach. “Apart from a few pronunciation issues, it is quite similar in many ways to English,” she says.
Markus Janowski is a native of Warsaw that has moved to Karis, west of Helsinki. “I’ve lived in a predominately Swedish-speaking part of Finland for a few years since meeting my Swedish-speaking wife,” he explains, “and I speak quite good Swedish now. My Finnish is passable but where I live I can work in Swedish, and my in-laws don’t have Finnish as their first language, so my incentive has been to learn Swedish first.”
Although Polish and Swedish aren’t very similar, it hasn’t been hard to progress. “To my ears, Swedish sounds rather pleasant, and it’s actually a nice language to speak. I can heartily recommend watching TV or reading in Swedish because picking up vocabulary is the most important part of the process, I think,” says Janowski.
A brief beginner’s guide
Swedish has three more vowels than English in its alphabet – Å (sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘order’), Ä (sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘at’) and Ö (sounds like ‘er’ in ‘herb’), and thus has more vowel sounds – hence the stereotypes of Swedes talking as if their mouths are full of potatoes. It is sometimes argued, on the other hand, that the Swedish accent spoken in Finland is much easier to understand by non-Scandinavians than the Swedish spoken in Sweden, or “rikssvenska” (Realm Swedish). The consonant sounds are broadly similar.
There are many loan words from English, or at least similar-sounding ones, in Swedish. Television means the same in both languages, for instance, although the beginner must be aware that saying the English word in a Swedish accent doesn’t always work.
There are plenty of false friends in Swedish for the unwary English-speaker: the word ‘art’ means ‘species’ in Swedish, for example. Also, over-using English words is frowned upon in certain quarters, especially when a Swedish word will do. There’s even a term for unnecessary reliance on English – “Svengelska” (or “Swenglish”). However, in Finland the mixing of Swedish with Finnish words, is very common.
It must also be remembered that rikssvenska is not identical to the Swedish spoken in Finland, in the same way that the British speak different English from the Americans. Finland-Swedish also has many words that are taken from Finnish and Russian, especially when it comes to slang, and vice-versa. A dictionary by Charlotta af Hällström, Finlandssvensk ordbok, has been published, containing unique Finland-Swedish words.
If you want to learn Swedish you can attend courses at an educational institute or join a Swedish language café. The best places to find Swedish lessons are generally at universities and colleges, which often offer courses to the public. Most towns have adult-education centres, a medborgarinstitut or MBI, (kansalaisopisto in Finnish), that offer language courses. Unemployment offices also keep lists of local offerings.
Two street names
According to the Finnish constitution, this country is bilingual. On a local level, the right of citizens to communicate with authorities in their mother tongue is limited to municipalities with a minimum of 8 % of minority-language speakers. Every town or county meeting these criteria will feature public signs both Swedish and Finnish. The language of the street signs in a municipality depends on whether the municipality is bilingual and which one of the two languages is the majority language of the municipality. If the municipality is bilingual then the street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish. Depending on which of the two languages is the majority language in particular town or region, either Swedish or Finnish appears on the top of the sign.