How’s your Swedish?

This is a question I have been getting frequently ever since moving to Sweden 4 years ago, and coming home for Christmas I’ll get it a few more times. My go to answer has recently been “not so good”.

I have a long and painful history with language learning. It was never something I managed to grasp in school. While the English language, being my mother tongue was easy to excel at, Irish was a different story, but first a look at the language.


The Irish language

Contrary to what some people think, Irish (or Gaeilge or Gaelic) is a completely different language to English. Different words, different language family. Example: An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? To anyone not Irish that looks like gibberish. Everyone else knows it’s the first thing you learn in school.

The Irish language has always been a sore point in Irish education. We begin learning it on the first day of school aged 4 or 5 until we finish secondary school aged 17 or 18. Study of the Irish language is given the same amount of time as other main subjects such as English and Maths.

That is about 14 years of study of a language that the majority of the population will never use once they finish secondary school. We have Irish language programming on mainstream media as well as dedicated TV and radio stations yet currently there are 140,000 native speakers or 3% of the population.


My experience learning Irish

Having being dragged kicking and screaming through the education system being forced for 14 years (or just over half my life) to learn something that I have no use for left an impact on me. I was not good at it. I went to Irish summer colleges for weeks at a time, trying to improve or get a grasp of the language, but all it did was raise my ability back to the bare minimum to scrape by.

On top of that, for the last 6 years of my education I had to learn French (and 1 year of German), which I also wasn’t good at. In the end I could probably speak better French than Irish.


Moving to Sweden and Swedish

Fast forward to 4 years ago and I move to Sweden and begin to register for my personnummer so I could register and attend SFI classes (svenska för invandrare or Swedish for immigrants) and 6 months later I find myself sitting down attempting to learn my 5th language.

I started really well, but as I approach the end of my first year at it, I reach a plateau and nothing new seems to be sticking. I scrape by my final exams completing SFI in the year. I felt if I continued in full time Swedish language education the effort required would only increase exponentially so I decided instead to start looking for a job.

A few months later I land in an English speaking role where all my colleagues speak English throughout the day. This didn’t help my Swedish speaking skills.

The job did however help with my study of the Swedish language. Being around people speaking Swedish improved my understanding. I was able to follow conversations picking up the gist of what is being discussed by being helped with familiar words and English words that have bleed into Swedish. I still never spoke Swedish since I can express myself perfectly to everyone and they understand.


Getting work in Sweden (without Swedish)

It’s difficult. I have a background in Business Information Systems and Teaching. I do not have Secondary School Swedish which is the level needed to teach in Sweden, so that rules teaching out. On the Business and IT side, there are companies that have a working language of English, but also require fluent Swedish. So that rules me out of a chance there too.

If I did have Secondary School Swedish, there would still be the hurdle of not having “Business Swedish”? I’m guessing this would be similar to “Business English”. I notice that there is classes for “Business English” where Swedes go and learn English (beyond the already fluent English they all speak) for a business context. I assume that those people don’t feel comfortable with their Secondary School English and want a course to prepare them for the English speaking workforce environment. How would the Swedish workplace be with just basic Secondary School Swedish and not another level of professionalism on top of that.

My only hope is to find that elusive job that will utilize my experiences and education while being in a fully English speaking environment.


My situation summed up.

I don’t speak Swedish, but I can follow along conversations in Swedish. I can communicate with 99% of people in Sweden who I need to talk to. For me going back to school to learn Swedish for fluency would be like pulling teeth with no anaesthetic.


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