Opinion piece by Australian Swedish speaker Oliver Gee. Read more membership exclusives here.
The Swedes say it (often). The expats who struggle to learn Swedish will say it too.
But it's simply not true.
In fact, Swedish, in theory at least, should be very easy to learn for English natives.
Now, I realize that this is a bit controversial, and I probably already sound like a know-it-all – so let's get some disclaimers out of the way.
I speak Swedish. I'd say fluently, even. And it took me a year to learn it to a decent level, which I realize is quite quick. But even today, seven years on, I'm not going to trick any Swedes into thinking I'm a native. I make mistakes left, right and centre. But I can hold my own in a conversation and that will do for fluency, if you ask me.
And one of the first things that Swedes say when they hear me (or I suppose any foreigner) speaking Swedish is: "Woah, you speak Swedish? But it's such a hard language to learn. It's meant to be one of the hardest languages to learn."
Where the heck did this come from?
My theory is that there are so few English speakers who learn Swedish, and as a result, an English-speaking native who is speaking Swedish will always surprise a Swede.
But let's get one thing straight: Swedish isn't actually that tough.
According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the US government's diplomatic training agency, Swedish ranks as one of the ten easiest languages for English speakers to learn. Others include Italian, Norwegian, Danish and Portuguese.
In fact, if you google "easiest languages to learn" then Swedish will time and time again come up as one of the top hits.
So, according to me, here's why Swedish isn't so hard to learn after all.
Swedish and English are family members
Swedish and English are both in the Germanic family tree (Swedish is north Germanic, English is west Germanic).
Essentially, this means the two languages have a similar sound (fairly similar vowel sounds, for example), and the sentence structures follow a similar order.
We could get really nerdy here, but in brief: the syntaxes are more or less exactly the same: subject is followed by a verb which is followed by object. For example: the man throws the ball (mannen kastar bollen).
The verbs are easy
Sure, there are tricky, irregular and annoying verbs in Swedish. But unlike in English (or worse, French), you don't need the verbs to conjugate. English: I talk, he talks. See how 'talk' became 'talks'? No such problems in Swedish: jag pratar, han pratar, de pratar etc.
You only need to learn three new letters
Imagine you're an English speaker setting out to learn Swedish. Guess what? You already know the alphabet. It's almost exactly the same. All you really need to do is add three new letters: å, ä and ö.
Now compare that with learning a Greek or Korean alphabet. Or perhaps harder still, learning Arabic where everything's written right to left to make matters even more complicated.
1,558 words are exactly the same
The Lexiophiles website has counted how many words are exactly the same in English and Swedish. Same meaning, same spelling (though sometimes slightly different pronunciation). And there's a whopping 1,558.
Words like absurd, accent, alligator, april… they're all exactly the same – and they're just a few of the As.
Add to this the fact that there are loads and loads of words that are essentially the same but spelled differently – like telephone and telefon. Or: "a cup of tea" is "en kopp te".
It doesn't take a professor in linguistics (professor i lingvistik) to know the languages are more or less the same.
As Lexiophiles points out, there are only around 40,000 words in common use in Swedish, meaning you only need to learn 38,442 more and you're fluent…
Everything's in English
And lastly, this is an unusual one, but bear with me. In Sweden, every internet page, every instruction manual, every museum – it all has the optional English translation. While this is an easy shortcut to avoiding Swedish altogether – it's also a very handy cross reference point for those trying to get a handle on Swedish. Try it in Swedish first, then check the English translation provided to make sure you're right.
In France, where I've spent the past three years, you'd be extremely lucky to find anything in English, because the French are very protective of their language and don't want to budge an inch for the English. As a result, French learners are often left scrambling for help or for a dictionary to understand why all the trains are cancelled.
No such problems in Swedish. You can even call the tax office, bus stop or doctor and simply ask if they'll speak English for you.
Now, the only real challenge is trying to get Swedes to actually respond to you in Swedish when trying to start a conversation in their language.
READ ALSO: Dear Swedes, please let us speak Swedish with you
Oliver Gee has worked for The Local Sweden and The Local France. He currently hosts The Earful Tower podcast in Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.