Sweden consistently ranks at the top (or thereabouts) of the countries with the world’s best non-native English speakers – and it’s easy to see why. Signs in Sweden are frequently written in both Swedish and English, TV shows and movies are never dubbed, and even when they speak Swedish, the Swedes pepper their sentences with English.
Consequently, it’s not uncommon to hear of foreigners living in Sweden for many years without learning Swedish. But while it might be easy to ‘get by’ in English, the perks of learning the local language far outweigh the challenges, says Stockholm University’s Vendela Blomström.
“You can get by without speaking Swedish because most Swedish people speak English,” says Blomström, who teaches Swedish to international students. “But I think it’s necessary to learn Swedish to really get to know the Swedish people, to learn about the culture and to understand what’s happening around you.”
Photo: Vendela Blomström
It’s the everyday things that Blomström believes are made much easier – and more enjoyable – with a good grasp of Swedish. Not to mention, a little Swedish goes a long way with the Swedes.
“To be able to take a fika, to order something in a restaurant or to talk to people at a party, it’s much easier if you can communicate a bit in Swedish. Swedish people like to talk English, it’s not a problem for them, but they appreciate it if someone tries in Swedish.”
In theory, it’s simple. Learn Swedish and Sweden is your oyster. But, unless you’re a whiz at learning new languages, it involves plenty of hard work and dedication.
“If you only know one langauge, English for example, it’s often harder to learn Swedish because you don’t have other languages that can help you to learn it,” says Blomström. “Swedish pronunciation can be a bit difficult in the beginning. You have to listen to the language around you to get it.”
Learning a language as an adult
Most language learners will agree that mastering the pronunciation is often much harder than learning the grammar. And mustering the courage to practise your pronunciation can be even harder still.
“Pronunciation is connected to your identity. Learning grammar isn’t threatening your identity in the same way as the way you sound,” explains Niclas Abrahamsson, director of Stockholm University’s Centre for Research on Bilingualism.
Photo: Niclas Abrahamsson
Finding the confidence to start speaking is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when learning any language. But it’s not the only hurdle – especially for adults, who typically find it harder than children to pick up a new language.
Abrahamsson explains that this is partly down to the way adult brains make new memories. There is a negative correlation between the age someone begins learning a new language and the ultimate attainment of that language. It boils down to the maturation of the brain: children have better access to what is called the procedural memory system which allows them to learn things automatically, whereas adults don’t have access to that procedural memory to the same extent. Instead, they use the declarative memory – a memory bank where explicit facts and knowledge are stored and retrieved.
“Children also have to retrieve things from their less-developed declarative memory system but not grammar and pronunciation. Adults have to retrieve things like grammatical and phonetic rules from their memory together with other things we’ve learned. We’re using a system that was not really designed for language production or language knowledge,” Abrahamsson says.
Like Blomström, he asserts that there are many cultural benefits to learning a new language, from a better shot at climbing the career ladder to being able to communicate with more people. But as for the cognitive advantages often reported in the press? For Abrahamsson, the jury is still out.
“According to some researchers, there are huge benefits of being bilingual,” he says. “The reason being that a bilingual person has provoked the system and learned to handle two language simultaneously. So they get better results on tests of working memory and other executive functions.”
However, he adds, a recent meta analysis by Finnish neurolinguist Minna Lehtonen and her team, which looked at all published and unpublished studies on the cognitive advantages of bilingualism, found no cognitive differences between monolinguals and bilinguals.
While the cognitive advantages of bilingualism might be up for debate, what Abrahamsson is clear about is that learning Swedish in Sweden is hugely beneficial for both cultural immersion and integration.
“That’s the reason people learn languages. Not because they see the cognitive advantages! If you’re an ordinary immigrant, you need Swedish to deal with all aspects of life. Learning Swedish is utterly important in order to be able to participate in society. It’s a matter of democracy.”
This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Stockholm University.