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OPINION & ANALYSIS

My first time learning Swedish: Why I’m so excited about SFI

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

My first time learning Swedish: Why I'm so excited about SFI
File photo of a Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) class. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

A Swedish former colleague would unconsciously say nej instead of no when speaking English and there was the Hej! that Ikea uses worldwide. That was the extent of my Swedish when I moved. Not much to go on but in a country where English is so widely spoken, I was not too concerned.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t interested in learning Swedish. Ever since I had learned German as a kid while we were living in Switzerland, a new country always represented the opportunity of learning a new language. With varying success.

The ten years in Hong Kong, where I took Mandarin lessons twice a week with an increasingly exasperated teacher, resulted in what is now basically a party trick: I show people how to write Chinese characters on their smartphones. It never fails to impress but I would not be able to buy a train ticket in Beijing if my life depended on it.

So, after settling in, I registered with the closest state funded school providing the Svenska för Invandrare (SFI) course and took their intake assessment. My confident grasp of nej and hej put me firmly at level B: knows how to read and write – in other languages than Swedish, that is.

From various online forums I understand that experiences with SFI courses vary but I have to say: I’m excited.

First of all, the teachers I’ve encountered have been excellent. You meet quite a few of them because, for reasons never really explained, they rotate in and out of classes constantly. This may sound like a bad thing, but it actually exposes you to a variety of accents, teaching methods and materials which keeps things fresh.

The materials were another pleasant surprise. The course doesn’t use a textbook. The teacher collects different texts, videos, and other media focusing on a special topic for a couple of lessons. That topic can be anything from the more obvious, such as “regions in Sweden“, ranging to “music from my home country” or “love“.

This is a far cry from what you would find in the books that are normally used to teach beginners in which the basics of a language are without fail explained through stilted dialogs between foreign students in a new country presented with a dated dilemma. “Hi, my name is Jean-Pierre, I am from France. I’m a student in this country, learning the language. I need to use the payphone, but I do not have a coin…” Riveting stuff.

But the most appealing part of the programme for me, is that only Swedish is spoken in class. In a group with as many students as there are nationalities – unlike in normal daily life in Sweden – it is not a given that everybody speaks English. So twice a week, I’m forced to venture beyond nej and hej to explain to a 20-year-old from Kyrgyzstan – who speaks Swedish maddeningly well – that “My name is Alex, I am from Holland…”

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. If you already have English, German and Dutch, then Swedish should be relatively easy for you – especially when it comes to vocabulary where many words look similar albeit with different pronunciations – or with similar pronunciations but very different spelling (often phonetical). Swedish grammar is also relatively simple, particularly when compared to German or French grammar.

    My experience has been to also learn to write Swedish well. Swedes will respect you for it. And these days it’s very useful to be able to write in a ‘Chatt’ session when communicating with a supplier or the phone company etc through their website. Doesn’t have to be perfect, but nonetheless reasonably fluent. Also, often much shorter queues for Chatt compared to the telephone 🙂

  2. My experience on trying to learn Swedish has been very disappointing. They plonk you in the middle of a course session so instead of starting from the basics and building up from that you struggle with complex and more advanced structures.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The death of ice hockey legend Börje Salming last week touched the nation, partly because he broke the mould for acceptable Swedish behaviour, says David Crouch.

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The mood in the stadium was ugly that September night in 1976, as the USA and Sweden national teams prepared for battle in the world’s first truly international ice hockey tournament. The Toronto crowd booed the American national anthem and was indifferent to the Swedish one. 

Then a mean-looking Swede took to the ice and the entire stadium rose to its feet. The ovation continued for several minutes (you can watch it here). It is considered the greatest moment of all time in Swedish hockey.

The Swede in question was Börje Salming, a Swedish legend, who died last week from a cruel and terminal illness. It is no exaggeration to say that his death touched the nation, and beyond. How many Swedes can claim to have had an obituary in the New York Times

For Swedes, Salming was much more than an international sporting superstar. His rise to stardom in North America in the 1970s and 80s reflected a social transformation as Sweden moved away from the collective ideals of the folkhemmet (people’s home) towards a more individualistic, competitive and outward-looking society. 

Tributes to Salming describe how he blazed a trail for Swedish hockey players into the North American big time and challenged the stereotype of the “chicken Swede”, the soft European. But he also changed perceptions about acceptable behaviour. Without Salming, one could imagine that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the bad boy of Swedish football, might never have made his big break and left Rosengård. 

Salming was born in 1951 near the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. His mother was Swedish while his father was a member of the indigenous Sami population. Salming’s Sami heritage made him a target of abuse, and he often endured racist anti-Sami slurs. In his memoirs, he attributes his toughness as an ice hockey player to his Sami heritage and the adversity he faced growing up.

Börje Salming wearing a traditional Sami kolt and Tiger Williams, one of his former teammates in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo Fredric Alm/TT

When Salming started to play professionally, the prevailing style of ice hockey was sossehockey (social democratic ice hockey), according to sports lecturer Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University. Sossehockey demanded that the team come first and no single player should stand out – an embodiment of the Jante law that celebrates modesty and uniformity over exceptional talent. Moreover, Salming was seen as lazy, troublesome, thuggish, and even un-Swedish.

But it was just these qualities that made him attractive to the Canadian scout who recruited him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. They met in the locker room after Salming had been sent off for wiping out the referee.

In the NHL, he was an overnight sensation with his brave and combative style. After his first game, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: “Toronto is up 7–4, it is ten seconds left of the game. Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”

He went on to play more than 1,000 games for the Maple Leafs and break all kinds of records for a defensive player. In 1996, he became the first Swede – indeed the first European – to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. 

His reputation as a tough guy was enhanced in 1986 when an opponent stamped on his face, slicing it open with a wound that required 250 stitches. He was back on the ice two weeks later. 

Yet at first, Salming was scorned by the Swedish hockey establishment. They saw him as being seduced by money and joining the ranks of brutal American players with broken noses and no teeth. It took time for his achievements to be recognised back home, where he eventually became a national icon. 

After he stopped playing professionally in 1993, Salming became a successful entrepreneur with his own brand of clothing and cosmetics, and he wrote cookery books. He became a vocal spokesperson for Sami rights and the conservation of the wilderness, speaking out against mining in areas where reindeer-herding is a way of life. 

In August this year, it was announced that Salming had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neuron disease. The seriousness of his condition was obvious at his last public appearances in Toronto and Stockholm in the weeks before his death. 

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game the day after Salming died, their players wore shirts with BORJE written in yellow on a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag – and a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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