How long does it take to learn Swedish?

Photo: Aline Lessner/imagebank.sweden.se

A very common question that I get asked a lot, beside “Is Swedish hard to learn?“, is “How long does it take to learn Swedish”, “Can I become fluent in 6 months?” or “Am I able to do X when I study full time for a month?”. Fully legit questions but perhaps somewhat naive. People want to start a project and see the end of the tunnel, so that they know how much effort it takes to just be done with it. However, just like with exercising and weightloss, learning a language is not a project. Sure, you can set a goal and be content with the level you’ve reached, but once you stop, you start to “decquire” what you’ve achieved or acquired. You start to get a bit of belly again and start getting out of shape. If you acquire a language and then stop using it, it will eventually fade away from your memory. Some things might get back to you if you’ve spent enough time with it but you’ll be rusty. You need to stay in shape.

Just tell me how long it takes to learn Swedish!

When I get these type of questions, I always wonder if people are expecting some kind of one-size-fits-all answer, because I hate to break it to them, there isn’t any. The dull answer to the question is: it depends. There are numerous factors that come into play, that determine how quickly you acquire a language. I say acquire, because it’s not all just about cramming words and grammar. If you do this, you will of course be able to express a bunch of things. The question is, however, if these things will make sense to a native speaker. You need to acquire the language through immersion in order to learn how people actually talk and to express yourself idiomatically. This step is basically going to be indefinite. I’ve studied German since 2003 and always stumble upon new things.

What factors come into play when learning Swedish?

Native language

First of all, not all people have learned a foreign language before. Native speakers of English can get by almost everywhere in the world without learning a single word in a foreign language. It’s great for tourism, for sure, but this can turn out to be a problem when wanting to learn a new language for the first time. Learning English as your first foreign language is wide-spread throughout the world, giving those people the advantage of already having learned a second language. It’s on the obligatory curriculum. The point here is that these children already understand that not all languages work like their native language and will already have gained experience, grammar, and vocabulary to help them decipher yet another language. The more languages you have under your belt, the easier it will be to keep a clean mindset to the new logic of a new target language. Furthermore, if you know German, you’ll find a lot of German loans in Swedish (especially Low German) and if you know French, you will also recognize a huge amount of French loans. These things help you gain a decent vocabulary fast.

Experience

Often people want me to give them a timeframe straight away but at that point I know nothing about them, what their native language is, what and how many languages they know, and if they have any experience in learning a language whatsoever. Still if I did, I couldn’t give them a suitable answer for them. I can only guess, but if they speak a Germanic language, at least they would have an advantage. Learning a language that is closely related to your native language would be much easier and quicker than learning a completely foreign one. For me, learning Danish and Norwegian is a walk in the park, since my native language is Swedish. These languages are highly mutually intelligible and reading is especially easy without any prior knowledge. Learning Dutch when you speak German or learning Spanish if you speak Italian, even learning a more distant language but within the same immediate language group will be a lot easier than picking any random language from another family. Not only will you find similar words and grammar structures but with the language also comes a world view, which you’re already living by. I can compare this with my efforts in learning Finnish. Swedish and Finnish are not related at all as far as contemporary linguists know today. There was never even a common proto language. There are tons of loan words from Swedish though, and even some grammar structures borrowed from Swedish, since the first people documenting Finnish and adapting Finnish for a more administrative use probably had Swedish as their native tongue. The point is, however, that these loans are hard to spot, since they were adapted to Finnish phonology. The rest of the vocabulary and grammar have nothing to do with Swedish and even the speakers way of thinking differs from one another and can be found within the language. For instance, Swedes prefer to express themselves with verbs whereas Finns rather use nouns and nounifications. Differences in world-view can be spotted in all languages or, if the language is spoken in different cultures and areas, even inside one and the same language. This is seldom talked about in a regular text book.

Motivation

Motivation is also a huge factor. Sometimes just learning to be able to speak several languages doesn’t cut it. Ask yourself what your real reasons are and set your goal. What level would you be content with? Do you want to be able to talk to your Swedish partner’s family or do you want to read an original copy of Pippi Longstocking in Swedish? You need proper motivation for learning or else you will start to get bored and move on the another language or another project. This is a super important step, since it will also affect how much time you bring to the table. Learning a few minutes a day is enough to stay consistent but obviously spending more time will make you learn better. Maybe not always more or faster, but it will help to gain experience, thus getting knowledge to actually stick, so that you don’t need to go over the same thing over and over again.

Talent

Lastly, it depends on talent. Talent is obviously not required but comes a long way in learning languages. Even if you don’t have any native speaker to practise with, it’s possible to surround yourself with Swedish as much as possible, but without talent you need to do the work and put in the hours. What I mean by “talent” is basically “the feel for languages”. Every single brain is wired differently and some people “just get it”. It’s of course possible for everyone to learn a language but it just takes longer for some and requires more motivation to pull through and stay on track.

So how long does it take?

It depends! It depends on all these factors, on how much you immerse yourself and what methods you’re using. I’ve come across people, who are really good at holding a text based conversation in Swedish after only 2-3 months but most people I’ve come across started years ago and still can’t do the same thing. Here, I suspect the lack of motivation and time is the big culprit. It essentially boils down to two things: immersion (experience, methods etc.) and time (motivation), which then result in proficiency. The more you do something, the better you’ll become and the more you study per day, the quicker you’ll become proficient. This doesn’t mean that you only need to cram vocabulary and grammar all the time. If you lack time, you can also learn passively by listening to Swedish radio and watch Swedish movies and TV. Eventually, you will start to recognize patterns or things you’ve learned, you will get used to hearing the language and you will have gained more hours “studying” the languages thus giving you more experience. This even if you initially didn’t have time to study. The important thing is, that you shouldn’t just think about learning. Start right away. Check out my 5 tips for learning Swedish fast and listen to the first Swedish beginner lesson.

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