Four months after I arrived in Sweden, I sat in my first ever Swedish class. I’d learned the language with Duolingo for a few months, so at that point, I was already familiar with the most basic words and phrases. Friends told me the first class would be really easy, bordering on boring. I thought I was ready.
I’d soon find out that while I knew the word for ‘water’ or ‘dog’ (thanks, Duolingo), I hadn’t learned all that much. I couldn’t catch anything the teacher said, let alone understanding it. I walked out the class feeling deflated and a bit hopeless, thinking, ‘Well, this will take a long while until I can speak Swedish.’
But it gradually got better. We practiced pronunciation A LOT. Swedish pronunciation, I’ve learned, is extremely tricky. A slight mispronunciation could mean a totally different thing. I learned how to pronounce ‘gratis’ (‘free’) and ‘grattis’ (‘congratulations’), ‘glass’ (‘ice cream’) and ‘glas’ (‘glass’). From my colleague, I also learned to be careful with how I pronounced ö and o, as was the case with ‘höra’ (‘to hear’) and ‘hora’ (‘whore’).
While speaking is hard, it’s manageable. I’m still on that level where I need to think hard about grammar and structures, but I get by with it. Listening, though, is another thing. Nothing beats the woe of trying to understand someone speaking in Swedish. My go-to Swedish sentences are ‘can you repeat it?‘ and ‘can you talk a bit slower?’. Even after a few repeats, I still don’t always get what they say.
This week was a blow to me after 2 work meetings in Swedish. The first one was a bit better; I could understand about 20% of the discussion, and my colleague summarized everything in the end. The second one, though, was brutal. A one-on-one meeting with a Swede, discussing digital marketing and social media campaigns. We talked with difficulties — I tried to explain things in English, peppering my sentences with Swedish words I knew in the vain hope that it would make it easier for her. When it was her turn to explain something technical, she resigned and switched to full Swedish, asking for my opinion in the end. ‘Vad tycker du?’
What did I think?
A lot. There were thoughts about the campaigns and strategy and all, but there was also confusion. And the thoughts that stuck with me until now are about my Swedish — how far I still need to go, and how I feel like I’m not progressing fast enough. Currently, I do roughly 8 hours of Swedish per week (a 3-hour class twice a week + an hour of speaking practice twice a week). Sometimes I do my own reading outside those hours, and still, it doesn’t feel enough.
All the time at work, I feel guilty when my colleagues have to switch to English for me. It should be me who switch to Swedish. I was ashamed when I had to change the Google Analytics language to English, because forcing myself to operate it in Swedish only slowed down my work. I try to speak Swedish whenever I can (which is not a lot), but every time I have to talk in English, I silently pray they don’t think that I’m too lazy to learn Swedish.
The thing about small victories is, they can be hard to notice. Looking back at my first Swedish class, I couldn’t understand anything when my teacher introduced herself, and now I can hold a basic conversation in Swedish (provided my speaking partner talks slowly and clearly). My Swedish skills now include reading restaurant menus and ordering in Swedish, making a reservation without uttering an English word, and (sometimes) understanding emails and documents without the help of Google Translate. These small triumphs might seem insignificant, but 3 months ago I wouldn’t have been able to do any of those.
It’s an uphill battle from here and the finish line is still far, but I am making progress. I just need to remind myself of those small victories sometimes.