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The Swedish vocabulary parents need for back-to-school season

Across Sweden, children are starting or returning to school after the summer holidays. Here are the crucial pieces of Swedish vocabulary that will help international families navigate the school year.

The Swedish vocabulary parents need for back-to-school season
Photo: Alexander Olivera/TT

Types of schools

Most schools in Sweden are kommunala skolor (municipal schools) run by the local municipality, but there are also fristående skolor, usually called friskolor (independent or charter schools), which are run by private companies but are free to attend, because they receive funding from the Swedish National Agency for Education if they receive its official approval.

Fee-charging schools are rare in Sweden, and those which exist are often internatskolor (boarding schools), usually called internat for short, where some or all pupils stay overnight at the school.

The school years are also divided up in a way that might be different from what you’re used to. From the age of one, children can attend the non-mandatory förskola (preschool), also called dagis (daycare). This is heavily subsidised but not totally free.

From the autumn of the year a child is six, they attend förskoleklass (preschool class), which is a compulsory one-year transition between förskola and grundskola (primary school).

Years 1-3 of the grundskola are called lågstadiet (lower studies, years 1–3), followed by mellanstadiet (middle studies, years 4–6), and högstadiet (higher studies, years 7–9). The entire grundskola is both compulsory and completely free to attend.

After that, the three-year gymnasieskola (high school) begins in the year a child turns 16. This is optional, but most Swedish teens do attend.

In Sweden, parents can choose which schools to apply for, and there are various tools available online to help make the decision. The application for the hösttermin (autumn semester) usually takes place in late January and parents should receive a decision in April.

You might want to look at criteria such as lärartäthet/elever per lärare (teacher density/students per teacher), the proportion of lärare med legitimation eller behörighet (teachers with the Swedish teacher qualification; due to a shortage of teachers in the country, many schools struggle to fill all their positions with fully qualified staff), or the average slutbetyg (final grade) in various subjects. 

Terms and timing

First thing’s first: semester means “holiday” and not “term” in Swedish. In the school context, you’re more likely to hear the term lov than semester (since lov usually refers to organised periods of leave, while semester suggests a trip or chosen vacation).

As well as the long sommarlov (summer holiday) which usually lasts up to ten weeks, there’s the jullov (Christmas break) over the winter period, sportlov (sport holiday/half-term break) in February, påsklov (Easter break) later in spring, and the höstlov (autumn break), sometimes also called läslov (reading break) in an effort to encourage literacy, which takes place around October.

As in much of Europe, but in contrast to countries like the US, the skolår (school year) starts in the autumn, usually mid-late August or sometimes early September, and is split into two terminer (terms): the hösttermin (autumn term) and vårtermin (spring term). Each of these begin with the skolstart (literally “school start” or “back to school”), and the word for the final day of term is avslutning (literally “closure”, meaning “end of term”).

Then there are occasional studiedagar (“study days”) when teachers go on training and students have the day free from school, supposedly to study independently.


At the start of term, especially by the time of högstadiet, your child might receive a skolschema (timetable) showing their lesson plan.

In the grundskola, some subjects are obligatory in the läroplan (curriculum): matematik (maths), svenska or svenska som andraspråk (Swedish or Swedish as a second language), engelska (English), biologi (biology), fysik (physics), kemi (chemistry), teknik (technology), geografi (geography), historia (history), religionskunskap (religious education), idrott och hälsa (sport and health), musik (music), hem- och konsumentkunskap or hemkunskap for short (home and consumer education), samhällskunskap (social education), slöjd (crafts) and bild (literally “images” but translated as “visual arts”, incorporating traditional artistic methods but also digital media).

If you speak a language other than Swedish at home, there’s the possibility to enrol your child in modersmålsundervisning or hemspråk classes (“mother tongue education” or “home language”). This is only possible if there’s a teacher for the language in your municipality or nearby, and the teaching typically takes place out of usual school hours. If there are at least five children in your municipality who have a need to study a home language, the municipality must enable them to do so.

At the end of the day, there’s the option to enrol your child in fritids (literally “free time”, translating more accurately as “after-school club”). There’s usually a fee for this programme which often includes options for children to take part in music, sport, or other activity clubs, or to do their own independent activities. Most children will also have hemläxa or läxa (homework) to do too.

Children undertake nationella prov (national tests) three times in the grundskola: in grades 3, 6 and 9. However, children are only given betyg (grades) from grade 6 onwards, later than in many other countries.

And of course it’s not all work and no play: students usually get at least one rast (break) in addition to the lunchrast (lunchbreak) during the skoldag (school day). 

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How to write a polite letter or email in Swedish

Writing letters may be a dying art to some extent, but the need to write a polite email or other message is still alive and well. What should you avoid in an email if you don't want to appear rude?

How to write a polite letter or email in Swedish

How to address the person you’re writing to

Depending on where you’re from, you might be used to a relatively high level of formality in letters and emails when compared to Sweden.

In German, for example, you’re often expected to use every title the person you’re addressing holds when addressing them in formal written correspondence, such as Sehr geehrte Frau Dr. Mustermann for a woman with the surname Mustermann who holds a doctorate.

In formal English, you’re usually expected to use ‘dear’, followed by the full name of the person you’re addressing, with or without the title: Dear (Mr.) Joe Bloggs, for example.

Swedish, in comparison, is much less formal.

Technically you can use the word bästa, followed by the full name (no title) of the person you’re writing to if you’ve never been in contact with them before, like this: Bästa Sven Svensson, although this can appear a bit outdated. Your best bet is to just go with a simple hej, along with their first name, both in text and speech. 

Avoid directly translating the word ‘dear’ in English to kära in Swedish. In letter-writing, kära would be similar to addressing someone as “beloved” or “darling”, which is probably not the tone you want to strike.

What if I don’t know who I’m addressing?

Sometimes when you send an email, you’re not sure who will be opening it at the other end. In English, you’d use ‘to whom it may concern’, and you can in theory translate this to till den det vederbör or till den det berör in Swedish, but it sounds a bit odd.

You could either just go for a hej without a name following it, or try and be a bit more specific about who it is you’re trying to reach. If you’re sending off a job application you might want the head of staff, so you could write till personalchefen. If you have a question about a course, you could start your email with till kursansvarig (to the person responsible for the course), and so on and so forth.

Avoid anything similar to ‘dear Sir/Madam’. Best-case scenario, you sound a bit strange and outdated, and in the worst-case scenario, you could appear a bit patronising, especially if you are a man addressing a woman. 

Although Sweden does technically have informal and formal words for you (du/ni), the formal version (ni) has essentially fallen out of use (so for German speakers, you don’t need to worry about when to duzen or siezen in Sweden).

Use ‘du’ unless you’re sending an email to a member of the royal family – and that brings with it a whole other set of formality rules which we won’t go in to here.

How should I end my email?

There are a few different ways you can end an email, but the most common ones are probably med vänlig hälsning and vänliga hälsningar, which translate literally to “(with) friendly greetings”. You might see these shortened to MVH or VH, but write them out in full if you’re sending an email, at least the first time you contact someone.

Other options include bästa hälsningar (similar to ‘best regards’) or just hälsningar (regards). 

You can also end your email with some kind of time-specific sign off, although these are usually best reserved for the final email in a conversation, for example trevlig helg (have a nice weekend) if you’re writing to someone on a Friday afternoon, or ha en bra dag (have a nice day). Allt gott (literally: everything good, but more like “wish you the best”) is also fine, albeit a bit less formal.

The most informal way to sign off an email or letter (which, to be honest, would probably be fine in any context), is just to write your name preceded by a forward slash: /Sven Svensson.