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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

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place. 

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