Learning Swedish: how one international resident FINALLY conquered her fears

Like many of Stockholm’s international residents, Kathryn Mathews moved to Sweden for love and was soon ready to get stuck in with learning the language. That was almost eight years ago.

Learning Swedish: how one international resident FINALLY conquered her fears
Kathryn Mathews and her husband in Södermalm

Today, she’s a Swedish citizen and happily married to her Swedish husband. But it pains her to recall how her initial optimism about speaking Swedish gradually gave way to frustration and even embarrassment.

“I questioned my ability to learn the language at all,” says Kathryn, who is originally from Colorado in the US. “I just thought it was too complicated and difficult to understand. After becoming a Swedish citizen three years ago, it felt weird that I still didn’t really speak Swedish. I felt a little embarrassed like a part of me was missing.”

She had tried both the well-known Swedish for immigrants (SFI) programme for beginners, as well as one of the best known language learning apps. Neither came close to providing the breakthrough she needed.

But then Kathryn learned about Intensive Studies in Swedish, a course run by SIFA (Stockholms intensivsvenska för akademiker), which forms part of the City of Stockholm’s adult education programmes. Since then, she has never looked back and says: “It has completely changed my life.”

Learn more about SIFA’s Intensive Studies in Swedish and how to apply to start studying in October 2021

‘Your Swedish sucks’

Kathryn works as a voiceover artist, as well as doing some acting and stand-up comedy under her stage name Kathryn LeRoux. It was a critical comment following an appearance on a Swedish podcast that gave her new resolve to learn the language.

“It has been trendy for a couple of years for people to have a conversation with each person speaking their native language,” she says. “That was the idea – but I didn’t understand nearly as much Swedish as I wanted even if I answered in English. Somebody insulted me in the podcast’s comments, saying ‘your Swedish sucks’ and I thought ‘that’s it, no more’.”

She decided it was time for a more concerted effort to learn Swedish and applied to SIFA’s Intensive Studies in Swedish. These courses, which are aimed primarily at graduates, are open to residents of Stockholms Stad municipality and are completely free of charge. You must have a Swedish personal number or be a citizen or permanent resident of the EU, the European Economic Area(EEA), or Switzerland. 

Anyone applying should also be used to studying at a high pace and ready to progress in reading, writing, speaking and listening. You can apply for either the online studies course or the classroom studies course. The online option involves no more than two hours of teaching per week, with further studies being done in your own time. If you choose the classroom course (currently also held remotely due to Covid-19), you will have up to 25 hours of classes per week. You need to apply before October 1st to begin either course on October 18th.

Learn more about the two Intensive Studies in Swedish courses – and how to apply before October 1st

Kathryn Mathews and her husband on their wedding day in Stockholm

It has completely changed my life’

Kathryn, who is studying the classroom course, says her teachers and classmates – from countries including Brazil, Greece, Thailand, and China – have made studying Swedish a challenge to look forward to. 

“The structure the teachers give us through Microsoft Teams is remarkable,” she says. “I still have every piece of text they’ve given me and I can go back to check any exercise. At SFI, teachers often spoke English in class but here they just continue to explain things very slowly in Swedish.

“My classmates are the coolest of the cool. Learning grammatical stuff can be difficult, but one of my favourite things is when we compete in quizzes on Kahoot! and other interactive tools. I’m American, so I’m super-competitive!” 

Her class has also learned through the lyrics to Swedish music, including Swedish pop artists like Molly Sandén and Benjamin Ingrosso.

Kathryn started her studies at SFI C level (for beginners) and hopes to work her way through all six Intensive Studies in Swedish courses you can complete by Spring 2022. This distinct structure, which contrasts with learning at SFI, is a major attraction for many students; at SIFA, you always study with the same classmates and no new students can join once a course has begun.

“I’m feeling so encouraged,” adds Kathryn, fresh out of her latest class. “I hang out with lots of Swedish people, but I never used to speak Swedish with them. This summer, I said ‘Right, I’m doing this.’ They thought it was really cool and they’re very supportive.”

A new understanding of Swedish culture

Kathryn also admits her lack of Swedish had held back her understanding of her adopted home. “Learning Swedish has given me a different way to immerse myself in Swedish culture, history, and even politics when the government crisis went down,” she says.

“Before this, I would just auto-translate everything I read [via Google or Facebook] into English. But there are so many specific or amusing things in Swedish that cannot be explained in English. Now, I can work more, make more friends, watch Swedish movies and TV, and sing Swedish songs – life is more fun and it’s easier.

“You learn not only a language but a new way of thinking and that’s what has been life-changing. I was really missing out, so this was the best thing I ever did!”

Ready to learn real Swedish? Apply for a place on Intensive Studies in Swedish before October 1st to start a class on October 18th

Member comments

  1. In support of SFI, it’s been absolutely fantastic for me.

    I’ve been studying in SFI C in Gävle since May. The teacher is excellent and very dedicated to helping students learn. The classes are entirely in Swedish.

    The learning experience at SFI seems to vary hugely by region, but it can definitely be worthwhile.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Does a new court ruling spell the end of Sweden’s alcohol monopoly?

Sweden's Supreme Court ruled has ruled that an online wine retailer based in Denmark could continue to market and sell its wines to customers in Sweden. So is this "the beginning of the end" for Sweden's alcohol monopoly as some suggest?

Does a new court ruling spell the end of Sweden's alcohol monopoly?

What’s happened? 

Sweden’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favour of the online wine retailer Winefinder in its long-running case against Systembolaget, Sweden’s state-owned alcohol monopoly, which had tried to stop the company from marketing and delivering to customers in Sweden. 

The court ruled that Winefinder’s business was permissible under Sweden’s alcohol and marketing laws, because although the company has a Swedish holding company, the company making the sales is registered in Denmark, operated from Denmark, and uses independent couriers to deliver to customers in Sweden. 

“According to the Supreme Court, the inquiry showed that it was the Danish company that sold wine to consumers in Sweden through e-commerce,” the court said in a press release.

“The Danish company was established in Denmark and the wine was delivered to Sweden by a courier hired by the Danish company. The Danish company purchased services regarding, for example, finance, IT and customer service from the Swedish parent company, but the inquiry did not show that any sales activity had taken place on site in Sweden.” 

The court ruled that this meant that from the perspective of the law, private Swedish consumers were themselves importing wine from a retailer based in Denmark, meaning Systembolaget’s monopoly on retail sales of alcohol had not been contravened. 

READ ALSO: Why Swedes love and hate state-owned alcohol monopoly ‘Systemet’

What’s the background? 

Systembolaget took Winefinder to court back in 2019, seeking to ban it from selling wines via its Swedish online retail site, and in 2020 it won its case, with Sweden’s patent and marketing court ruling that Winefinder’s business broke Sweden’s alcohol laws. 

Winefinder then successfully appealed the ruling, with the patenting and marketing appeals court ruling in 2022 that its business was legal and it could continue selling wine to Swedish consumers (which it had never stopped doing anyway).  

Systembolaget was established back in 1955, combining all the regional alcohol monopolies which had been in place in Sweden under the previous rationing system. It was given an exemption from European antimonopoly and free trade rules when Sweden joined the EU in 1995.  

What will it mean? 

The Supreme Court has the last word on legal cases in Sweden, so from now on Winefinder and other online retailers based elsewhere in the EU can market to, and export to Swedish customers without any legal ambiguity.

Alex Tengvall, Winefinder’s Stockholm-based Swedish chief-executive, predicted that this would bring bigger competitors. 

“I believe that this will open the door for larger players, and that people will now dare to invest,” he told Svenska Dagbladet

Benjamin Dousa, CEO of the right-wing think tank Timbro, said he believed that the verdict would eventually see Systembolaget’s monopoly undermined as more and more Swedes opt for the broader and often cheaper selection of wines offered by overseas online retailers. 

“This is the beginning of the end for Systembolaget. We probably won’t have a monopoly in 10-15 years as a direct result of today’s announcement,” he said in a written comment to the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.

This court case is not the only threat to the monopoly.

In the Tidö Agreement between the three government parties and the far-right Sweden Democrats, the government committed to holding an inquiry into allowing Swedish vineyards and other local alcohol producers to sell their drinks to consumers. 

Does this mean the end of Sweden’s alcohol monopoly? 

Don’t bet on it. 

In its verdict, the court clearly states that Systembolaget retains the sole right to carry out retail sales of drinks which contain more than 3.5 percent alcohol, but that under law this right is limited to sales which actually take place physically in Sweden, or, when it comes to online sales, between a company based in Sweden and consumers in Sweden. 

The verdict does not mean it will be possible to buy wine in supermarkets, as you can in France, Germany or the UK, or that private off licenses or bottle shops will spring up across Sweden. 

It also won’t bring an end to the frustration many in Sweden feel at being unable to buy alcohol on public holidays or ‘red days’, or between the time Systembolaget closes at 3pm on Saturday and its next opening at 10am on Monday. Winefinder typically takes at least two days to make a delivery. to Sweden. 

What happens next? 

As soon as the verdict was out, the opposition Social Democrats were calling for Sweden’s alcohol law to be changed to close the loophole Winefnder has been using. 

“We had hoped before that this would not be the outcome, but now that we can see how the Swedish legislation works and the consequences of this, we have to review it and plug the holes,” the party’s group leader in the Swedish parliament, Lena Hallengren, said. 

An internal report from Sweden’s Ministry of Social Affairs has also called for new regulations to be brought in to prevent overseas retailers threatening Systembolaget’s position. 

“The ministry has stated several times that it is an urgent issue that needs to be regulated more clearly,” the document, obtained by Svenska Dagbladet reads. “Clearer rules on distance trading are an important step towards continuing to protect the monopoly.” 

Sweden’s Social Affairs Minister, Jakob Forssmed, who is responsible for the monopoly on Friday would not say whether or not he planned to tighten the rules.

“The retail monopoly is an important part of Swedish alcohol policy, which must be protected. We will analyze the current judgment, what consequences it may have and what possible measures it may lead to,” he told Svenska Dagbladet.  

It is highly possible that rather than opening up and legalising Winefinder’s business, the verdict will ultimately lead to politicians closing it down.