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.”
‘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.
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!”