The ultimate guide to learning Swedish

Many of us assume that Swedish for immigrants (SFI), the free government-provided language course for newcomers to Sweden, is just a single programme, a one-size-fits-all attempt to shoehorn everyone into the same system. But in fact the reality is quite the opposite.

The ultimate guide to learning Swedish

Because what is less well-known about SFI is the sheer scope and breadth of the language courses that it offers.

From profession-specific courses, to courses for job seekers, through to courses aimed at traumatised refugees and those with impaired hearing, the City of Stockholm, via Vuxenutbildning (adult education), offers Swedish language courses for most newcomers to Stockholm.
Those of us who have not found SFI to our liking may simply have been on the wrong course. SFI also offers free counselling (‘studie- och yrkesvägledning’) with qualified study counsellors. If you are unsure which precise SFI is for you, you can contact SFI for an assessment on your level of Swedish proficiency. 
Rana Noel, Director of Adult Education in the City of Stockholm, arrived in Sweden 22 years ago. She tells us: “When I first arrived in Sweden I studied SFI and other courses in adult education, and then went on to studying at university. I know from personal experience that making sure you are on the right SFI course can make all the difference. As a foreign university graduate I understand how one’s career path in a new country might be challenging at times. That’s actually why I became a SYV (study and career counselor) because I wanted to help people arriving in Stockholm, and give them the power to make conscious choices for professions and studies that really shape their future,” she says.

“Once you find the right course for you, my tip is to take the studies seriously and combine it with listening to radio, audio books and watching TV and find workplaces that speak as much Swedish as possible. That way, you will be able to develop your language quickly. I used to read children’s books in Swedish in addition to my SFI studies, which I found really helpful. And as always when it comes to language learning, have patience with the process – it will all be worth it.”

To make sure you find the right course for you, here is our guide to all the SFI courses available to those new to Stockholm. And even if you’re not a newcomer, but someone who’s struggled with learning Swedish in the past, please check here – you might not yet have found the most appropriate course for you.

Swedish for immigrants – SFI

This is the basic Swedish language course most of us have tried. It’s aimed at the development of a functional second language, and to give you the tools to actively participate in daily Swedish life, society and work. All immigrants from age 16 without basic skills in the Swedish language, who are registered in the municipality, are entitled to participate in SFI. There are three study paths: path 1, for those with no, or limited, education from their country, path 2, for those who have completed a basic education, and path 3 for those who have completed the equivalent of an upper secondary education. When you successfully finish each level you receive a certificate.
Perfect for: Anyone who needs basic Swedish.

Learn more about all the Swedish language courses offered by Vuxenutbildning Stockholm

Intensive Swedish – distance/classroom learning

This new, intensive course offered by the City of Stockholm, primarily aimed at graduates, has been designed to help you quickly attain Swedish proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening. This course, which is available both remotely and in a classroom, uses films, exercises and a lot of interaction and communication, is designed to help highly-educated professionals push themselves – with plenty of help from their teachers and classmates. Students come from around the world, including across Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South America. To apply, you need to be used to studying at a high pace.
Perfect for: Those who need to learn Swedish fast!

Yes, there is even an SFI class for new parents

Swedish for trained professionals – SFX

If you have a vocational qualification from your native country, there may be an SFI course specialising in your profession, to enable you to quickly find work in Sweden within your chosen profession. Professions covered include programmers, bakers, medical staff, bus drivers, teachers, lawyers, truckers and architects. The intensive Swedish courses, complete with work-focused professional vocabulary, are outperforming more general courses, with the overall level of employment or continued study around 25 percent higher for those studying SFX than those who completed SFI. Available in Stockholm municipality.
Perfect for: Professionals who need to get up to speed in Swedish really quickly to land a job.

Combination educations – SFI and SVA combo

With this course, you learn Swedish at the same time as you study for a vocational education (SVA) at upper secondary school level. You also get practical experience on the job and have good chances of finding employment once you’ve qualified. A combination education is full-time – you study 30 hours a week at school and you also need to spend time on schoolwork at home every week. Careers covered include care and teaching assistants, chefs and construction workers.
Perfect for: Newcomers without Swedish or a trade or established career.

There are many SFI courses available to non-Swedish speakers. Find the one best suited to you here

SFI for parental leave

Mothers and fathers on parental leave can study SFI together with other parents. SFI for parental leave (SFF) is open to those on SFI study paths 1 and 2. At SFF, you study Swedish in a small group together with a teacher and other parents on leave. Topics included on this course include, general parenting issues, health and children’s development, Swedish preschools etc.
Perfect for: Newcomer mums and dads!

Adapted learning SFI

There are different types of Swedish tuition for those who need special support. If, for example, you have a neuropsychiatric disability such as ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, some form of mental illness or dyslexia, you can receive adapted teaching based on your needs. You can also receive adapted teaching based on your needs, if you have learning loss, visual impairment, impaired mobility or suffer from PTSD or migration-related stress or trauma. Please note that you do not need a diagnosis to be entitled to support. 
Perfect for: Newcomers who need adapted learning to help overcome physical or neuropsychiatric issues.

There you have it. Proof that there is indeed a Swedish language course for pretty much every newcomer to Stockholm, no matter what your background and no matter what your circumstances. 

Finding the right course can really make all the difference as to whether or not you complete the course, and it can also be a great way to network and make new friends.

Learning Swedish can be a real door into Swedish society, and The City of Stockholm wants to open that door for you.

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What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.