Hen – the debated Swedish pronoun

You may have heard of the gender neutral Swedish pronoun “hen”. It has been debated in Sweden during the past couple of years, and some people feel strongly about it. So what’s the fuss all about?

“Han” means singular he, and “hon” means singular she. But what if you don’t know the gender of a person? Or if it is irrelevant? Consider a situation where you say you need to book an appointment at the dentist, and you hope that he/she/the dentist will be able to help you with your toothache.

You may not want to assume that the dentist is a woman nor a man. The “s/he” is pretty clunky (especially in speech – how on earth do you pronounce “s/he”?!), and to say “the dentist” again just sounds repetitive. So what can you say? In English, you can of course say “they” – you hope that they will help you with your toothache. However, in Swedish, you do not use the third person plural for a singular person – you cannot say “de” in this case.

Lately, a new, gender-neutral pronoun has started to become more popular in Sweden – hen. The pronoun hen is defined as a “proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of han and hon”. Even though this is a relatively new phenomenon in Swedish, several languages have gender neutral pronouns. Finnish, for example, only has gender neutral pronouns!

The book “Kivi och Monsterhund” came out earlier this year, and it is the first book that only uses hen – instead of han and hon. And the book has caused a widespread debate in Sweden.

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The author, Jesper Lundqvist, wanted to write a book for children – rather than for girls or boys, and that was the main reason why he used “hen” in his book. He said he found it liberating to write directly to children, without having to think about all the stereotypical associations that surround boys and girls. Jesper says that some have misunderstood the whole idea of hen, and thought of it as a way of replacing han and hon. But this is not correct. Rather, it is more about having an “extra tool in the tool box”, linguistically speaking. (http://www.gp.se/nyheter/sverige/1.874481-sa-borjade-debatten-om-hen?)

What do you think to the idea of having a gender-neutral pronoun? Useful? Unnecessary? Feel free to comment below.  

Semlor – baka dina egna (how to bake your own semlor)

Have you tried semlor? It’s that time of year again! Tomorrow Tuesday is the day of the Semla. Semlor (plural, semla in singular) are cardamom-scented-cream-and-almond-paste-filled-buns commonly available from the official end of the Christmas season (tjugondag Knut on January 13th) until Easter although originally they were only eaten every Tuesday from Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) until Easter. Nowadays, well… let’s say we eat them a bit more often during this period of the year.

Here is my recipe for semlor

Ingredienser:

  • 75 gram smör
  • 2,5 dl mjölk
  • 25 gram jäst
  • 2 krm salt
  • 0,5 dl socker
  • 1 tsk stött kardemumma
  • 8 dl vetemjöl (ca 500 gram)
  • 1 ägg till pensling

Fyllning till semlorna:

  • 200 gram mandelmassa eller marsipan
  • 1 dl grädde eller mjölk att ha i mandelmassan
  • 3 dl vispgrädde att vispa
  • 0,5 dl florsocker att pudra semlorna med

Gör så här:

1. Mal kardemumman

2. Aktivera jästen (om du behöver – gör som det står på jästpaketet). Blanda ihop mjöl, socker, salt, och kardemumma. Tillsätt mjölk, jäst, och smält smör.

3. Blanda till en deg. Låt degen jäsa i 45 min, under en handduk.

4. Dela degen i 12 delar. Baka ut till små runda bullar. Lägg bullarna på bakplåtspapper. Låt bullarna jäsa i 30 min, under en handduk.

5. Sätt ugnen på 220 grader. Rör ihop ett ägg, och pensla ägg-mixen på bullarna. Grädda bullarna i ugnen i ca 8 minuter, tills de fått en gyllenbrun färg.

6. Under tiden, riv marsipanen. Tillsätt 1 dl mjölk eller grädde. Låt mixen stå ett tag.

7. Ta ut bullarna ur ugnen, låt dem svalna under en handduk.

8. Skär ut locket på bullarna, och skrapa ut smulorna inuti. Tillsätt smulorna i marsipan-mixen.

9. Lägg i marsipan-mixen i bullarna.

10. Vispa lite grädde, och lägg grädden på marsipan-mixen. Lägg sedan locket på, och pudra lite med florsocker. Tadaaa! Klart!

Or you could just buy some semla in any café in Sweden, or maybe at Scandinavian Kitchen in London if you are there?

Swedish vowels – hard and soft

Swedish vowels

As you may already know, the Swedish language has 9 vowels: A, E, I, O, U, Y (note that y is always a vowel in Swedish!), Å, Ä, and Ö. However, there is another way of grouping the vowels, rather than just alphabetically – according to whether they are soft or hard. Categorising vowels in this way will help with the pronunciation of many words in Swedish, as it can give you clues on how to say certain words.

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Hard and soft vowels

When I say that vowels are either hard or soft, what I actually mean is that different vowels will affect certain consonants before them – giving the consonants either a soft or a hard pronunciation. So, actually, it is not the vowels themselves that are pronounced in a soft or hard way, but instead they affect consonants to be pronounced in a soft or hard way. And which consonants will they affect? They will affect words beginning with K-, G- and SK-.

This actually happens in English too. Just compare how you say “café” and “city”. The words both begin with C, but they are pronounced differently. From a Swedish language perspective, I would say that “café” has a hard kind of C, whereas “city” has a soft-sounding C. Another example is the different pronunciation of G in the words “guest” and “gist”, where I would say “guest” has a hard-sounding G and “gist” is soft. So let’s see how this works in Swedish.

Soft vowels: E, I, Y, Ä and Ö

Hard vowels: A, O, U, and Å

If you have any of the so-called soft vowels following either K-, G- or SK-, these consonants change to a softer sounding sound.

For example:

G- : göra (to do) – is pronounced with a soft “y” sounding sound: “yöööra, whereas gammal (old) – is pronounced with a hard-sounding G, a bit like in the name Gandalf.

K- : köpa (to buy) – is pronounced with a soft sounding “ch”: “chööpa”, whereas kan (able to/can) – is pronounced with a hard k, like in the English “can”.

SK- : sked (spoon) – is pronounced with a soft sounding sound, the same as in the number 7 (sju): “scheeed”, whereas skola (school) – is pronounced hard, like it reads (a separate s followed by a separate hard k): “skola”.

Because of theses pronunciation rules, there are some Swedish words that seem familiar to the English ear, and may even mean the same thing, but will be pronounced differently. I call these types of words “false friends” – they seem easy and familiar, but are in fact something else. For example:

kilo – means the same thing, a measure of weight, but is pronounced soft because of the I: “chiiilo”

sky – means sky in Swedish too, but is pronounced soft and with a long Swedish Y (like an English “ee” but with a more trumpet/forward-shaped mouth): “schyyy”

sko – means shoe, but this one is hard, because of the O: “skooo”

Of course, there are some exceptions, as always. Look out for the words “kille” (guy – should theoretically be soft, but we pronounce it hard), and “kö” (queue – again, should theoretically be soft, but is instead hard). Many of my students also struggle with the word “människa” (person, human being), and try to pronounce it as it reads, although we actually pronounce this “sk” in a soft way: “männischa”.

To hear a bit more about the hard and soft vowels, have a look at this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vy1t0BonlJQ&feature=plcp

 

Swedish Exam – Känner du till SWEDEX?

Swedish Exam (aka SWEDEX)

Do you know of SWEDEX? It an internationally recognised Swedish language exam, and it relates to the Common European Framework of Reference For Languages. You can currently take the exam at 3 different levels: A2, B1 and B2. Swedex is approved by the government body the Swedish Institute and can be taken irrespective of how you have learnt Swedish. The exam tests knowledge that can be applied in practice within all kinds of language proficiency: speaking, reading, listening and writing. The test can be taken both in and outside Sweden, in 92 cities, in 32 countries.

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It is usable proof if you for example want to work in Sweden, continue your studies in Swedish or follow education in Swedish that does not require more advanced language knowledge. Swedex B1 approximately corresponds to the level for Sfi, course D. However, an important difference is that the Sfi exam tests whether you have passed a specific course while this exam tests general knowledge of Swedish.

You pay to take the test, but the cost varies depending on the examination centre. Here is a list of all examination centres, and you can contact them directly to find out how much they charge.

The test takes between 2 and 4 hours, depending on the level you are testing for. You have to manage at least 60% on both the written and the oral parts in order to pass. If you have failed a module, you have failed the exam in its entirety. This means you have to take the whole exam again next time.

I am a qualified test leader for level A2, B1 and B2, which means I am able to help any learners who want to study towards a test.

Have a look here to read more about the test, and you can also find mock exams here, so you can test your current level.

 

Interview with a Swedish learner – James

Learning Swedish – interview with a learner

James is a radiographer working in an NHS hospital in the UK. He was raised in Southport, Lancashire, but currently lives in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, UK, but he is hoping on finding work in Sweden in the not-too-distant future. James likes to ride his bicycles a lot and successfully completed Vätternrundan, a 180 mile ride around Lake Vättern, in Sweden in 2015.

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What led you to want to learn Swedish?

I’ve always been interested in Nordic history and culture, the cause of which was probably being exposed to a 1980s adventure game I used to play on my computer as a boy called Valhalla. More recently, I had been looking at job adverts for jobs in my profession across Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and wishing I could apply for them. But after separate trips to Sweden, Norway and Finland, and enjoying experiencing life as a tourist in those countries, in 2014 I thought I’d bite the bullet and give learning a language a go. I plumped for Sweden as I felt the size of the country would be good.

When and how did you start learning Swedish?

I started using the Babbel app on my iPad, in May 2014, and shortly after started taking lessons from Anneli over Skype.

How much do you currently use the Swedish language, and why?

I try to use it when I can. The chances to use Swedish in the UK are limited but there’s a few groups across the country that arrange meetings through the meetup.com website, in London, Manchester and Glasgow. Other than that, if I visit Sweden I try to use my language skills there, but this is made more difficult by the natives’ excellent English skills and their eagerness to use them in conversation with an Englishman!

What have been the challenges for you in learning Swedish?

Trying to fit my lessons and homework around my job and other interests.

What is your proudest moment as a Swedish speaker?

When arriving on a campsite in June 2015, I did manage to hold a good conversation with the management telling them my name and that I had booked a pitch for a few nights. I think they may have been confused by my arriving in a right hand drive car!

Can you recommend any Swedish books that are good for learning Swedish?

Swedish: An Essential Grammar, by Philip Holmes and Ian Hinchliffe, is an excellent grammar book for those starting out in Swedish.

Can you recommend any online / media resources for learning Swedish?

The aforementioned Babbel app, which you can use on iOS and Android, plus their version for desktop computers, is excellent but you have to pay a monthly subscription to use it. You could consider switching your phone’s language setting to Swedish, although it may be a good idea to memorise how to switch the language back to English should you need to. Swedish TV shows seem to be quite in demand on UK television these days with Wallander and The Bridge being shown on the BBC and there’s plenty of DVDs of Swedish TV shows available too, with English subtitling of course, plus you could consider watching English language films with Swedish subtitling. Listen to Swedish records, from the likes of Melissa Horn and Linnea Henriksson, and have a look at the lyrics booklet with the album.

Do you have any other advice for future, budding Swedish learners?

Learn little and often, maybe try and think about what you’re doing in Swedish rather than English, maybe keep a written diary in Swedish and write about your days.

 

How long to learn Swedish

Many students ask how long it takes to learn Swedish. I have previously written a longer blog post about it, but I have now also worked out a little rough guideline to how many hours it usually takes to reach each language level. This is a very rough estimate, and can vary considerably between individuals, but it may at least give an idea of what to expect.

How long it takes to learn Swedish will depend on a number of factors. Some of them are individual learning pace in general, previous knowledge of grammar (those with much knowledge tend to progress faster), how much homework the learner is able to do between lessons (faster if more homework), and also if the learner has any particular areas that they find challenging.

The calculation below is based my own students and how long people in general spend to reach each level. It takes into account whether the student is a slow, medium or fast learner, and also on how much time the learner spend doing homework and other things outside of the lessons. The more hours you spend learning outside of the tuition hours, the faster you will progress (and it will be cheaper for you too!).

The calculation is also roughly correlated to the guided learning hours according to Deutsche Welle for German, Cambridge English Language Assessment for English, and Alliance Française for French.

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This is in my opinion longer than most people need. My fastest student reached level A1 after only 17 hours tuition on Skype! But some students have needed at least double the time. 

The Plate Spinner

The Plate Spinner

When I talk about the process of language learning with my learners, I often refer to the concept of a plate spinner. I use this metaphor because I think it captures very well the process of language learning.

Some think of the process as building a house (laying a solid foundation, adding brick upon brick, adding new floors on top of each other). The problem with this notion, is that it assumes that you need a solid and sturdy foundation before you can add any more on to it (to prevent it from coming crashing down). And what this usually means, in practical terms for language learners, is a sense that they must remember everything they have learnt so far, in order to move onto something new. “I don’t dare to start a new chapter, because I cannot immediately recall everything I learnt in the previous chapter.” This, I believe, is not a useful language learning strategy, as the learner will develop unnecessary anxieties relating to short-term memory failure, and an impossible ambition to be able to recall every single word in the new language vocabulary (often without any context). A bit like a computer.

Instead, a much more constructive analogy is that of a plate spinner. The plates can represent the different language skills (speaking, reading, listening, writing, grammatical knowledge), and the spinner is the learner. The goal is to spin all the plates as evenly as possible, at the same time. Of course, sometimes a plate spinner may focus on one or two particular plates, which results in another plate beginning to slow down and wobble. But the plate spinner turns their attention to that plate, gives it a little bit of a spin to stabilise it, and things are ok again. And it is ok for plates to be a bit wobbly sometimes. It may just be because you have focused hard on something else for a while. All you have to do is to identify the plate (speaking, listening, or whatever it may be), give it a bit of a spin, and just keep on going. As long as all the plates are spinning in some shape or form, then things are going just fine.

Andrew Van Buren, a famous plate spinner