What are the best ways of learning a language?

Of course, this is the ongoing quest for all language learners. What method is the most effective? Are there any good shortcuts? With so many different apps, programmes, methods and so on, which ones are the most effective?

I found a very useful summary by a language coach called Gruff Davis (yes, that is his name!), which I wanted to share because I wholeheartedly agree with all his points. He is using French as an example, but it can of course be applied to Swedish as well. Here it goes.

1. Understand the Language Learning Journey
Language learning has an appalling abandonment rate. A mere 4% of students embarking on language courses in schools achieve a basic level of fluency after three years. 96% fail to achieve fluency and/or abandon courses completely!

People almost always wrongly conclude two things from this:
Myth 1) Learning languages is hard.
Myth 2) Other people (but not them) are naturally good at languages.

One of the biggest reasons cited for abandoning is that students don’t feel any sense of progression. A GCSE student with an A* will visit France and find they can’t even have a basic conversation. People largely give up because they had the wrong expectations set. So let’s bust some myths:

1) Learning a language isn’t hard. It’s just LONG.
2) Everyone is naturally good at languages. You already learned one, remember? You’ve just forgotten how long it took.

I’m going to use a metaphor that I hope will help you get the knack.

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I think of learning a language a bit like climbing a mountain (a large but easy mountain, the sort that anyone can climb so long as they keep going).

Here’s what most teachers won’t tell you: It takes 600+ hours of study & practice to reach fluency in French (unless you already speak another latin-based language – a so-called romance language). Think about this. If (say) you learn 1 hour of French per week, then in forty weeks you’ll do 40 hours. You’ll need fifteen years at that rate to become fluent, not counting all the stuff you forget because of the gaps between study. (Harder languages like Russian or Mandarin can take 1,200 hours!)

At the other extreme, if you study really intensively, you can rack up 40 hours in one week!It’s possible (but not guaranteed) to achieve fluency in ten to twelve weeks at that rate. Most people don’t have the spare time to give that level of intensity, but understanding the journey helps you be realistic about what you can achieve so you won’t get demotivated.

2. Intensity is vital to learning a language quickly. 
This is a double-whammy. 1) Immersing yourself as deeply as possible in the subject allows you to rack up the hours as quickly as possible. 2) Memory fades unless it’s used. Low-intensity studies (i.e. school French) are ineffective because their intensity is so low that you end up forgetting a large percentage of what you learn. So, try to learn as intensely as time will permit you to.

To use my mountain metaphor, the ground is icy and slippery and if you go slowly, you’ll slip back as much as you progress. The faster you can climb, the less you will slip back.

3. Be kind to yourself
I’ve used sunlight in this mountain metaphor to give you an indication of how it feels to be at these levels. It’s not until B1/B2 that the light comes out and it starts to feel really good speaking French. That happens around the 350-400 hours mark if you’ve never learned a second language before.

Expect a lot of fog and confusion for the first few hundred hours. It’s completely normal and you’re not stupid. EVERYONE feels this way, even the people who seem really gifted at languages. The difference is, anyone who’s already been through that and reached the sunlight expects this stage, and it doesn’t phase them because they know they’ll get there eventually. So, if you catch yourself saying things like, “I’m rubbish at French” or “I’m stupid” just stop for a moment and remind yourself that you’re neither and you will get it if you persevere.

4. Prepare for the journey 
If you’re a complete beginner I find it’s really important to absorb the sounds of the language before beginning serious study. I listen to hours of audio (audio books are great for this) without trying to understand the content, but still actively listening to the sounds of the language to embed them. I usually find after a while I end up babbling them a little like a baby which can feel a bit silly . Which brings me my next piece of advice:

5. Practise looking stupid
Being self-conscious is your biggest enemy. You cannot speak a foreign language without feeling stupid at some point. You have to get over that. You have to twist your mouth into strange new shapes that make you feel like a caricature; you will speak and not be understood and you will listen and not understand. A LOT. It’s really okay and in fact necessary to learning. If you think about it, what’s the big deal? So you look stupid. Who cares?

If you instead give yourself credit every time you feel stupid you can turn this around. Give yourself a little mental gold star each time you feel stupid because those moments are learning moments. Feeling stupid is actually a sign of progress, or the moment just prior to progress.

6. Find out where you are (and therefore what the next stage is)
I strongly advise you measure your level using CEFR levels (CEFR – the Common European Framework of-Reference for languages) as these are now standard across Europe.

(and here is a self assessment test you can do to find out your Swedish level according to the CEFR levels).


Happy 10th anniversary!

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10 years ago, I started teaching my very first student. This was before Skype had gone mainstream and was only in its infancy. I was studying for my PhD, and I took on another couple of students – the idea of teaching Swedish was so much more appealing than working extra in a pub.

Since then, I have taught over 210 students, for more than 9,000 hours. I set up a website, an online booking system, social media profiles. I have become a qualified SWEDEX examiner. I have got a teaching degree (oh, and my PhD too of course!).

Some of you have popped in for a lesson or two, whereas some have now been with me for over 5 years. Some of you have studied intensively, some less frequently. Some of you have stopped and then come back again. Some of you now live in Sweden. Some of you have now got children. Some of you have lived in Sweden and now moved somewhere else. Some of you became sambo or got married. Some of you are now divorced. I have talked to teenagers and pensioners, men and women. I have talked to doctors, nurses, midwives, authors, IT programmers, students, lecturers, managing directors, editors, archaeologists, solicitors, store managers, computer game designers, psychologists, priests, football coaches, sales people, HR people, marketing people, embassy workers, postmen, economists, bankers, musicians, film makers, translators, dancers, dog kennel owners, marine biologists, veterinary surgeons, post docs, PhD students, pharmacists, recruiters, entrepreneurs, unemployed and more. I have taught via Skype from the UK, from Sweden, from the US. You have Skyped in from all over the world, into my little computer, across time zones and space.

I have taught Swedish conversation, grammar, pronunciation, culture and quirks. You have shared your life stories with me, taught me your culture, shared your experiences. We have together seen the fruits of your labour (and sometimes it has been hard), and I have been so proud of your progress. Like the first time you asked a Swede something on the streets and got a Swedish reply back. Like when you first watched a Swedish movie without subtitles. Like when you read your first Swedish book. Or managed your job interview in Swedish. And got employed. Like when you started speaking Swedish more regularly with your partner. All those little moments that have been so rewarding for us both.

Language builds bridges. Language builds cultural understanding. Language is integration. Thank you everyone who’s been with me on this journey so far. I have loved every minute!

Here’s to the next 10 years!

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Swedish vowels – Å, Ä, Ö

To finish off the series about how to pronounce the Swedish vowels, here are the three extra vowels in the Swedish language: å. ä, and ö.

Here is the first one of the three extra vowels in Swedish (they come in the end of the alphabet by the way, in this order: å, ä, ö). The challenge is to really distinguish them as separate vowels, and not just muddled versions of A and O. The Å can be thought of as the ‘au’ sound in ‘Paul’. Indeed, some Swedish Pauls actually spell their names Pål. The sound is long, as in a long ‘Pååål’.

This letter can be thought of as the English ‘ai’ in ‘pair’, or ‘hair’. The only thing to remember is that the mouth is actually quite wide, a bit more of a smile than when saying ‘pair’.

Finally, the Ö is similar to the English sound ‘i’ in the word ‘bird’. Or ‘u’ in the word ‘fur’. Or ‘ea’ in the word ‘heard’. The lips are fairly rounded, but also slightly trumpet-shaped.

And finally, the graduation test is to fully master the following Swedish tongue twister: Flyg fula fluga flyg, och den fula flugan flög (Fly away you ugly fly, and the ugly fly flew away).

Lycka till!

Swedish vowels – Y

Of all Swedish vowels, the vowel Y tends to be hard to get right, but I have found a way to describe it that seems to be helpful. Firstly, say the Swedish I (or the English ‘ee’) and analyse what your tongue is doing. Secondly, keep that tongue position absolutely still, but move your lips from a wide smile to a trumpet-like shape (i.e. push your lips forward, quite aggressively). So when going from I to Y, your tongue position should be exactly the same, and the only thing changing is your lips – going from a wide smile, to a trumpet-shape. A bit like doing duck lips. :)

Duck lips courtesy of https://iwantadumpsterbaby.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/attitude-of-gratitude-and-some-duck-lips-too/
Duck lips courtesy of https://iwantadumpsterbaby.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/attitude-of-gratitude-and-some-duck-lips-too/


Linnea Henriksson – Du söker bråk, jag kräver dans (lyrics)


Åh. Jag var inte alls beredd. 

Satt och lyssna på Frank Ocean 

och allting skedde i slow motion.

Vilken träff! Allting blev som tecknad film.

Flög små fåglar runt min skalle. 

Fick du visa nu hur ball du är?

Oh. Du vill så gärna nån ska se dig, 

men jag har hela världen med mig.

Du söker bråk, jag kräver dans.

Åh. Du är stor, men jag är snabb.

Nästa gång slår jag tillbaka. 

Först en krok sen fyra raka.

Oh. Du vill så gärna nån ska se dig, 

men jag har hela världen med mig.

Du söker bråk, jag kräver dans.

Vi kommer nu.

Vet var du bor.

Bröder och systrar, fler än du tror.

Du söker bråk.

Jag kräver dans. 

Med dina moves har du ingen chans.

Visa mig – break!

Du står så still.

Du som var så tuff vet inte längre vad du vill.

En piruett. 

Jag är besviken. 

Du vill bli sedd, men vågar inte ta publiken.

Oh. Du vill så gärna nån ska se dig, 

men jag har hela världen med mig.

Du söker bråk, jag kräver dans.

Swedish vowels – U

This is perhaps the hardest one to explain, out of all Swedish vowels. When you say the vowel U, your lips should be relaxed, your tongue touching the bottom-row of your front teeth, and your jaw should be slightly pushed forward. It sounds a little bit like the disgusted expression “Eew”, but more like the end-part than the first.


10 Swedish sayings in English

Sayings can become very amusing when they are translated literally, and Swedish ones are no exception. Last year, the Twitter hash tag #swedishsayings did exactly this and gained a lot of popularity and laughters, even among people who knew no Swedish at all. The Local published a list of 10 odd sayings a while back, including some commentary about them, and here is the complete list.

  • Ingen ko på isen – There’s no cow on the ice. “This is a popular saying in Sweden, which quite simply means “Don’t worry”. It remains unknown how often Swedish cattle are milling about on frozen lakes, but it’s no stretch of the imagination to understand that a cow on ice would be definitely worth worrying about.”

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  • Nära skjuter ingen hare – A close shot will never get you the rabbit. ” “Close but no cigar” gets a lot more violent in Swedish (and it has a much nicer ring to it!). The Swedes talk about how how a close shot will never get you a hare, and that’s fair enough. In fact, it makes more sense at a glance than the one about the cigar anyway.”
  • Skägget i brevlådan – Caught with your beard in the letterbox. “While their English-speaking cousins are messing around getting their hands stuck in cookie jars, Swedes are getting their beards caught in letterboxes. Don’t ask what they’re doing with their faces so close to the letterboxes in the first place…”
  • Det ligger en hund begraven – There’s a dog buried here. “There’s something fishy going on here… There’s nothing fishier than a buried dog, right? Well, that’s what a Swede would say. Perhaps it’s the stench of a buried mutt, perhaps it’s the idea of a missing canine companion, or perhaps it’s just the absurdity of it all, but it’s definitely fishy.”

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  • Att ana ugglor i mossen – Suspecting owls in the bog. “You may think there is nothing fishier than a buried dog, and that’s a perfectly logical assumption. But what about owls in the bog? Yes, those crazy Swedes are at it again. When something strange is afoot, they’ll whisper to each other about those fishy owls and and their boggy surroundings.”
  • Smaken är som baken, delad – Taste is like your bum, divided. “While English speakers sometimes rather crudely compare opinions to arseholes (everyone has got one), Swedes take things one step further. They liken opinions to bottoms as both are often perfectly divided down the middle, not unlike the potato below. As with many opinions, potatoes, and behinds, it’s not always a perfect division.”

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  • Finns det hjärterum så finns det stjärterum – If there’s room in the heart there’s room for the arse. “Nothing can make a guest feel more welcome than talking about their arse, and Swedish proverbs certainly do give a quick aside to a behind (see above). When Swedes are accommodating for extra guests, they’ll often use this beautifully rhyming proverb to welcome them. And their arse.”
  • Gå som katten kring het gröt – To walk like a cat around hot porridge. “Don’t beat about the bush, an English speaker might warn. But not so in Sweden, here it’s all about cats and porridge. Swedish felines are not world renowned for their aversion to porridge, hot or otherwise, but at least they have a proverb to their name.”
  • Göra en höna av en fjäder – To make a chicken out of a feather. “We’re all familiar with the idea of making a mountain out of a molehill, but the logic surrounding the idea of making a chicken out of nothing but feathers contains several immediate flaws. But it’s a ticklish idea.”
  • Köp inte grisen i säcken – Don’t buy the pig while it’s still in the bag. “This proverb warns you off rash decisions. Just like you wouldn’t buy a car before taking it for a spin, Swedes seem to be very particular about their swines, warning each other about the perils of purchasing pouched pigs. Note: Pigs are not usually sold in bags in Sweden.”

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