As I mention in an earlier post one of the next steps for establishing myself in Sweden was enrolling in Svenska för invandrare (Swedish for immigrants or SFI for short). SFI is a free program that the Swedish government offers in order to help immigrants learn Swedish and integrate into Swedish society.  I think SFI will be a good way for me to push myself out of my comfort zone and to meet and engage with other new recent immigrants. Also in a more practical sense, learning Swedish is an absolute must for most areas of the Swedish labor market. Despite most everyone speaking English to a near perfect level, Swedish is still the language for most businesses in a day to day setting, and although most Swedes speak excellent English most would still feel more comfortable expressing themselves in Swedish. I think it speaks somewhat to anglo-entitlement that so many people online have expressed dismay that it is difficult to find a job in Sweden without speaking Swedish.  On top of difficulties in the labor sector most social activities, non-master level courses, signage, forms, applications, and media about Sweden are naturally in Swedish.

Navigating the world becomes an ordeal when you can’t read signage, labels or accurately pronounce place names. More than once I have bought slightly different types of groceries than the ones I wanted. I’ve had to ask store clerks simple questions I know this sign says something about cash but does it mean cash only or no cash?  There is a construction to a walking path on my way to the gym, there are signs there but I don’t know if they say no vehicles or no people. I just walk on through knowing my lack of Swedish somewhat excuses me from any faux pas I might make navigating the world. It helps that there are a ton of words that are cognates in Swedish.  I am sure that you might have noticed Svenska för invandrare and Swedish for immigrants look quite similar.  So even with a basic knowledge of Swedish you can sort of hack together what signs mean based on context.  

When I am socializing with a majority of Swedish speakers there is a tendency to slip in and out of Swedish and English. It is actually fascinating the degree of fluidity in which Swedes can go from speaking in English to speaking in Swedish. When people slip into Swedish it is usually at a part of the conversation where I have no involvement. But once it slips into Swedish there is a tendency for it to stay there, cutting me out of a conversation that might develop into something that I might have been interested in. I usually take the time when the Swedes are Swedin’ out to try and pick out words that I recognize, to try to stitch together the topic of the conversation. Usually I can figure out the topic. Oh they are talking about skirts. But what they are saying about skirts, their opinions on skirts, what the skirt has to do with the story is completely lost on me. Honestly it is sort of liberating to not have to pretend to have any interest in the conversation at hand. I can completely zone out knowing that nobody will ask me anything about the conversation. Often times people will speak for Swedish for awhile then offer to speak in English. Then I have to chose between forcing people to speak English or not understanding anything. I usually say “nah it is fine whatever” but then I’ll eventually ask Emelie or someone else to explain to me what everyone is talking about often times the explanation is sprinkled with cultural references I wouldn’t get even if they were speaking in English. They are talking about this silly celebrity cook from Skåne. These cultural reference points are something I will have to learn in addition to learning the Swedish language. It helps that in our globalized world I share a ton of cultural references with Swedes. Most Swedish people I have met consume a large amount of English language media. So while I might not remember Melodifestivalen 2009, I can still bond with people about listening to Linkin Park as pre-teens.

My skill level in Swedish is quite low. I can read simple subtitles and simple texts and understand maybe 50% of what is happening. Subtitles seem to be the easiest, as they tend to be written in the most simplistic way possible. When it comes to understanding verbal Swedish or speaking or writing I really have no ability.  I tried Babbel and Duolingo over the last few years and had bursts of periods where I was committed to learning Swedish. But learning a language takes dedication and time and focus, I couldn’t really give Swedish the attention it required when I would come home so so tired that all I could really focus on was watching TV and falling asleep. But now I have nothing but time and motivation to learn Swedish.  I can already tell I am learning more Swedish words, just by virtue of being in Sweden. I am surrounded by the language. I am constantly asking what words mean, although more often than not I hear the definition then immediately forget it.

I was able to sign up for SFI starting in March. Signing up was a really simple process I went to the adult education office. The building is right in central Uppsala, next to the tax office, the social welfare office and the employment office. Which is incredibly convenient for making bureaucratic day trips and probably for when the bureaucrats want to have cross office coffee breaks.  I arrived at the office right at nine in the morning right when they opened. I was able to immediately talk to a kind older Swedish bureaucrat who explained to me about the process of studying through SFI. Within SFI there are different routes to take, I got placed in the most advanced route, not because I know Swedish but because I have spent the majority of my life in classrooms.  To figure out my educational attainment he asked me how many years I was in school to which I said “I don’t know like twenty? Does preschool count?”. We settled on seventeen. K-12 plus college. At twenty three have spent a grand total of six years outside of the classroom, when put this way I feel incredibly fortunate to be born into an era and a place where I was able to spend almost two decades learning. The idea of breaking up the course routes by educational level is that people who are more familiar with the actual act of studying and classroom setting in general have different needs than those who have limited education. My needs as a college educated American is different than say a refugee from rural Afghanistan who has had limited if any access to education.

After Hans (I don’t think that is his name but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was) asked a few more questions about my background, I got to choose my SFI school. There are like eight in Uppsala, they are all run independently with some guidelines. In theory they are all supposed to be more or less equal but that isn’t always the case. Hans then told me it wasn’t his job to recommend a school so he went on to describe the different schools in the most basic terms. Mostly telling me the school’s stats regarding size and the educational level. I chose one based simply on the fact that I thought that I heard the name mentioned by a friend of mine. I have since googled it and now I have ads for the school following me around the internet, which makes me slightly worried. Any organization that dumps a ton of money into marketing makes me worried of their actual quality, especially when they are educational organizations. They also have variations in the frequency of courses and the time of courses. I opted for the most intensive program, three hours a week five days a week.

I start the week of March 7th. I am excited for this new chapter of establishing myself here. I am excited to have a set routine, where I actually have to be somewhere and do something as opposed to now where going to the gym is the height of my daily routine. Starting in March I will have somewhere to be and something to do during the day. I won’t have any distractions, my focus will be all on learning Swedish. It’ll be challenging. I haven’t been in a classroom for over a year and half, let alone a classroom where I am trying to learn a language, a skill that I have always struggled with. I am looking forward to the challenge.

Weather update: snow has come back and remained for the last few weeks, although it is starting to melt again. I much prefer the temperature to be around -2ºC (28ºF) rather than shifting between freezing and not freezing. The slushy melted snow and cold rain is much less pleasant than actual snow. A week from today Emelie and I are heading off to Ireland to visit our friend who is studying at Trinity in Dublin. We will spend a few nights in Dublin then head off the the west coast and then down to Killarney for a few nights. I think it’ll be nice to get away for a bit before starting SFI the week I get back.





One thought on “Språk

  1. Hi Joe – your writing is beautiful. I ‘see’ what you are up against by not knowing the language, but you are ready for the challenge. It was very bold of you to be in a country where you don’t know the language. It is apparent you are taking it all in stride and enjoying the adventure. Thanks for adding my name to your blog. Your Mom probably got tired of me asking about you — just kidding!! Have a great time in Ireland and be ready to tackle your language class when you get back.

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