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Published: 16 Jun, 2022

Swedish course for foreign scientists focuses on daring to speak

FEATURE Do you say “penna” about all kinds of pens? What is the difference between "prova" and "försöka"? To whom do you say "tjena" to and what does "krya på dig" mean? Questions abound, as do laughter, when researchers at the Faculty of Science and Technology from a number of different countries meet for an intensive course in Swedish.

Text: Anna-Lena Lindskog

“This is great! The best thing about this course is that we started speaking Swedish right away, even though we didn't know it" says Natalya Pya Arnqvist, associate professor at the Department of Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics.

The best thing about this course is that we started speaking Swedish right away

Already during the small talk as the participants enter the classroom, the teaching has begun. Nicholas Kamenos, professor of Marine biology, recently attended a dinner event with Crown Princess Victoria. Was he dressed appropriately for the occasion? Yes, says the group, and teacher Madeleine Igede from Mid Sweden University immediately takes the opportunity to point out that dress codes can sometimes be confusing in Sweden.

“If it says ‘klädsel kavaj’ on the invitation card, it means suit and it's all wrong to come in a jacket and jeans or chinos.”

She goes on to talk lively and with many gestures about her weekend, where a mix-up of shopping trolleys at the grocery store led to the family not getting the dinner they were supposed to have at all. Meanwhile, she writes various terms on the board, such as "bäst-före-datum", and describes her son being “slarvig” about packing the groceries into the fridge. "Slarvig" what does that mean?

"May I have this dance?"

Then it's time for question cards. Participants get into groups and draw cards with questions they will ask and talk about together. The conversations are quickly underway and the whole classroom is buzzing with Swedish. Everyday questions like "can you turn on the light" are interspersed with other, slightly weirder questions like "why do you have to eat", "may I have this dance" and "should we go to my place or yours".

“What should I do now?” Natalya Pya Arnqvist reads from a card.

“Good question, take another one” Oliver Billker quickly replies and draws the next card from the deck.

The lesson continues with a listening exercise with greetings. Participants listen and repeat and then Madeleine goes through the meanings and differences. When is it appropriate to greet someone with a "tjena" or "hur är läget" and what is meant when you reply "det rullar på"? Participants then work in pairs to write their own dialogues, which are read out and applauded before listening to more useful everyday phrases.

Intensive is the only way

Natalya Pya Arnqvist, Paolo Bientinesi and Markus Schmid have all taken Swedish for Academics before, but agree that the course they are now taking, which the faculty has invested in and developed together with Mid Sweden University, is much more rewarding.

“I took Swedish for Academics level 1, 2 and 3 and then 3 again, but it was only once a week, not so demanding and most of it was forgotten by the next lesson” says Paolo Bientinesi, professor of Computing science. “Running twice a week and then, as now, an intensive course makes a big difference. It's intensive, difficult and time-consuming, but if you're serious about learning Swedish, it's the right way to go.”

Do you speak Swedish in your departments? Or do people automatically speak English with you?

“At my workplace, they know I study Swedish and I ask them to email me in Swedish, but when we have meetings where it's important to understand everything, we have to take it in English. But, at coffee time, we speak Swedish" says Paolo Bientinesi.

It's actually a challenge to speak Swedish at work, because nobody speaks Swedish to you

“It's actually a challenge to speak Swedish at work, because nobody speaks Swedish to you" says Markus Schmid. “In my research group, I also don't have any Swedish colleagues. I have studied Swedish and have a large vocabulary, but it is passive. I'm a perfectionist, so I feel really stupid when I speak bad Swedish. But, here we are all on the same level and it's a very nice group, so you don't feel as inhibited to talk as you might in other contexts.”

Must get the chance to speak Swedish

When we talk later, Madeleine Igede stresses that she has an important message for all native Swedish-speaking university staff to actually speak Swedish with their foreign colleagues.

“That's the thing, they have to be given the chance. I often say this to Swedish colleagues at my own university, that they shouldn't immediately switch to English. They reply that it will be easier that way, but it won't be easier for someone who never gets to try out their Swedish. You can start with the coffee breaks, then lunch and slowly but surely move on to taking meetings in Swedish.”

She praises her students, they are sharp, committed and ambitious. During the spring semester, they have been meeting twice a week at Zoom and learning the basics. During the three intensive weeks they have on campus together, learning is accelerating. The fact that the whole group is good at English helps, as it is always possible to explain the nuances of the language in English. In the autumn, the course will continue with more formal Swedish, so that the participants can email and take part in meetings where everything is discussed in Swedish.

What is the biggest challenge in learning Swedish?

“I'm from Germany and I've been told that Swedish should be relatively easy for me, but I don't agree at all” says Markus Schmid.

“The pronunciation” says Natalya Pya Arnqvist. “All the vowels that can sound very different, short and long, and now I've discovered that it applies to consonants too!”

“For me it's understanding when Swedes speak, because you often pronounce words completely differently than they are written and abbreviated” says Paolo Bientinesi. “I often listen to Swedish radio programmes with easy Swedish and it's easy, because they say every word carefully. Regular radio is really hard!”

Do you think you will speak Swedish more after this course?

“Yes, I think so, it helps a lot” says Yaowen Wu. “I've even started to speak some Swedish with my kid, but he often says "daddy, you talk very strange".”

“Yes, after being exposed to Swedish for six hours, I leave here every day wanting to continue" says Natalya Pya Arnqvist.

And it is precisely this willingness and daring that is behind the initiative to train the faculty's foreign researchers in Swedish.

We want to create good conditions for our internationally recruited researchers and directors

“We want to create good conditions for our internationally recruited researchers and directors to be able to fully participate in and influence the work of the faculty. This requires knowledge of the Swedish language" says Frankie Ekerholm, Faculty Coordinator.

“It takes time and effort to learn a new language” she continues to say. “It also requires a lot of support, especially at the beginning. Here, the excellent cooperation we have with Mid Sweden University is incredibly valuable. Madeleine is a wonderfully skilled and committed educator. We wanted the participants to have the opportunity to really focus on getting started. The intensive weeks are an important part of that. Towards the end of the course, the approach will shift more towards university-specific Swedish and towards supporting further self-learning. To get there you need a solid foundation. Learning a language does not happen automatically, it takes practice, practice and more practice.”