The easier and the harder aspects of learning Swedish

The Swedish alphabet is simple

Is Swedish hard to learn? Or, if we were to ask that question in Swedish: “Är svenska svårt att lära sig?”

Swedish, as you can tell by this example sentence, uses the Latin alphabet just like English does, but with a few additional letters, two of which appear in that sentence (ä, and å), plus a third one (ö).

Learning Swedish is made simpler by not having to memorize a new alphabet in the way that some other languages like Korean, Hebrew, or Greek require.

But Hungarian and Finnish, which are two notoriously difficult languages to learn, also use the Latin alphabet, so there is more to the difficulty of learning a language than just its alphabet.

Swedish and English are related languages

Linguists study how languages evolved and group them into families of related languages, just as biologists classify plants and animals.

The difficulty of learning a foreign language is, unsurprisingly, proportional to the differences between that foreign language and one’s native language.

Swedish and English are both in the family of Indo-European languages (Hungarian and Finnish, by the way, are not). Swedish and English are also on the same branch within that family because they are both Germanic languages.

The close linguistic relationship between Swedish and English suggests that Swedish is an easy-to-learn language for English speakers.

Indeed, most Germanic languages are relatively easy for English speakers to learn, with a few exceptions like Icelandic, a Germanic language that has remained close to the ancient Old Norse language of the Viking era.

Swedish grammar is relatively simple

So what makes Swedish easy and Icelandic difficult? Grammatical cases are a big part of the reason. They are changes in the endings of words that reflect their grammatical function in a sentence.

In the early Middle Ages, Old English had grammatical cases. But just as they have mostly disappeared from Modern English (except for pronouns), they have also mostly vanished from Swedish, while Icelandic has kept them.

Swedish vocabulary is not too hard to learn

Vocabulary is another factor to consider in answering the question: “Is Swedish an easy language?”

Consider the Swedish version of that question, “Är svenska ett lätt språk?” and notice how the Swedish word “språk” differs from its English equivalent (“language”) but resembles the English word “speech,” which comes from the same root.

In linguistics, words from different languages that share a common origin are called cognates. “Språk” and “speech” are not the only Swedish-English cognates. There are plenty more. And they contribute to making Swedish easier for English speakers to learn.

Even if you have never studied Swedish, you can likely understand some of the thousand most common Swedish words.

Some Swedish-English cognates have Germanic roots. Others have Latin roots because both languages have absorbed Latin-derived terms. In addition, Swedish has borrowed some words directly from English —while Icelandic avoids foreign loan words.

Here are some examples of similar vocabulary words in Swedish and English:

Swedish English
snö snow
båt boat
lång long
därför therefore
månad month
säsong season
ekonomisk economic
speciell special

Swedish verbs are simple

Another thing that makes Swedish easy to learn is the conjugation of verbs —or rather the fact that Swedish verbs are not conjugated according to the subject pronoun.

For example, here are the conjugation tables for the verb “to be” in English and Swedish. Notice how in Swedish, the same verb form is used for all subject pronouns.

In English:
In Swedish:

Swedish is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) teaches foreign languages to diplomats. Based on their teaching experience, they rate languages into four categories based on their learning difficulty (for English speakers):

Category Languages
1) easiest languages Spanish, Italian, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, ...
2) German, Indonesian, ...
3) hard languages Russian, Hungarian, Thai, Finnish, ...
4) very hard languages Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, ...

They classify Swedish in the easiest category, and in addition, they estimate that learning Swedish requires slightly less time than some of the other languages from that category.

The FSI estimates that reaching “general professional proficiency” in Swedish requires 24 weeks of full-time study. The same study duration applies to Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and Italian, while Spanish and French take slightly longer, at 30 weeks each.

To conclude, it is fair to say that Swedish is among the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.

  1. [1] U.S. Foreign Service Institute language difficulty ratings