Like a Herring to Water
November 29, 2009 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn a Scandinavian language. Help me decide which one!

I've always wanted to see Scandinavia, and hope to do so next winter - Stockholm, Gothenburg, Helsinki are seeming pretty attractive. It would be nice to learn Svenska/Suomi in the meantime. I'm pretty good at learning vocabulary but not as skilled with grammar, and I've heard that Finnish is pretty complex grammatically speaking. (During my linguistics degree grammar was not my strong point, although I was fine with Spanish). Really it would be nice to have a project too, so it needs to br the fun sort of challenging rather than terrifying. Any experiences learning either, and recommended resources?
posted by mippy to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The only real choice is Swedish. Finnish is not a Scandinavian language.
Of the two, Swedish is the one that will help you communicate also in Denmark and Norway, and since Finland is officially (and in many ways practically) bi-lingual, the only reason to learn Finnish is if you have an active wish to learn it (disclaimer: Finns are cool as all hell).

As for learning, you need to use the Safir system. If you google safir svenska you can choose one of a number of hits. The project is essentially orphaned now, so I suggest you rip a local copy as well, as it may dissapear at random. Start with modul 1, exercise 1 which is the alphabet, and work your way forward, you need a flash enabled browser and headphones/speakers. You should be able to teach yourself to a decent level.
posted by Iteki at 7:04 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

In my experience, Swedish will not help your communicate in Denmark and Norway. I know Swedish and when I visited those two countries I ended up speaking English. My Norwegian friends seemed to have the easiest time understanding Danish and Swedish, whereas Swedish people tend to understand neither and Danish tend to only understand some Swedish. It will help you learn those languages, but you will really have to work on it.

That said, Swedish is spoken in more than one country...Finland too, though really, most youngsters speak English there and the people who don't speak that well tend to not speak Swedish either.

The total population of Swedish speakers is highest though at about 10 million.

I started with Rosetta Stone and then moved to Sweden and took classes and also had a Swedish boyfriend who helped me.
posted by melissam at 7:16 AM on November 29, 2009

In my experience most Scandinavians will prefer to speak English, just FYI.
posted by sveskemus at 7:19 AM on November 29, 2009

Additionally, they will prefer to speak in English because their English is extremely good.

But if you really want to learn one anyway, I would suggest Swedish. Danish is essentially Swedish with marbles in your mouth (i.e., Danes can understand Swedish, but not-so-much the other way around). Finish is, IIRC, linguistically closer to Hungarian than any Scandinavian language, and it only spoken in Finland. So Swedish gives you the most bang for the buck.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:52 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bit of clarification. Yeah, you won't actually need to speak anything other than english 99% of the time, most people I have met in the 60+ bracket even speak a good conversational english. But from what you said, you were learning this for fun rather than utility.

Norwegians and Danes will understand you, partially because they consume Swedish media to a greater extent than the other way round, but they will also (usually) speak to be understood. Mutual understanding won't work "out of the box", but with practice, getting your ear used to it talking to people in Oslo and Copenhagen shouldn't be a problem. Although they too speak perfect english.
posted by Iteki at 8:17 AM on November 29, 2009

Danish is also chock-full of phrasal verbs, and that kind of idiomatic stuff is the very devil to learn.
posted by scruss at 8:17 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Swedish comes in many flavors - for example, in the South-Western part, they speak Skånska, which is Danish-flavored Swedish, and that might make it slightly easier to understand Danish (Skåne was controlled by Danes for a long time). Swedish speakers in general do understand Norwegian, and of course written Norwegian, Danish, Swedish is usually pretty easy to understand once you know one of the languages (so for example, you can read most Scandinavian papers). All in all, Swedish is the best bet - plus it is a very easy language to learn (at least that's the reputation).
posted by VikingSword at 8:20 AM on November 29, 2009

It wasn't in your list, but I'm also casting a vote for Norwegian. It has two major variants, Nynorsk and Bokmål.
Nynorsk is supposedly harder to learn than Bokmål, and is also less commonly used [I think], so Bokmål is probably your best bet. It is also much more similar to Swedish and Danish.

I promise that it will be tons of fun to learn. If you're a native english speaker and you don't laugh all the time when you're starting to learn Norwegian, you're probably far too mature.
posted by Acari at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2009

I have no personal experience with these languages, by my uncle, who was a great lover of languages, was reading from a huge old Icelandic grammar book one day when a cousin asked him, "Isn't Icelandic wickedly hard to learn?" My uncle replied: "Well no, not if you know Norweigan!"

So maybe one vote for Norweigan?
posted by ohio at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

As a Dane, I would suggest Norwegian, as in Bokmål, as it is by far the easiest for both Swedes and Danes to understand. Swedish has drifted off a bit and has some strange words, that are not understood by the others, if you have not had a time to learn them. (How a plate, a tallerken in Danish and Norwegian became talrik in Swedish is still a mystery to me. ;-) )

I had this discussion at a dinner last summer with both Fins, Swedes and Norwegian present, and that is what our conclusion was back then. Skånsk, Swedish from southern Sweden, might also be a choice. As many other places, the language of the neighbouring country is normally understood close to the border. Swedish will do in Copenhagen, but much less so in Odense or Århus, as the Swedish TV only goes so far. German is much easier to use in the Southern parts of Jutland and on Funen, and Norwegian in the North of Jutland where there are a lot of Norwegian tourists.

In any case English will bring you very far in any of these countries, including Finland with its Finno-Ugrig language that is much more similar to Hungarian than to Swedish.
posted by KimG at 9:34 AM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: I realise Scandinavians have mad language skillz, but, I could go to Spain and communicate in English like many Brits abroad...I'd just like another option. It's a bit like suggesting I don't learn to drive as I can always get the bus instead.
posted by mippy at 9:58 AM on November 29, 2009

How a plate, a tallerken in Danish and Norwegian became talrik in Swedish is still a mystery to me

Footnote: "talrik" means "numerous" in Swedish (tal-rik).

Plate is "tallrik", which is just a slight pronunciation tweak of the Old Swedish/Danish form "tallerk".
posted by effbot at 10:21 AM on November 29, 2009

There's really no comparison as a native English speaker between speaking English with extremely proficient english speakers in Spain and speaking English with Scandinavians who will seem to have a better command of English grammar and vocabulary than you do. Spaniards may appreciate your speaking Spanish with them and prefer to speak that language, while in my experience Scandinavians will attempt to avoid any communicatory awkwardness and default to English if they can tell that the person they're talking to has any difficulty with their language, unless you make it clear to them that you would like them to humor you and speak their native language.

That said, learn Norwegian. It really seems to be the sweet spot language that is best understood by both Swedes and Danes.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 10:25 AM on November 29, 2009

The only real choice is Swedish. Finnish is not a Scandinavian language.

Of course it is, because it's a language spoken in what's generally thought of as Scandinavia, as evidenced by what the original poster says. However, it's not a Northern Germanic language, unlike Swedish, Danish, Nortwegian, et al.

In any case English will bring you very far in any of these countries, including Finland with its Finno-Ugrig language that is much more similar to Hungarian than to Swedish.

English is very widely-spoken throughout Scandinavia, so you won't have a problem. Finnish would be the coolest to learn at least in terms of it being something very very novel for an English speaker. But grammatically, it would easily by the hardest. It's not at all related to English or most other languages in Europe. The grammar requires a pretty sincere interest and it's in many ways quite counterintuitive, so if grammar is not your thing, don't go there! Its relationship to Hungarian is overstated . . . there are some similar grammatical similarities, and a very very small number of root words have a vague similarity (the word for "one" is yksi in Finnish, egy in Hungarian, the word for "fish" is kala in Finnish, hal in Hungarian . . . but that's generally as close as they get.) Finnish is much more closely related to Estonian, however.

If you're just doing this for fun and travel, then you'd have some fun learning Swedish - it's pretty easy, the effort to speak it will be appreciated by many as a sign of respect, and it's nice simply to be able to read signs and that sort of thing. I tned to think, though, that any time you learn a new language even to a little extent, you end up winning.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:56 PM on November 29, 2009

For all the comments about Scandinavians already speaking very good English, I'm sure the OP realises that - probably doesn't change their desire to learn one of their languages.

I learnt Swedish and can say that it was relatively easy, especially gramatically - but pronounciation can be a bit more difficult. Scandinavians also seem to have a habit of not being able to understand their language if it's not spoken "correctly" (or at least they pretend to not understand), and will immediately revert to English once they catch on that you are probably English speaking. Do make an effort to pronounce it correctly, but also persist and don't let them change to English.
posted by ryanbryan at 12:56 AM on November 30, 2009

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