When I first moved to Sweden, I immediately registered for the free language school known as SFI (Svenska för Invandrare/Swedish for Immigrants). I had a wonderful teacher who gave great suggestions for different ways we could practice on our own to learn Swedish more quickly. I was eager to learn and tried most of her ideas, but there was one way to help improve Swedish listening comprehension and speaking skills that I completely ignored. I refused to even consider it. She recommended that we answer the phone and talk to telemarketers and phone salespeople in order to practice with someone anonymous, where we might be less intimidated or afraid to make a mistake. Less afraid to make a mistake? Hardly!
Telephone calls in Swedish were terrifying. Without visual cues like body language, gestures, and other context clues, phone calls rely completely on listening comprehension. Truth be told, I just didn’t trust my Swedish listening comprehension skills, and I was convinced that talking to a salesperson on the phone would inevitably lead to me agreeing to buy something I didn’t want and couldn’t afford. Even if I understood most of the words, I would surely miss a small detail, and that detail would make all the difference. Better to just avoid the phone completely.
While it might not seem like a big deal to avoid telemarketers (doesn’t everyone do that in any language?), my fear of the phone made it difficult for me to make a doctor’s appointment, check in with my in-laws, or order a pizza. Even in person, I often misunderstood people in conversations, and that could lead to embarrassing moments. Improving my listening comprehension skills and gaining confidence in this area made my life better in many ways.
As you begin to advance beyond beginning conversational phrases, improving your listening comprehension in Swedish is the next big hurdle on the path to interacting comfortably in Swedish.
One major difference between listening comprehension and reading comprehension is pacing. When you’re reading, you can read at any speed that is comfortable for you, whereas you have little control over the speed of the words you hear. Reading allows time for you to translate each word, while spoken words rarely afford that luxury. Solid listening skills require you to understand without translating to your native language. This is why listening comprehension can feel so intimidating: you need to start to be able to think in Swedish.
Have you ever found yourself anticipating a conversation with someone, especially a conversation you might be a little nervous about, and rehearsing the conversation in your head? You might plan how you will initiate the conversation, and then imagine their different responses, and how you might choose to answer each one. Learning to think in Swedish is a lot like that.
Think through some common situations you encounter and mentally rehearse them in Swedish. How will you express this thought or that question? What are the likely responses? How will the conversation continue from there? Rehearsing conversations and situations in the privacy of your mind gives you time to consider word choices and allows you to go back and change something if needed. You also have the opportunity to look up words you might need but aren’t sure of yet. If you’re alone somewhere where no one will think you’re crazy, you can even practice these conversations aloud to practice pronunciation and rhythm. But for the purposes of listening comprehension, rehearsing in your head will make a big difference.
It almost goes without saying that your Swedish listening comprehension skills are closely linked with your Swedish vocabulary skills. If you understand most words, then it is possible to follow and understand the general meaning of a few new words from context. The more unknown words there are in what you hear, the more likely you are to misunderstand or struggle to follow along. Working to build your vocabulary will also help you improve your listening skills. This article can help you learn more about improving your Swedish vocabulary.
Keep in mind that simply learning new individual words may not always be enough to help you understand those words in context. Some words can have multiple meanings, and others can take on new connotations when used in combination with other specific words. It is therefore useful to also practice a variety of common Swedish phrases to help you understand context. This will also help you keep a faster listening comprehension pace as you can receive the words in larger “chunks” rather than individual words.
The Swedish word for vocabulary is “ordförråd,” which can be literally translated as “word storage” or “word storehouse.” As you add new words to your storehouse, remember to learn to recognize the way they sound and not just the way they appear in print. Swedish phonetics can be a little different from what you might be used to, so don’t assume that being able to read a word will automatically allow you to understand it in spoken Swedish.
There are many ways to improve your Swedish listening comprehension that are much more fun than conversing with a telemarketer on the phone. If you find a strategy you enjoy, you are more likely to use it often, which will help you improve faster.
Anything that combines visual cues with Swedish audio will automatically give you listening comprehension support and help you learn to understand without translating. Watching Swedish TV or movies is an entertaining way to do this. Children’s programming will often have a slightly slower pace and simpler content, so many advanced beginners might prefer to start with SVT’s Barnkanalen (children’s channel). The most important thing, though, is that you enjoy it enough to practice as much as possible. If you find children’s programs boring or irritating, it’s unlikely to be helpful.
For more general Swedish programming, check out Swedish public television (SVT) and their streaming site, SVT Play. Note that some programs are not available for streaming outside of Sweden. SVT also has a news program available in lätt svenska (simple Swedish). For added visual support, turn on text/closed captioning so you can see the words you’re hearing at the same time.
Listening to engaging material that you are interested in is a great way to practice listening comprehension. Choosing a nonfiction book about a topic you already know a lot about will help you follow the content. It is not recommended to try to learn something new through Swedish audiobooks until you feel very confident in your Swedish listening skills. Let the language be the new thing you’re learning in this case, and rely on your prior knowledge of a subject to guide your language learning. You may also want to choose a fiction book that you have already read as a support for developing your skills. An ideal way to practice is to also have a print copy of the book available so you can read and follow along.
Consider choosing a children’s book as a quick and easy way to try this strategy. The language and content are often simpler, and you can read/listen to a complete book in a short time. If you’re a beginner when it comes to listening comprehension, find something familiar and simple and work your way up to more complex books.
Audiobooks (ljudböcker) in Swedish can be found at most libraries in Sweden, or purchased online either individually or through a monthly subscription service such as Bokus Play. You can also search for ljudböcker on YouTube and find many that are read for you with the text on the screen, such as those found on the channel Svenska för Alla.
Listening to the radio is also a great way to practice listening comprehension. Because it lacks the visual support of TV shows or movies, radio is a way to challenge yourself and help take your skills to the next level. Talk radio is popular in Sweden, so there are usually several options for hearing spoken Swedish anytime you turn on the radio. Listening to a news program or weather report can help give you context that makes it easier to follow.
Sveriges Radio, which manages Sweden’s public radio stations, can be streamed online. There is even an online channel for radio in lätt svenska (simple Swedish) that is designed for new Swedish speakers.
Podcasts help develop your skills in the same ways as radio programs, with the added advantage that you can choose your topic and start them on-demand. Here are a few podcasts to help you get started:
- Coffee Break Swedish. There is plenty of worthwhile material to listen to here, including episodes in Kulturhörnan (Culture Corner) that help link language and culture.
- Say It In Swedish. This one offers a good variety of beginner, intermediate, and pronunciation topics. For focus on listening comprehension, check out their “slow Swedish” episodes that give you a chance to listen to an episode entirely in Swedish and develop your understanding.
- Lätt Svenska med Oskar. Oskar offers a long list of episodes, usually about 4-5 minutes in length, that are designed for inexperienced Swedish listeners. Start from the beginning and listen through all of them, or choose some that are about topics that are interesting or useful for you.
Remember that most listening apps will allow you to adjust the playing speed of your audio. If you find a radio program or podcast that’s interesting to you, but the language is a little difficult or the speaker speaks too quickly, you can adjust the speed to fit your current level of understanding. Make it a goal to gradually work your way up to normal speed!
The best way to improve listening skills in Swedish is through mängdträning (“volume training” – in other words, lots and lots of time practicing listening). The challenge, though, is that it’s not always easy to know if you’re understanding correctly. This is where more structured games and exercises can be helpful. Programs that ask you to type what you heard or answer questions based on the content can give you clear feedback and let you know how you’re doing. A little evaluation now and then is really helpful. Besides, it’s a lot less embarrassing to answer a question wrong on your computer than out in public, where a long awkward pause lets you know that something got mixed up along the way.
Here are some resources to help you avoid polite but confused stares:
- Clozemaster Listening. Play Clozemaster by selecting one of the “Most Common” collections (grouped by difficulty, from the most common to the least common words) and then select “Listening” under the “Skill” heading. The free version of Clozemaster allows you to practice one listening round per day, but a Pro membership gives you unlimited access. Within the listening category, you can adjust your level of difficulty by choosing to answer via multiple choice, text input, or transcription. The ease of personalizing your level of difficulty, combined with the options to practice vocabulary and speaking skills with the same lists of words and phrases, makes Clozemaster my top choice in this category.
- iSpeakSwedish. This site gives you free access to the first lesson as a demo, but the rest of the lessons require a subscription. The demo listening quiz includes audio recordings and asks you to type what you hear. Even for the introductory lesson, some recordings are very basic (one short word) and others are longer, more difficult phrases. Phrases which were complete sentences marked me wrong if I included a period at the end, but question phrases were marked wrong if they didn’t include a question mark. This inconsistency makes it difficult to see from your score if you’re really understanding or not. What I liked most was that the recorded voice was very natural, since a lot of programs have more mechanical voices. I’m not sure I would pay for this service based on the quality of the demo, but it’s still a resource to listen and test yourself on some basic words and phrases. Just watch out for punctuation.
- SwedishPod101 on YouTube. I wouldn’t usually include a YouTube channel on a list of exercises and games that give feedback, but this series is a little different. Each video presents an image and a question that you should try to answer at the beginning, followed by a recorded conversation to listen to. There is then a pause to allow you to answer the question before the audio replays with both Swedish and English subtitles to help you check if you understood correctly. It doesn’t keep track of your progress or give you numerical scores like online courses do, but it does provide enough feedback to let you know if you are on the right track. There are plenty of videos categorized in several different levels of difficulty, so you can start where you feel comfortable and have room to grow through the material.
Remember that Swedish is a relatively small language on the world stage, and therefore there are fewer options for this kind of material than there might be if you were learning a more “popular” language. Especially when we’re focusing on listening comprehension, quality games and exercises are somewhat rare.
Back in those early days when the telephone represented all my listening comprehension insecurities, I was forced to make a somewhat official phone call. By this point, my listening skills were improving. I rehearsed the conversation beforehand and made sure I double-checked key words in the dictionary. I was as prepared as I could be, but when I actually made the call, I stumbled into a new challenge: Dialect. The woman on the other end was from the south of Sweden and spoke a dialect called Skånska (coming from the region of the country called Skåne). I could barely understand her. Thankfully, she was able to help me with what I needed in English. But I was surprised and frustrated. Why couldn’t I understand her?
Regional differences in both accent (mostly pronunciation) and dialect (differences of words and phrases) are well known in Sweden. It is important to acknowledge this variety when learning listening comprehension skills. Some dialects are closer to rikssvenska (national Swedish) while others have more notable differences. The differences in Skånska are widely thought to be the most pronounced (forgive the pun), which is primarily due to their proximity to Denmark and the influence of Danish in the region.
Pronunciation differences are generally centered around vowels and the ske-ljuden. Learn more about these sounds and their differences.
The first step is to gain confidence in listening comprehension for the dialect and accent that is most common where you are living or visiting in Sweden, or that which is spoken by native Swedish speakers that you may know. After that, you can widen your understanding by exposing yourself to different dialects and using the same strategies discussed above.
- Look for local news programs and radio broadcasts for the region where a particular dialect is spoken. Find your local SVT News broadcast here. On the radio, P4 is the local channel for Sveriges Radio. Search for P4 and the location you want to hear.
- To go deeper in dialects, check out the SweDia Project, which has cataloged and recorded examples of dialects throughout Sweden. Using a map, you can click on different places and hear samples of speech which are both transcribed exactly as they’re pronounced and written in standard Swedish so you can hear, see, and compare differences for almost anywhere in Sweden.
Öva means practice. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to great listening comprehension skills in Swedish (or any other language). The only way to improve is to spend as much time listening as you can, and take advantage of opportunities to check and evaluate your comprehension. Take some risks, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and remember, the phone is not as scary as it seems. Keep up the good work! Bra jobbat!