I stood at the grocery store checkout counter and tried to appear calm while my heart pounded inside my chest. The cashier looked at me and said, “Vill du ha kvittot?” and my hopes were dashed. I had to admit that I didn’t understand and ask her if she could speak English. She was kind and friendly and asked if I wanted my receipt. Receipt. Kvitto. That was a new word for me. I tried to store it in my brain to make sure I was prepared for the next time. I really needed to improve my Swedish vocabulary.
Sitting at home was a Marabou chocolate bar that I had bought myself as a reward for the first time I managed to go grocery shopping in Sweden by myself without needing to use any English. I had been paying close attention when I was shopping with others, and for weeks I had been practicing all the words I would need to know for a successful shopping trip:
- “Är det bra så?” – Is that everything?
- “Vill du ha en påse?” – Do you want a bag?
- “Betala med kort.” – Pay with a card.
I had tried several times, but I kept encountering new phrases that I didn’t know.
Kvitto. Receipt. My chocolate would go uneaten for yet another day. But I was getting closer.
Compared with many other languages, Swedish grammar is not terribly complicated. You can learn the basics of putting together simple sentences fairly quickly. Yes, the pronunciation can be difficult for English speakers, and the unique melody and rhythm of the language can take years to master. Even with a thick accent, though, you can be understood. The biggest challenge in developing Swedish language fluency is building up a strong vocabulary to help you understand others and express yourself clearly. Skills such as grammar and pronunciation are little help without a large enough vocabulary to be able to use them.
It is a frustrating stage of language learning when you are no longer a complete beginner, yet you continue to find yourself confronted with situations like mine in the store. Just when you feel like you’re making progress, a new word or context pops up unexpectedly, and you can start to wonder if you’ll ever be able to speak Swedish fluently. Don’t be discouraged! Learning a language takes time, and the vocabulary building phase is often the longest.
There are no shortcuts to improving your Swedish vocabulary. It doesn’t come without practice, practice, practice, and more practice. Yet that doesn’t mean that weeks or months of boring drudgery await you. There are plenty of great ways to improve your Swedish vocabulary that can help you learn more new words in ways that are fun and entertaining! You’ll be speaking flytande svenska (fluent Swedish) before you know it!
If you’re looking to learn some useful Swedish expressions, check out our article on 80 common Swedish phrases and how to use them.
When you’re learning a new language, it is important to understand the difference between active and passive vocabulary. Recognizing this important distinction can both help you avoid discouragement and accelerate your learning process because you’ll better understand how your brain is developing in this new language.
Your passive vocabulary in a language consists of all the words you recognize when you either read or hear them. You might not have an exact translation or definition of these words, but you understand enough to have a general sense of what they mean. You can place these words into a category if asked to, and you may be able to translate some of them to your native language.
In contrast, words that are in your active vocabulary are words you can use when speaking or writing. You have a clear understanding of their meaning and some of the nuances of how they’re used. You are able to translate these words, and you generate them on your own when you are communicating with someone.
Naturally, your passive vocabulary is always larger than your active vocabulary. Generally speaking, new words enter your passive vocabulary first, sometimes as soon as you are exposed to them. You can recognize the word the next time you see it or hear it, you might even know how it is pronounced or spelled, and you probably have a context attached to it related to the first time you encountered it. Having a large passive vocabulary helps you understand what’s going on around you, and it’s a great first step. However, to be able to make yourself understood in your new language, you need to work to move words from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary.
When you understand this distinction, you can recognize that there are some vocabulary tips and tricks that can help introduce words into your passive vocabulary, and other tools that will help move those words from passive to active. Both are important, but the path to achieving them is different.
The best way to build your passive vocabulary in Swedish is to expose yourself to the language as much as possible and in a variety of forms.
If you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Swedish language by visiting or living in Sweden, there are opportunities all around you. Pay attention to conversations around you on the bus, go to a concert or event, attend a church service, or switch on the TV or radio.
Even if you aren’t able to be in Sweden while you’re learning, there are plenty of resources available online to increase your exposure to Swedish. You’ll find links for many of these resources below.
Increasing your active vocabulary requires a little more intentional practice and attention to help transition words you understand into words that you feel comfortable using.
This is something you can set aside time to work on, but it’s also something that can happen somewhat naturally in the context of conversations. For example, when someone uses a word or phrase that you passively understand, try to “borrow” that word from them and use it in your response. Imagine you’re visiting your Swedish friend, and he asks, “Vill du ha kaffe?” (Would you like some coffee?) Instead of answering with a simple yes or no, you could repeat the word “kaffe” in your answer: “Ja, tack. Jag gillar kaffe.” (Yes, please. I like coffee.) It may seem trivial, but repeating the word in the moment helps you remember it in the future and helps you practice pronouncing it. It is a great first step to making that word a part of your active vocabulary.
The majority of the strategies and resources that are designed to help improve Swedish vocabulary are focused on building your active vocabulary, so that you can communicate clearly. Many of these are listed below.
Group the words you want to learn into categories, or choose a category where you want to expand your vocabulary and look up relevant words. Grouping words by categories helps you connect the initially passive vocabulary with the context(s) in which they are used. These connections are important as your vocabulary develops.
Start with categories that you are most likely to need or want to use. If you are traveling in Sweden, for example, you may want to build your vocabulary in travel and tourism categories. Learn words about driving, navigating, or taking the train if that’s what you plan to do. If you are studying in Sweden, choose categories related to school or the subject that you plan to study.
Use a self-adhesive notepad or paper with tape to label the things in your everyday life with the Swedish vocabulary word. This is especially helpful for learning the words for household items, furniture, office supplies, or other common objects. It may feel silly, but speak the word aloud as you use the item. If you’re learning together with someone else, you can practice asking for the labeled items so you get used to using the words in sentences.
Connecting words to a sensory experience is a way to engage more of your brain in the learning process. The more connections you build, the better you will know and understand the words you’re learning. Hold an object as you say the word. Practice the names of your food before taking a bite to connect the taste, smell, and texture with the word itself. Be creative about engaging your senses, and you’ll improve your Swedish vocabulary faster than you thought possible. Check out this article to learn about best ways to improve your Swedish listening skills.
Learning Swedish doesn’t have to be boring. There are plenty of ways you can use entertainment to help improve your vocabulary!
In Sweden, TV shows and films from English-speaking countries are very popular, and they are not dubbed into Swedish but simply have Swedish subtitles. This is one of the reasons why Swedes are generally so good at English! It’s also a great opportunity for Swedish vocabulary learning. As you listen to the English-speaking audio of your favorite shows and movies, try to follow along in the subtitles as well. Look for words that are repeated or words you already know well to help you understand new words.
You can also use Swedish TV and films to improve your vocabulary. Keep the subtitles (or captions) on so that you can both read and listen at the same time. This helps you match words and pronunciation. The visual action and tones of voice can help you understand what’s happening even if you don’t understand all the words.
Swedish public television (SVT) is a great resource for programming in Swedish, and many of their options are also available to stream from outside of Sweden as well. Check out SVT Play for more information. SVT also has a news program available in lätt svenska (simple Swedish).
While it lacks the visual support of TV, listening to the radio can also help improve your Swedish vocabulary. Talk radio is popular in Sweden, so there are usually several options for hearing spoken Swedish if you find yourself driving somewhere or sitting at home wanting something to listen to. Listening to news programs or even weather reports can be helpful for learning words in specific categories.
Sveriges Radio, which manages all the public radio stations in Sweden, can be streamed online. There is even an online channel for radio in lätt svenska (simple Swedish) that is designed for new Swedish speakers.
You can learn almost anything through YouTube and podcasts these days, and Swedish vocabulary is no different. If you’re looking for great YouTube channels or podcasters to help you learn, here are some suggestions to get you started:
- SwedishPod101 on YouTube. This channel offers tons of options for different ways to learn at a variety of levels. Explore and find the videos that suit you best!
- Fun Swedish on YouTube. This channel is aimed more toward beginners, but there are some good explanations of cultural ideas, nuances of phrases, and common pronunciation challenges that can be helpful for learning Swedish at all levels.
- Coffee Break Swedish podcast. 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 podcast. This one offers a good variety of beginner, intermediate, and pronunciation topics. I’m impressed by the nuances they bring up for intermediate speakers, such as “How to Give Criticism” and “Cooking in Swedish.” There are also “slow Swedish” episodes that give you a chance to listen to an episode entirely in Swedish and develop your understanding.
Finding fun ways to practice vocabulary means that you’ll be more motivated to practice regularly and you’ll remember more of what you’re learning. Win-win! There are plenty of language learning games and puzzles available, but not all are equally effective. When you find the right game that works for you, your Swedish vocabulary will increase quickly!
Clozemaster is a well-designed game to help you quickly improve your Swedish vocabulary in a fun and rewarding way. There are multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank options so you can increase your level of difficulty as you learn. One big advantage to Clozemaster is that you practice the words in sentences, rather than a flashcard-style translation. This helps you learn to use the words in context and helps you learn to think in Swedish, rather than always translating the words to understand them. Another plus is that there are listening features to help you connect written Swedish with spoken Swedish. The free version is great for short, daily practice, while the paid Pro subscription offers more features and unlimited play.
A quick search for Swedish learning games will give you millions of results. It’s impossible to try them all to find the good ones, and it really is a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack project. Most are variations on flashcards, and many of the top Google results have very limited vocabulary options. Common categories are numbers, colors, names of months or days, and words about the weather. If you have advanced beyond the beginning stages of learning these basic Swedish words, the search is even more frustrating.
Akelius has some simple vocabulary games including Memory, Bingo, and crosswords, with quizzes at the end of each level. The biggest disadvantage with this one is that you have to start at the beginner level with very easy games and questions in order to progress to the more advanced vocabulary.
LexisRex also offers fun games such as Hangman, word searches, and crosswords. While these are not ideal ways to introduce a lot of new words, they can be a fun way to practice words you’ve already learned to help keep them in your active vocabulary. A feature I liked about these games was the clickable keyboard for characters that aren’t found on a standard English keyboard (such as Swedish letters å, ä, and ö) so that you don’t have to have a Swedish keyboard in order to answer correctly.
Most non-digital vocabulary games that are available are basically flashcards. You can purchase a simple set of flashcards and use them for a variety of practice games, but these will usually be restricted to more basic vocabulary. To expand your vocabulary at an intermediate level, you will probably be better off creating your own based on the vocabulary you are interested in learning.
One fun and inexpensive idea is to get a set of Swedish-English ComCards. ComCards are an ordinary deck of playing cards that can be used for all of your favorite card games, but each card also features a phrase in both Swedish and English (or Swedish and French, Spanish, German, or Thai) along with an explanatory image. Take them with you as you travel to be used as a way to pass the time that can also be used as a phrase book. Or make up your own games to help you learn these important phrases. The sky is the limit!
You can’t beat reading for improving most aspects of language learning. Reading helps you learn new words to improve your Swedish vocabulary, but it also puts those words in context and helps you improve your grammar skills at the same time. This tip could be placed on the “fun” or “entertaining” lists, since it is both of those things, but it gets its own section because of how important it is to read in a language if you want to develop your skills.
You may not feel ready to read in Swedish yet, but you’re probably more ready than you think! Here are some tips to get you reading in Swedish:
- Find children’s books at a local library or online. Your Swedish language development is probably similar to that of a native Swedish child, so these books will be written at your level. They may not be as entertaining for you, but they are a great place to start.
- Read a Swedish translation of a book you have already read. If you already know the basic plot and characters, that will help you follow along even if there are a lot of words you don’t know yet.
- Look for reading material beyond books. Magazines, comic books, newspapers, and other formats can be less intimidating ways to start, since they are typically shorter and limited in context. The newspaper 8 Sidor is designed for Swedish language learners and is available both digitally or in print form at most Swedish libraries.
Remember that everyone is different when it comes to language development and the most effective ways to improve vocabulary. Of all the tips listed above, start with the one that you connected with most as you read it. All of them will help you, but some may work better for you than others. That’s OK. The most important thing is that you do something. Language is definitely a “use it or lose it” skill, especially if you haven’t yet reached fluency in that language. I have lots of ideas and advice about developing your vocabulary in Swedish, but the most important one is this:
Find something that works for you and do it regularly.
Happy learning and lycka till!