Sweden is one of Europe’s northernmost nations, punctuated by coastal cities, islands, lakes, glacial mountains, and boreal forests. If you’re planning a trip to Scandinavia or maybe even relocating, you’re in luck, because most Nordic natives speak very good English. Still, it’s a good idea to brush up on some local phrases to help you get by.
English is taught widely in schools across Sweden, but Swedish is the official language and is spoken by at least 10 million people, mostly in Sweden but also in parts of Finland. Similar to Danish and Norwegian, Swedish is a North Germanic language and is often deemed the most useful Scandinavian language. It might sound confusing, but Swedish is as easy as French or Spanish for native English speakers to pick up and a great way to immerse yourself in the culture.
Our guide offers an introductory lesson in the basics of Swedish, including some of the most useful everyday sayings for your vacation or move abroad. Let’s get into it.
The Basics of Pronouncing Swedish Words
Swedish is a North Germanic language and the official language of Sweden, as well as one of Finland’s official languages. Although predominantly spoken in Sweden, more than 10 million people speak Swedish natively worldwide and it’s seen as the most useful of the Scandinavian languages to learn, with equal legal standing with Finnish in most parts of Finland.
As many as 97 percent of people in Sweden speak Swedish, and although English is the second tongue of 54 percent of the population, it’s a good idea to have some of the local dialect under your belt.
Swedish emerged in the 17th century, evolving from Old Norse. Swedish dialects were once much more diverse than they are today, but since the 1900s, Standard Swedish has been dominant throughout the country.
Learning a new language is always tricky, and a Scandinavian language, in particular, can seem daunting, with all the new sounds and unfamiliar vocabulary. However, just because Swedish isn’t typically taught in schools, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as easy as French or Spanish to get your head around – being a Category 1 language – but you might want to get some of the pronunciations down first before you jump into the vocab.
Sweden generally uses the same Latin alphabet as English with twenty-six letters, but it includes an additional three vowel variations, å, ä, and ö – along with a, e i, o, u, and, curiously, y, these are the nine vowels in Swedish. Have a look at some of the trickier letters to pronounce in the Swedish alphabet:
- H – “ho” – eg. home
- J – “ji” – eg. pleasure
- R – “rr” – eg. rolled like in Spanish dialects
- Å – “o” – eg. dome
- Ä – “æ” – eg. fair
- Ö – “ø” – eg. ultimate
This might look confusing, but hearing these sounds when speaking the Swedish words below will make it easier to understand. Swedish also has some common digraphs and trigraphs that can be useful to familiarize yourself with. If you’re unsure what these are, digraphs refer to two letters that make a single sound, while trigraphs share the same concept, but just with three letters instead. Check out some examples below:
- dj, gj, hj, lj – like the English “y” sound and Swedish “j” sound
- sk – like the English “sh” sound when preceding vowels
- sch, sj, skj, stj – between the English “ch” and “sh” sounds
- tj, kj – between the English “h” and “sh” sounds
There’s no shortcut, other than listening to Swedish audio, having conversations in Swedish, or living in Sweden, to get used to these sounds, but familiarity will come with time and perseverance. Before we get into some of the most useful phrases, try to remember these key pronunciation rules:
- C – similar to an English “s” sound when preceding e, i, and y, but a “k” sound before every other letter.
- G – usually a hard “g” sound like “garage” in English, but more like “y” when preceding e, i, y, ä, and ö.
- K – sounds like the English “sh” sound before e, i, y, ä, and ö, but a normal “k” sound when placed in front of a, o, å, and u.
Greetings in Swedish
Undoubtedly the first thing you’ll want to learn, so you can throw it out to your air stewards or taxi driver the moment you’ve arrived in Sweden, is how to say hello, and there are several ways to do this in Swedish.
Hej! Hejsan! Hallå! Tjena! – “Hello!”
Hej! is the formal Swedish way of saying “Hello” but it can be said twice to make it more casual, or in the variations above. Hej! Can also be used to say goodbye, like Ciao in Italian.
God morgon, God dag, God kväll, God natt – “Good morning/day/evening/night”
Depending on the tone, all these phrases for daytime greetings can be either formal or informal. Note that the “d” at the end of God is rarely pronounced, nor is the “g” in morgon. These phrases become like contractions for this reason when said aloud, sounding as “Go’morron”, “Go’dag”, “Go’kväll”, and “Go’natt”. Don’t worry if you get them wrong, “Go” is a good start and most locals will know you’re trying to get out a greeting, regardless of what comes next.
Hej då! Vi ses! Vi hörs! – Goodbye
Hej då! is the formal way of bidding farewell in Swedish. If the pronunciation is confusing even with our prompts above, try and remember that Hej då! rhymes with “play-dough” in English, like “Hey do”. Vi ses! and Vi hörs! are also ways of saying goodbye, but they translate directly as “See you later” and “Talk to you later” in English.
Swedes also often wish you well before bidding farewell. To do this, you can say Ha det bra! which literally means “Have it good” in English ie. “Have a good day”. Detsamma! means “The same to you!”
Jag heter… Vad heter du? Trevligt att träffas! – “My name is… What is your name?”
When introducing yourself in Sweden, you’d do so much like you would in any other western country. Introductions are accompanied by a casual handshake and pleasantries. It’s a good idea to throw Trevligt att träffas! meaning “It’s nice to meet you” at the end of an introduction, or in response to someone else. This phrase can also be shortened to Trevligt which means the same thing and is equally polite.
Hur mår du? Hur är det? Läget? – “How are you?”
Hur mår du? might be the formal way to ask how someone is, and the saying that you’ll find in all the phrasebooks, but in day-to-day conversation, it’s much more formal and translates more literally as “How do you feel”. It is the correct way to ask after someone but more often used after you know someone’s been unwell, as in “Are you feeling better?”
Hur är det? which translates more like “How is it?”, or Hur är det meg dig?, meaning “How is it with you?”, are much more common phrases to use in casual conversation. Läget? an abbreviation of Hur är läget? is very informal and has a similar meaning to “What’s up”.
If someone asks you any of these, you can reply with Jag mår bra, tack, meaning “I’m fine, thanks”, and follow with Och med dig? meaning, “And you?”, or, more simply, Och du?.
Tack! Ursäkta! Varsågod! – “Thank you” “Excuse me” “It’s nothing”
One thing that differs slightly from common English in Swedish is manners. There are polite ways to say everything, but no direct translation for the word “please”, for example. The word for “thank you” – tack – can double as both.
Varsågod or Det var så lite (“It was nothing”) are polite responses to being thanked and Swedes also use Ursäkta, meaning “Excuse me” in the same way you would in English.
Phrases for Getting Around Sweden
Sweden and its cosmopolitan cities generally have excellent public transportation. It’s usually easy to navigate the metro and bus networks, even with no knowledge of Swedish, but a few key phrases could help you on your way.
När går bussen/tåget? – “When does the bus/train leave?”
This is a great one to use when traveling around and jumping on unfamiliar transport. Most Swedes will recognize your non-native accent and likely reply in English, but making the effort to address a stranger in their local tongue will earn you way more brownie points and they’ll be more likely to help you out.
Hur tar jag mig till…? – “How do I get to…?”
Var ligger…? Var finns…? – “Where is…”
These are undeniably useful sayings for asking for directions. Listen out for Rakt fram meaning “straight ahead”, Sväng vänster/höger, for “Turn left/right”, and Gå förbi, meaning “Go past”, in response.
Check out some of the useful vocabularies below to add to these phrases or to listen out for wherever you’re going:
- Kollektivtrafik – “Public transportation”
- Station – “Station”
- Centralstationen – “The Central Station”
- Slutstation – “End of the line”
- Buss – “Bus”
- Tåg – “Train”
- Busshållplats – “Bus stop”
- Flyg – “Flight”
- Terminal – “Terminal”
- Utgång – “Gate”
- Säkerhetskontroll – “Security checkpoint”
- Biljett – “Ticket”
- Tidtabell – “Schedule” (for a bus or train)
- Tunnelbana – “Subway”
- Spårvagn – “Trolley”
- Båt – “Boat”
- Spår – “Track”
- Cykel – “Bike”
- Hyrbil – “Rental car”
- Körkort – “Driver’s license”
- Bagage – “Luggage”
- Handbagage – “Carry-on bag”
- Ombordstigning – “Boarding”
- Försenad, Försenat – “Delayed”
- Inställd, Inställt – “Canceled”
Phrases for Shopping in Swedish
Chances are you’ll need to talk to shop staff and waiting staff wherever you go in Sweden – more than you might talk to any other stranger for that matter. Knowing what to say when shopping or eating out is paramount for practicing your Swedish.
Vill du ha hjälp? / Behöver du hjälp med någonting? – “Do you want help / Do you need helping with anything?”
After being greeted and welcomed, you might be asked the above when entering a shop. You can reply Ja, tack (“Yes, please”) if you would like assistance, and Nej, tack, if not. Jag tittar bara meaning “No thanks, I’m just looking” is another good one to throw in there. Say Jag vil köpa (“I want to buy”) to let the clerk know what you’re looking for.
Hur mycket kostar det här? – “How much is this?”
Prices are usually marked, but if not, try the above. Look out for Rea! or Extrapris! which indicates when an item is on sale, and Sankt pris for a reduced price.
Head to the cashier – kassan – when you’re ready to pay and let the clerk know whether you want pay in kontanter (cash) or kort (card). Cash is used less and less in Sweden with its forward green-thinking attitude, so don’t be surprised if not all shops accept it.
Är det bra så? – “Is this everything”
A cashier, waiter, or barista could ask you this. Ja is a sufficient response, unless you’re after something else, in which case you can say Nej, and continue with what you’re looking for. Just don’t expect a free shopping bag and be sure to bring your own.
You might hear Vill du ha kvittot? (“Would you like a receipt”) or Ska det slås in som paket? (“Do you want it gift-wrapped?”) from your store clerk too. Ja or Nej will both suffice as answers, but feel free to throw tak on the end for politeness.
When talking to a waiter, they might ask how you are or if they can help you. You could reply with Jag är meaning “I am” and continue to say hungrig or törstig (“hungry” or “thristy), or här (“here”), singel (“single”), bakis (“hungover”), or glad (“glad”) if someone asks you this in a different context.
What language do they speak in Scandinavia?
Otherwise known as North Germanic languages, Scandinavian languages include modern standard Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese, pertaining to the countries from which they get their names, although some languages are spoken across the sub-continent. Swedish is spoken by the most Nordic people, being an official tongue of Sweden and Finland. It’s also written in a similar way to Danish, but Danish and Norwegian are most comparable in vocabulary, while Norwegian and Swedish are closest in pronunciation.
How long does it take to learn Swedish?
Like any other Category 1 language, you’ll need around 750 hours of study to get close to being fluent in Swedish. This equates to around 12 to 15 hours a week for one year, but of course, this all depends on your personal learning styles, previous knowledge of languages, commitment level, and memory abilities.
What are the hardest aspects of learning Swedish?
Although it’s a Category 1 language, learning Swedish won’t always be easy, even if you’re living in Sweden. What you might find most difficult is that English is spoken so widely that many Swedes won’t bother entertaining your poor Swedish and switch to English quickly before you get a chance to practice. The long compound words, tongue-twisting pronunciation, extra vowels, gender issues, and similarity to other Nordic languages could also complicate things further. Be patient and keep practicing.