Basic Swedish phrases to help you learn faster.
I’d like to do a bit of a different post today. It’s fun to keep moving on to advanced material, but sometimes it helps to take a break and do a review of the basics. This helps as a refresher on words and phrases you may have forgotten, learned new contexts for, or maybe skipped by without fully understanding. It’s also a nice confidence boost to realize how easy it is to read text that just a few short months ago you probably struggled through.
These are some common Swedish phrases that helped me the most when I first started my language learning process. They aren’t the words that most courses and apps start out with, but ones I found most helpful while studying. I’ve gone through the entire Duolingo course, finished SFI, and done some private tutoring, but I’ve been lucky that my girlfriend doesn’t mind being asked a million questions. If I didn’t have someone at home who speaks English and Swedish, I would have been super lost and overwhelmed in all those courses.
There’s nothing worse than not understanding a topic in a class, yet lacking the words to make it known. These phrases should help you ask questions, get explanations, and learn faster. Many of them are versatile, and I’ve left blanks where you can fill in your own words when you want to ask about something.
The Key Swedish Phrases:
- Vad betyder ___?
- Hur säger man ___?
- Jag förstår inte.
- Jag vet inte.
- Det är svårt för mig.
- Kan du hjälpa mig?
- En gång till, långsammare tack.
- Kan du förklara ___?
- Om ____ betyder ______, kan jag säga _____?
- Varför säger man _____, istället för ____?
Vad betyder ___?
English translation: What does ___ mean?
Absolutely the most useful phrases to have when you’re starting out. Don’t know what a word means? Now you can ask! Don’t let the word order here throw you off. When asking a question in Swedish the question word “what/vad” comes first, same as English, but the verb still always has to be the second word in the sentence. Think of it as saying “What means ___?” What means tavla? What means kål? Doesn’t matter, any word you want defined you can add in the blank. If you want to make it clear that you need the answer in English you can say “Vad betyder ___ på engelska?”
Hur säger man ___?
English translation: How does one say ___?
Kind of the reverse of the first phrase. You know the English word, but want to know what it is in Swedish. Once again, you can be specific and say “Hur säger man ___ på svenska?” The best way to build your vocabulary is just to plow through as much as you can in Swedish, and when you come to a word you don’t know, use this phrase to ask! The tricky part here is in English we would naturally use the word “you” when asking someone this question. “How do you say ___?” Is natural to English speakers, so it was very easy for me to ask “Hur säger du…”
Absolutely wrong. In Swedish “du” is always asking about the person you’re specifically talking to, and will confuse the hell out of people. It sounds a bit old fashioned to my ear to ask “how does one say this?” “how does one do this?”, but in Swedish that is how “man” is used. It just means “one” as in people in general. How would a person go about something?
Jag förstår inte.
English translation: I don’t understand.
Another phrase with a tricky word order, to literally translate it: I understand not. There’s the verb again, hanging out in the second place like it always does. If you speak English this will feel funny for a very long time, but you can think of it as being a bit dramatic or theatrical. I understand NOT!
This is simple enough, but do not be afraid to use it. There are a million things I don’t understand yet, and the worst thing you can do is be shy about expressing that. Tuck this away early on in your Swedish phrase vocabulary and learn to love it. You’ll be using it quite a bit.
Jag vet inte.
English translation: I don’t know.
Here’s our good friend word order again: “I know not.”
Another one I’m constantly using. I’m trying to stay away from grammar and verb tenses as much as possible in this post, but the past tense of this phrase is also super basic and important vocabulary to have: Jag visste inte. (I didn’t know/I knew not)
Det är svårt för mig.
English translation: It is difficult for me.
As with “jag vet inte”, don’t be afraid to let someone know when you’re struggling with something or find a concept particularly difficult. You really don’t even need the last part, as long as you can express “det är svårt” you can get the point across that something is touch. The opposite would be “det är lätt”, it is easy. Eventually you’ll get to this point!
Kan du hjälpa mig?
English translation: Can you help me?
This goes hand in hand with the last phrase. Now you can let someone know when something is tough, and ask for help. Here I’m translating “kan” as “can”, but it’s really a little more precise as “are you able to”. We deal with this in English sometimes when a child might ask something like “can I have some candy?” and their tired and sarcastic parent answers “I don’t know, CAN you?”
There are a couple interesting ways to modify this to different levels of meaning and politeness. “Kan” is the present tense of “att kunna” (to be able to), so you can see the more precise translation if I said something like “skulle du kunna hjälpa mig?” This is closer to “would you be able to help me?” or “could you help me?” Slightly more polite, slightly more precise, but if you really just need help right now “kan du hjälpa mig?” should work just fine.
En gång till, långsammare tack.
English translation: One more time, slower please.
Another one you will learn to use constantly, but is a bit confusing for English speakers. Word order swap: “One time more”, “one time again”, “one time additionally”, something along those lines.
The translation of “till” here absolutely killed me for a long time. The word by itself usually means “to”, but used in this sense doesn’t have a single English translation that fits perfectly. Take my advice and don’t worry about it too much, just learn the phrase and move on because it’s going to be a super useful way to ask someone to repeat something.
Kan du förklara ___?
English translation: Can you explain ___?
A really good way to ask for more details and more information. Another useful way to use this is: “kan du förklara varför ___” (can you explain why ___) which is another thing that will come in handy when you run into words you know, but now they’re used in brand new contexts and nothing in the world makes sense anymore. *deep breaths*
Om ___ betyder ___, kan jag säga ___?
English translation: If ___ means ___, am I able to say ___?
These last two phrases are about being able to compare things and come up with your own examples. One of the most useful things I did in SFI (maybe the only useful thing, but that’s a different post) was getting into small groups, having a list of words, and going around with each person trying to explain and define the word in Swedish, while the rest guessed which word on the list it was. When you learn a new word, the best thing you can do is practice using it in different contexts. Come up with a list of sentences where you try to use it in new ways, then find someone to go over the list and see if your examples make sense. This phrase is basically a logic exercise where you’re saying ” if this word means what I think it means, can I use it like this example?”
Varför säger man ___, istället för ___?
English translation: Why does one say ___, instead of ___?
I’m adding this one because I use it quite a lot, not because you’ll get very many straight answers. While breaking the habit of thinking of the English word order, or pronoun, or expression for everything, I would get frustrated by something that seemed like it should be said one way, but inexplicably wasn’t. Most of the time the answer to this question is “that’s just how it is.” Every now and again though, I’ve uncovered a new concept or expression or meaning to a phrase that suddenly clicked into place because I asked this. The more questions you ask, the faster you’ll start to recognize the language patterns as they are, and not as what you expect them to be.