Category Archives: language

Changing Schools

Our Intent

When we first moved to Sweden, we knew that the language transition is far easier on younger children than older ones. Our assessment was that Tertia (not quite 8 when we moved) would have an easy job learning Swedish and settling in, Secondus (just 10) would be mostly OK, but Primus (12) would struggle.

The choice of learning environment was therefore critical to us. We aimed to get Secondus and Tertia into the local school, where an immersion environment would get them quickly up the language curve, and recognised that Primus would need a more gentle introduction. We had a native Swedish friend whose daughter had recently started at the Jacobsberg Internationalla Engelska Skolan, and the more we learned about it, the better it sounded.

Internationella Engelska SkolanWe appreciated the following points in particular:

  1. It’s a mixed environment where both languages are spoken and used as the teaching medium. Therefore, ability in Swedish is not a prerequisite for learning other things, nor for making friends.

    As the school’s identity is based on preparing Swedes for a global environment where the common language is English, being an English native speaker is actually a positive thing. Our friend’s daughter had only really been learning English for about 4 months in that environment, but was already conversationally fluent.

    We thought therefore that this would be the balance: where Swedish language would seep in by osmosis in addition to formal classes, but without being a barrier.

  2. The school’s ethos is pretty strict for a Swedish school. While it doesn’t quite go as far as uniforms (in Sweden? Crazy talk!), it has many of the characteristics of a high end state school in the UK: teachers are addressed by their surnames and wear business dress, discipline is firm (but not uber-strict) – no mobiles, no gum chewing, no hats, no underwear on show – expectations of behaviour and achievement are high and there is a house system.

    Knowing Primus’ way of thinking, this amount of structure is helpful even if not particularly enjoyed at the time by moodswinging teenagers. It echoes many of the culture points of the high school he briefly attended in Scotland and where he was flourishing


However, while getting Secondus and Tertia into the local school was pretty easy, entry to IES was a lot tougher, even though we had two on our doorsteps. You see, all the factors that make high end UK schools attractive to UK parents are equally attractive to ambitious Swedes, particularly when you throw in the sweetener of ending up at a native level of proficiency in English.

All state schools in Sweden (and certainly in Stockholm) use a common application process, which involves a queue. And the queue for all the IES schools is 4+ years. Not quite the put them down for Eton at birth, but in that ballpark. And in Sweden, a queue is a queue and you can’t jump it.

Back to the drawing board: Primus ended up at the Villastads Skola. Which is a good school, in the classic Swedish tradition. Relaxed, collaborative. All the stuff we value.


School has just this week ended for the summer. In the 18 months we’ve been here, Tertia has (as predicted) flourished. She now has pretty good conversational Swedish, certainly plenty to hold her own in classroom and social environments. She has friends, some of whom are bilingual, and chats happily flitting between languages without a worry in the world.

However, for the boys, it really hasn’t worked out.

Neither of them have learned any Swedish worth talking about. Neither of them have made (m)any friends (Secondus a little better in this respect). Neither of them are learning in school. Primus comes home every lunchtime to avoid socialising. Secondus spends most lessons in a corner reading Harry Potter in English. Not good. Both of them are stressed and angry most of the time in school.

In Spring, we had a meeting with the school where this was put very clearly to us, and that the school were as worried as we are. And Lucy and I realised this wasn’t sustainable.


In mid May, I received a call that changed everything.

Back before Christmas, having realised that things weren’t really working well, I’d put all 3 into the queues of every single IES in the city. Including ones that weren’t yet open, so hadn’t had the chance to build up the 4+ year queues.

In mid May, one of the ones that wasn’t yet open called me, and told me that – while he wasn’t assured of a place – Secondus was in the top 10 of the queue for his year with entry in August this year: on opening day of the school. Would we like to come for an Open Day?

Would I? Would I? I think I’d said Yes before the admissions admin had finished the sentence. But what about Primus? Well, he was quite high in the queue, but they are only offering one class in his year, and he’s not top 10. So he’s welcome to come, but much less likely to get in.

So we went for the Open Day with Secondus (Primus being a teenage role model stayed in bed). Now it is a good 20-30 minutes away by public bus, whereas current school is 200m from our door, which is a worry for an 11yo who is a little afraid of the language skills needed to navigate the public transport system, and hasn’t really travelled independently before. However, we went to see it.

IES Kista
IES Kista

And it’s wonderful. It’s a closed campus right next door to the transport and retail hub in the science and technically focused suburb of Kista (Swedish friends will know it as the old KTH campus). Secondus experienced a few lessons, taught in English, and we got to pump the staff for information.

Talking about it together with Secondus made us realise that this is the environment he needs in Sweden. Where he can let his natural talents in Maths and Design flourish without the language barrier, while allowing the Swedish abilities to catch up at their own pace.

And we were confirmed in our assessment that it is the right place for Primus too, for all the rationale we’d set out at the start.

So, now we wait while place offers to other children are accepted and places filled. Or not, moving both of them up the queue.


Last week, I received a call: now that all the first round offers had been responded to, IES Kista are delighted to formally offer a place to Secondus. There are of course paper forms to fill, but a simple email would confirm his place.

Dear Reader: that email went back to them the same day and the forms have now been filled in and sent.

And as you’d expect, having one sibling at a school is a weighting factor for the others’ queue status. So Primus was still too low to have full confidence of getting a place, but it was a moving target.

Next day, I received another call. Secondus’ acceptance has moved Primus so far up the queue, and his class have such a pattern of offers and acceptances, that they are formally offering Primus a place too. Same process to follow, but a firm offer.

So it looks like both boys have had their last day at HVSS, their last day of full Swedish immersion, and from August will be learning in English.

It’s sad in some ways, but the Right Thing for them.

Continue reading Changing Schools

Publishing for Immigrants

Sweden has a whole publishing industry servicing adult learners of Swedish language. Because when you’re just learning a language as an adult — or even a teenager — you really don’t want “See Spot Run! Run, Spot, Run!” you want something that will stimulate your brain in content as well as language learning. Otherwise it’s a total chore.

Every library (certainly in Stockholm) has a lättläst section. I’m currently reading the lättläst version of Let The Right One In (yes, the book that the movie was based on. It is set in a very nearby suburb that I travel through on the Tunnelbana every day).

And then there’s also – grownup news, but with limited vocabulary and simple grammar. I’ve no idea whether the UK has anything like this. Certainly a business opportunity for someone if not.
Continue reading Publishing for Immigrants

Learning Swedish

It is almost two weeks now since I started learning Swedish. I thought I should tell you a little about it as it really is an amazing experience.

Basically anyone who lives in Sweden can start on the SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) course. You go along to the office, once you have been allocated your personnelnummer and say I want to learn Swedish please. They give you a very quick interview, mine took about 5 minutes, to assess your need and location. Basically you are asked what education you already have had, where you live and what your current situation/availability is.

Off the back of that I was assigned a morning class at a college 10 minutes bus ride from my house. I study from 8:15-12:00 Mon-Fri – so 17.5 hours a week. Martin is also studying but he goes to evening class twice a week (7 hours).

On day one you turn up at 9am for an introduction. At this point you are all put together, regardless of your education or experience. For the first two weeks you remain together and then are put into other groups.

In my class there are 15-20 people – I haven’t counted. There is a range of nationalities with about half of arabic origin. So in my class the people have come from Syria (about 8), Lithuania, Afghanistan, Chile, Thailand, Morocco, Eritrea and Ethiopia. I think I have forgotten a few. English is the common language but I am the only native-English speaker. Everyone else speaks at least two languages and in some cases many more.

The ages range from 19 up to late 50s. Some have families, some don’t. Some are refugees, some have married Swedes, some are here because of work.

We are approaching the end of the two-week block and in that time we have learnt a huge amount. Grammar, phrases, vocabulary. It really is incredible. I don’t yet have the confidence to go out and speak fluently to a Swede but I have noticed that my ear is tuning in much more in spoken language. I can hear where the sentences start and end and where the verbs and nouns are. A huge leap from two weeks ago when it really did sound like this:

The same is true when I am looking at Swedish text. I can see the sentence structure and although I may not understand some of the words I am starting to recognise, and read, much more.

Continue reading Learning Swedish

Speaking Our Language: Registered for SFI (At Last)

What’s it like living in a country where you don’t speak the language? Well, it’s like this:

A wall of sound that you know contains meaning. But you have no idea what it is, even when the intonation and facial expression carries the general direction and mood. So you can have a go at making the appropriate face to keep up your end of the conversation and pretend to be a great listener (I have gone a good 10 mins as one of three or four in a conversation), but you get found out eventually, and confessing to be a big faker who laughed at the jokes he didn’t understand isn’t pleasant.

On a good day, it’s a bit like this old Larson Cartoon

And very, very slowly, I can hear a few more words as time goes on. But it’s too slow.

And it leads to being very confused in places like the supermarket. Some things you really don’t know what they are. And what you think you know, you get wrong. Like the time we bought 6 cartons of yoghurt instead of milk. Or the time we made pizza with shortcrust pastry. And you can’t work out how to get the self-scanning working. At least I can ask Ursäkta, kan du hjälpa mig in Engelska? when things go truly wrong, which is huge advance on where I was 6 weeks ago (ie: Engelska?)

And while I do have enough very simple phrases to ask for things, I’m far too nervous to use them. Not because I fear my pronunciation would fail critically and laughably. Well, OK, not just because of that, but I’m much more afraid that the person behind the counter will ask a clarifying question, which will wash over me in an impenetrable wall of blah blah blah blah GINGER! blah blah blah.

So I’m very relieved that both Lucy and I have finally bitten the bullet and registered for SFI classes. Lucy has hers 3 days a week in the day (starting at 0815) totalling 15hrs, and I have 2 evening classes of 3hrs. Both are a short bus ride away from the house (actually just across the car park from our nearest big supermarket, which is handy). Both of us start in a couple of weeks.
Continue reading Speaking Our Language: Registered for SFI (At Last)

Switching to English

The best way to get two Swedes, speaking Swedish, to flip to English is to drop one word of English into their conversation. They will flip — often without noticing — almost instantly. You can then go away for 20 minutes or more and come back and they’ll still be speaking English.

I’m not sure this is A Good Thing™.

The Swedish-Scots Dictionary

So I’m working in Stockholm 3 days a week for the next few weeks. And I really don’t speak any Swedish, beyond what I can pick up from English subtitled TV such as The Bridge, which when characters are speaking quickly isn’t very helpful.

My German is a bit rusty, bit it helps a little with some constructions like Du/Dig (pronounced Dich).

But what’s really helping is a combination of English language TV with Swedish subtitles… and guid Scots. See if you can see the easy parallels I’m seeing here:

  • Bra – braw – Good
  • Dyr – dear – expensive
  • Att gråta – to greet – to cry (weep)
  • Mycket – muckle – a lot (Swedish spelling corrected, tack Torbjörn)
  • Att prata – to prate/prattle – to talk
  • Att flytta in – to flit – to move in (as in: to move house)
  • Huset (pron: Hooset) – house
  • Qvinne – quine – woman (and ultimately queen I guess)
  • Varför – why

Ok that last one was more archaic English, but you get the idea. After a couple of days, I’m now reading a good number of simple billboards and ads in the T-Bana.

Verbal communication is still way beyond me, though.