The Flag of Sweden, the Scandinavian country where Swedish is spoken. Image from

The Great Norwegian – Swedish Mismatch Game

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know I’ve embarked upon a new journey of late. It’s a strange, yet also strangely familiar one. I’ve skipped across the Norwegian frontier and am learning Swedish.

Learning a language so closely related to one you already speak is a very particular kind of language learning. Uniquely, you’re not starting from scratch. In fact, you most likely already have a decent degree of passive comprehension, either in reading, listening, or both. It’s what made annual Melfest viewing so much more rewarding, despite never having studied a jot of Swedish formally!

Because of that passive comprehension, though, beginners’ resources are much less useful when you hop across to sibling languages. For one thing, they’re boring; you feel like you already know the basics, as everything is so familiar. Instead of step-by-step textbooks, a better tactic is systematic exposure to higher-level media like podcasts, TV shows and current affairs apps, with a mindful eye on learning the features that distinguish the two languages.

Swedish ≠ NOrwegian in Disguise

Naively, I thought that might be almost entirely tonal, before I started out on my language family hopping. But no – Swedish isn’t just Norwegian with a cutesy accent. There are a lot more vocabulary differences than I’d expected.

Sometimes these are due to borrowing from different sources. Swedish, once the language of an expansive European great power, might have a Middle German loan (like fråga, question) where Norwegian has a North Germanic root (spørsmål). Other times, it’s Swedish that preserves the Norse root (bjuda, invite), while Norwegian has an international interloper (invitere). And then there are times they both go native in different ways (Swedish jämföra and Norwegian sammenligne, to compare).

In any case, my Swedish vocab strategy is to audit the mismatches I find, rather than make a record of all the vocabulary I come across. It’s fascinating watching it come together, like a tale of two siblings who were thick as thieves before going their separate ways. You can see the results so far below, a rather random hotchpotch of items I’ve spotted my recent listening and reading. It’s still early days, and it’s impossible ever to make this exhaustive, of course.

But that said, I hope other double-Scandi learners find it interesting and/or useful!

The Great Norwegian – Swedish Mismatch List


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
en avis en tidning a newspaper
en bedrift, et selskap ett företag, ett bolag a company
en edderkopp en spindel a spider
en flamme en låga a flame
en forskjell en skillnad a difference
en lommebok en plånbok a wallet
lykke, flaks tur (good) luck
oppførsel beteende behaviour
ei pute en kudde a pillow
et samfunn ett samhälle a society
en sang en låt a song
en sky ett moln a cloud
en ting en sak a thing
en ulv en varg a wolf
en utfordring en utmaning a challenge


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
bruke använda use
finde hitta find
fortelle berätta tell
invitere bjuda invite
like gilla, tycker om like
pleie å gjøre bruka göra to usually do
sammenligne jämföra compare
snakke prata, tala speak, talk
spise äta eat
stole på lita på rely on
unngå undvika avoid


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
alle allihop everyone
cirka ungefær approximately, about
den eneste den enda the only one
en om gangen en i taget one at a time
en slags … en sorters … a kind of …
fordi eftersom, för att because
… igjen … kvar … left (over)
klar redo ready
nettopp (gjort) precis (gjort) just (done)
nå for tiden numera these days
selvsagt, åpenbart självklart obviously
skuffet besviken disappointed

Are there any biggies you’d add to this nascent list? Please share in the comments!

A forest of trees - a good analogy for the trees and branches of closely related languages

Studying closely related languages can be a help, not a hindrance

Studying two or more languages can be a challenging undertaking. But when they are closely related languages, instinct suggests that the similarity could be a source of confusion. “Don’t you ever get mixed up?” people ask. And, truthfully, from personal experience, you do. Particularly in the early stages.

But then again, so do bilingual children, as a completely normal part of learning two languages at home. And they go on to develop perfectly separate, fully-functioning bubbles of language as adults. Human beings are well-equipped to learn similar – but different – skills without one collapsing into the other. The mixed-up myth has long been burst for bilinguals.

In fact, a focus on close language pairs can be a blessing in many ways, rather than a curse. Whether it’s Polish and Russian, French and Spanish, Norwegian and Icelandic, or some other mix, there are plenty of reasons not to worry!

Highlighting gaps

One language can support the other by throwing light on gaps in your vocabulary. For instance, if you’re constantly saying a word in language X when you try to speak language Y, it’s quite likely that it’s missing in the second language for you. If it’s not missing, at the very least, it needs a bit of reinforcing.

This happened constantly in Polish for me – I’d reach for ‘unfortunately’, and only the Russian к сожалению would come out. It didn’t take long to reach for an online dictionary and learn the Polish (niestety) instead.

It’s helpful to test yourself on these gaps when you review vocabulary in one language. Interrogate yourself when you look up words or recall items. – So, Spanish for goat is la cabra… Do I know what that is in French, too? Perhaps even keep a bilingual vocabulary list in Excel, or your best Moleskine. This way, your stronger language can become the yardstick for the weaker one. “I can say this in language X – but can I say it in language Y too?”

Familiar grammar

Closely related languages usually share a great overlap in grammar principles. As a most basic example, knowing that French has masculine and feminine nouns also sets you up nicely for Spanish.

Similarities continue as the level gets more complex. For example, there is a fair stretch of common ground when it comes to using the subjunctive in French and Spanish. Learn one, and you have a head start on the other. At the very least, there will be fewer nasty surprises.

Deep understanding – a historical perspective

Knowing how related languages changed in different ways from a ‘parent’ language can also be an invaluable crutch for learning. Through an understanding of how particular sounds developed across different languages, you can often guess at the meaning of new words.

The Germanic sound shifts are a good example. If you can see that /p/ in English and Dutch often developed as /f/ in German, then you can make a better guess at what AffePfeffer and tief mean*.

This kind of cross-history view helps foster a really deep understanding of a language. Rather than just answering what and how, it starts to provide answers for why languages are a certain way. That’s certainly a step beyond basic holiday French / German / Spanish!

More than just language

This naturally leads to the notion that language is so much more than just words. The language you are learning is embedded in a social context, which has similarly developed on the historical axis. If you explore backwards far enough in your related languages, you can follow their twists and turns along important cultural and political shifts. Getting to know these ‘pivot points’ in the shared history of two languages can be a wonderful source of insight into the context behind the language.

For example, one ‘standard’ variety of written Norwegian – bokmål – is extremely similar to Danish. The other ‘official’ variety of Norwegian, nynorsk, preserves a more archaic feel, its vocabulary just a little reminiscent of highly conservative Icelandic. Understanding why, and delving deeper into the conflicts between Norway’s standard languages, rewards the learner with a much richer understanding of geopolitical history.

Whatever your reasons, don’t worry too much about taking on related languages. Laugh at the mix-ups and brush off the bumps in the road – the pay-off in extra learning is more than worth it in the end.

*They are monkey (ape), pepper and deep.