Stockholm Syndrome: Together but slowly

We filed into our Swedish class on Monday and formed our usual islands of nationalities at the desks spread around the room.

Lessons at SFI, Svenska för invandrare, always begin this way: a hushed multitude of languages as we gravitate towards the familiar. Faint feelings of guilt that we’re not speaking Swedish are swept away by the freedom of unthinking communication.

Then as we warm up, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and French give way not to Swedish but to the world’s most widely spoken language – broken English.

Momentarily, I and the other three native English-speakers cannot help feeling a little superior – at least until Stefan, our livewire teacher, sweeps into the room. Then all of us, whatever our cultural backgrounds, are united against the common foe of Swedish.

On Monday, Stefan swept only as far as the door and then summoned us to the film room. Off we trooped, the movement breaking up the islands and Stefan’s presence inducing a little Swedish language among the less shy.

He wanted to show us a film, he was telling a couple of young lads from Chile, that was Sweden through and through. A hot young Swedish director, popular Swedish actors, the archetypal Swedish trio of the Seventies, Socialism, and Snow – a great taste of Swedish culture. The film was Together, Tillsammans, by Lukas Moodysson.

Stefan left us and the film started rolling. The dialogue is snappy, slurred, natural. As a foreigner, if you want to catch what they say, you have to be listening. People weren’t. For some reason, half the students had started talking on their mobile phones.

The week before, Stefan had scribbled his phone number up on the whiteboard in connection with a trip to a Stockholm museum. As he went to wipe it off, Gregor, a scientist from Russia, had raised his arm.


Stefan was keen to get on with the lesson and urged Gregor to hold his question for later.

Nej, men, Stefan?! Jag har en fråga!” insisted Gregor. “I have a question!”

It was no use resisting.

“Your phone number – are you with Vodafone?”

“Ja,” replied Stefan slowly.

“I thought so – my number starts the same,” said Gregor, proudly holding up his phone in its new, Zebra-coloured shell.

Poor old Stefan. The next ten minutes of his carefully-prepared lesson were lost to a heated discussion about mobile phone providers, handset models, and where in the building reception was best. Not the cafeteria, everyone agreed.

Apparently the reception in the film room was just fine and the volume of chat soon rose above the volume of the film. Nobody was paying the slightest attention to the movie and one more cultural difference was revealing itself.

Around the world, people do not necessarily watch movies in silence as they do in Sweden. And with nobody there to explain the Swedish way, the film was forgotten.

Then suddenly the conversation stopped dead. On screen, a woman, naked from the waist down, stood at the kitchen table and explained that she would not put clothes on because she had thrush.

Tuts of disapproval peppered the atmosphere and Arri, a Somalian, walked out, followed by two of his compatriots. They were followed by a number of North Africans from the group.

Perhaps it was just as well. Later in the film there is a hidden, but clearly implied, oral sex scene between a gay man and his heterosexual housemate who he is attempting – successfully, it turns out – to “convert”.

Was this an insensitive choice of film on Stefan’s part? Maybe. His job is to teach people Swedish and nobody is a more enthusiastic student than Arri, who has serious ambitions to become a dentist. An SFI teacher ought to be able to keep his students engaged for the duration of the lesson without making them feel so uncomfortable that they have to leave.

But it is also part of Stefan’s remit to introduce us immigrants to Swedish culture. And there will always be certain aspects of that which are hard to take for people from other cultures. They do not have to sit through it, but they need to be made aware of it.

All things considered, I suppose he could have stuck to Bergman. But then I probably would have walked out.

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Stockholm Syndrome is a new series of articles from The Local focusing on life in the Swedish capital through a foreigner’s eyes.

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Sweden considers expanding mother tongue education

More students should study their mother tongue in Swedish schools, according to a proposal delivered to the government.

Sweden considers expanding mother tongue education
File photo: Drago Prvulovic/TT
Students in Swedish schools who have a parent or legal guardian whose native language is something other than Swedish are offered courses to help them strengthen their skills in the other language. 
Roughly 280,000 students are eligible for this education but only approximately 170,000 are actively participating in the courses. 
According to Nihad Bunar, a professor of youth studies at Stockholm University who has been appointed by the government to address this issue, part of the reason the participation is so low is that the mother tongue courses are often held at the conclusion of the regular school day. 
“The consequences of this are obvious: tired students who have competing free-time activities. There is also a general perception that the subject is not as important as other school subjects,” Bunar said. 
Additionally, schools are not required to offer mother tongue classes if there are fewer than five students who would participate in the classes. 


A commission report that has been submitted to the government calls for making mother tongue education a more integrated part of the school day and offering it to smaller groups. The report also suggests offering the classes via remote learning, as a lack of qualified teachers in other languages is also a significant problem. 
The report points out that students who are given the opportunity to develop their mother tongue also tend to develop better Swedish language skills and perform better in school all-around. 
Education Minister Gustav Fridolin welcomed the report’s recommendations. 
“Studying one’s mother tongue can strengthen learning in all students. Therefore, more students should receive mother tongue education and the quality of the education and the curriculum should be strengthened,” he said in a government press release. 
The largest languages in mother tongue education in Sweden are Arabic, Somali, English, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Persian, Kurdish, Spanish, Finnish, Albanian and Polish.
The Local would like to hear from parents whose children are involved in a mother tongue programme at their local school. Please get in touch with us at [email protected] if you’d like to participate in a follow-up article. 
The recommendations on mother tongue education come just a few months after a report carried out by OECD at the request of the Swedish government, suggested that Sweden can and must do much more to help immigrant children perform better at school
That study noted that 61 percent of first-generation immigrant students do “not attain baseline academic proficiency”. The number decreases to 43 percent for second-generation immigrant students and that 19 percent differential is well above the OECD average of 11 percents.