Stockholm Syndrome: Ambition impossible?

It seemed as though it was just going to be me and Rositza, my teacher, at our Swedish class this week. I'm all for a bit of individual tuition but Rositza seems to take it rather personally when people don't show.

She gave me a handout to peruse while we waited for the others. It was a selection of job advertisements from the week’s papers. I sensed trouble.

Like housing, country of origin, occupation in country of origin, reason for being in Sweden, religion and America, a person’s job is a sensitive subject in our Svenska för invandrare class. Indeed, anything which doesn’t relate to supermarkets or children is more or less a conversational no-go area.

But I sympathise with the powers that be at SFI. As far as integration issues go, getting a job is the biggy. And you won’t get very far if you don’t know the Swedish for application, interview or deadline. (Although everyone seems to be familiar with we had many excellent applicants who met our criteria and you weren’t one of them.)

So it has to be covered, but what sort of imaginary jobs should the students practise on? Lawyers, marketing directors and chief accountants? Senior analysts, doctors and sales managers?

That might have been nice and motivational. But Swedes are nothing if not pragmatic and instead I found myself browsing through ads for a shop assistant, a dental secretary, a waiter or waitress and a hotel receptionist.

Most of my classmates had arrived by now, trooping in like Arctic explorers. Their faces slowly thawed into sneers as they saw the evening’s subject matter.

Vadå, dental secretary?” said Arri, who, as I have mentioned before, intends to become a dentist.

Arri is proud and appeared to be willing to quit the class altogether rather than roleplay applying for a dental secretary’s job.

Being an immigrant herself, Rositza understood the subtle paradox at work: while many of those in the class would leap at one of these jobs, they aspire to much more.

Arturo is a good example. For all I know he could have been a government minister in his native Chile. Here, he cleans offices. But he doesn’t describe himself as a cleaner – he calls himself a businessman.

He has big ideas. At the moment he and his wife clean a couple of offices in central Stockholm each morning between 5am and 9am. But he has plans for more customers, more staff, a fleet of vans – it’s just a matter of time and hard work. But the ambition is there.

Last year, Niklas Zennström, the Swedish founder of the internet telephony company Skype, put a pretty vertical wind up his countrymen by saying that they are lazy.

He observed that “people don’t work very hard in Sweden – they go home at five, and take the whole summer off work”.

The first time I heard the same accusation made was a few years ago at a business meeting in Gothenburg, long before I moved to Sweden. It was all very embarrassing. My English boss castigated our Swedish partners (dot com, blah blah blah) for their lack of ambition. No commitment, he said, no desire.

I must point out that this was a man whose own ambition didn’t just border on hubris – it marched right in, surrounded its parliament and rewrote its constitution.

He declared with messianic fervour that the project we were cooperating on would be bigger than the Red Army within two years.

Our gentle Swedish hosts looked at him as if he was a few herrings short of a smörgåsbord and, as it later turned out, they weren’t far off the mark.

“So much for blonde ambition!” he muttered repeatedly, as the project was scaled back to something more achievable.

On the surface, Mr Zennström and my former boss may have had a point – Swedes can come across as lacking a little oomph on the job. And in conversations with Swedish friends, it has become clear that wearing your ambition on your sleeve is considered rather vulgar.

If you happen to be afflicted with ambition, you don’t talk about it. Take an Alvedon – it’ll pass.

Actually, two things blunt ambition: age and comfort.

Since most Swedes are tickling the toes of thirty by the time they finish university and start work, maybe the careerist mentality has already started to be replaced by thoughts of family.

And what with Sweden being perhaps the world’s most comfortable country it’s hardly surprising that there are fewer people starting their own businesses here than anywhere else.

Of course, there are plenty of Swedes who are more driven than a vintage Volvo. No Englishman could criticise Sweden’s determination to succeed in sports, for example, and in many areas of business, science and the arts Sweden has churned out more individual successes than its small population merits.

But to think of ambition purely in terms of get-rich-or-die-trying is to discredit Swedes. Swedes are ambitious, but their ambition usually isn’t financial. We all know about the American Dream, but Swedes’ determination to succeed is measured not in dollars but in red cottages, lakes and the number of days spent with the kids.

That’s the Swedish Dream, that’s blonde ambition.

Mr Zennström was referring to economic ambition, and his serious point was that without it, Sweden would suffer in the big, bad, competitive world. He shouldn’t worry, though – Arri and Arturo have other ideas.

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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.