SFI - can one size fit all?

Melissa de Sieni
Melissa de Sieni - [email protected] • 24 Mar, 2006 Updated Fri 24 Mar 2006 13:00 CEST

Giving all new immigrants a chance to learn Swedish for free sounds like an ideal way to encourage integration. So Sweden’s state-funded language course, SFI, is often held up as proof that the Swedish state is serious about helping newcomers find their feet.


On the face of it, the system is very generous: the only requirements are that the person is over 16, that they are registered in a municipality and that they show up for the first day of classes.

But according to a report by Statistics Sweden (Statistiska Centralbyrå), the situation is not as promising as it may seem at first glance. Many enroll in SFI, Swedish for immigrants, but few really take advantage of it and even fewer come out with a pass.

The SFI-programme started back in 1965, with the goal of giving foreigners a basic knowledge of the Swedish language and society. Since then, it has taught Swedish to countless immigrants from all corners of the world. But this cultural diversity is not always conducive to rapid learning.

This is one of the reasons why it has been targeted with criticism that has already led to extensive internal change and reorganisation. And many teachers and students are still not pleased with the way things are done.

Laura Zachrisson represents the exception rather than the rule. She is an American who moved to Sweden ten years ago, and was impressed at the opportunity of learning a new language for free. So she enrolled and showed up on the first day of class.

“I wanted to learn, but by the second day, I thought I was in the wrong class. I felt welcomed by the students but did not like the teacher’s way so much. She told us that we students were only there to learn and follow the rules, and not to question them. I felt out of place because I was not raised that way. I didn't like being pushed into a mold,” says Laura, now married to a Swede.

Naturally, the demographics at SFI classes reflect the make-up of Sweden’s immigrant communities in general. In the 2003/2004 school year, 9,000 Arabic-speaking students enrolled in SFI. In second place came Spanish-speaking students, almost 3,000 of them. English-speaking students came in fifth place, with a little over 2,000.

This broad spectrum of different cultures is reflected at any local SFI-class: pupils with different backgrounds, speaking different languages, and with remarkably different levels of education all in the same group. And while this diversity might be stimulating in some ways, many claim it can prove an obstacle to effective learning.

In a 'one-size-fits-all' language class, there will always be people who lack motivation. Some immigrants do not see learning Swedish as a necessity to get a job and integrate in society and therefore quit their studies early to work instead. Marco Rizkky, born in Sudan, did just this after studying at SFI for three months.

He has not been back ever since and says he has not had any problems communicating with other Swedes.

"I was not really interested in learning. I wanted to get a job and make money instead. But there was nothing wrong with the teachers - on the contrary, they were very competent," says Marco, who attended SFI in 1989 and 1990.

But according to official evaluations of SFI classes, the inability to provide individual tutoring to students who need it is a major failing. The problems extend beyond that. Teachers are often not properly trained to teach immigrants, making learning almost impossible.

Sweden’s government published at set of proposals this month to try to address some of SFI’s shortcomings. Classes will now be introduced to help illiterate immigrants to improve their reading and writing skills in their mother tongue or another language, with the hope that improved literacy in their own language will equip them better to learn Swedish.

Improved training for SFI-teachers is also on the agenda, with an aim to attract more would-be language teachers to the immigrant courses, and students will be obliged to attend for a minimum number of hours every week.

Education minister Lena Hallengren said the reforms would "contribute to the students' learning, allowing them to pass the course quicker and provide them with a better knowledge of Swedish and society".

Another element of the government’s changes is to make the courses appeal to people such as Marco Rizkky who say they learn best in the workplace, not the classroom. Municipalities are being urged to cooperate with other institutions, combining studies with other activities such as rehabilitation, job searches or even military service.

But while SFI has many critics, there are still plenty of success stories, and some former students speak highly of their experiences.

Brazilian Marilda Ericsson attended SFI when she arrived in Sweden 25 years ago. Back then, it was called Swedish as a Foreign Language (Svenska som främmande språk) and there was a minimum of 240 compulsory hours, before the student could move on to the next level. But she recalls her time at SFI as a stimulating and fun one, with a mixed class with young and older students.

"My class had students from all parts of the world. I remember how the younger students learned everything so quickly while I had to pursue my studies at my own pace."

While admitting that she is still unsure when it comes to writing, Ericsson says she is confident she got a basic knowledge of the Swedish language and was successful in finding a job and integrating into society after her time in the programme.

The challenge now is to ensure that more students leave SFI with experiences like Ericsson, and that the money that is spent on teaching Swedish to foreigners actually results in well-integrated immigrants with a solid grasp of Swedish.

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