SFI – can one size fit all?

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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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.