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'Time to toss out' Swedish for Immigrants

David Landes · 28 Oct 2008, 15:36

Published: 28 Oct 2008 15:36 GMT+01:00

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“Right now it takes too long in many cases until refugees and immigrants find themselves with any real connection to the labour market,” Moderate Riksdag member Elisabeth Svantesson told The Local.

Svantesson, along with her colleague Tomas Tobé, are part of a Moderate Party working group exploring issues related to employment and integration.

The working group is part of a wide effort by the Moderates to improve what it sees as a failed set of integration policies which have made it difficult for immigrants to find work quickly and led to unnecessarily high levels of social exclusion.

In a set of suggestions from the working group presented on Tuesday, the Tobé and Svantesson outline what they see as an entirely new approach to the way Sweden helps immigrants learn the language of their adopted homeland.

For the last forty years, immigrants to Sweden have been offered free, publicly funded introductory language classes through Swedish for Immigrants (Svenska för Invandrare - SFI).

SFI has long had detractors who have questioned whether the classes were effective, and the chorus of criticism from centre-right politicians has been rising steadily ever since their parties gained power in 2006.

In February, Education Minister Jan Björklund and Integration Minister Nyamko Sabuni, both of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) detailed several SFI shortcomings, and proposed a major overhaul , including compulsory skill assessments, more money for teacher training, and rewards for students who perform well.

And back in early 2007, both Moderate and Social Democratic leaders from organizations representing Sweden’s local councils characterized SFI as a “dead end” arguing it ought to be replaced by more individualized language instruction.

Tobé and Svantesson argue that tinkering around the edges of a failed programme won’t yield the desired results.

They instead propose an entirely new approach which emphasizes the importance of opportunities to learn job-related vocabulary in a workplace setting, as opposed to relying exclusively on passive classroom instruction.

“Being in an environment where you can meet other people who regularly speak Swedish can really help someone further develop their language skills,” said Svantesson.

In making their case for a new approach, the two cite statistics showing that less than one in three SFI enrollees ends up taking classes up to the highest level, while a third never receive a passing grade at any level.

They have dubbed their SFI replacement Startsvenska (‘Start Swedish’), believing that “functional language training” will improve immigrants’ chances of quickly learning the language and getting jobs.

“It’s not that we are totally against school lessons in and of themselves. After all, learning the basics is very important. It’s just that we feel sitting in a classroom can be very isolating and doesn’t allow for any direct connection to one’s professional trade,” said Svantesson.

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The new proposal would also remove the monopoly currently held by Sweden’s local authorities over how introductory Swedish language training is administered, leaving them instead as “one language education actor among many”.

Currently, the proposal is in its early stages, with the next step being an airing in front of the Moderate Party’s governing board.

“Hopefully, they’ll support the suggestions at which point they can then become a part of policy discussions within the Alliance,” Svantesson explained, referring the four-party centre-right coalition currently governing Sweden.

Regardless, it may be at least a couple of years before Svantesson’s proposals become reality.

“We don’t expect that they would be implemented until after the next parliamentary elections,” she said.

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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