A couple of years ago the American Stuart Graham was appointed CEO of the Swedish construction company Skanska and moved from New York to Stockholm. Asked by a journalist about the biggest differences between Stockholm and New York, Graham thought for a while and replied:
“Well, in Stockholm the taxi drivers speak English.”
It was funny, and also contained an essence of truth: Swedes –– cab drivers and school children alike –– usually speak English. Not as well as they think themselves, but thanks to education and American influence in popular culture Swedes generally have a decent level of English.
This is nothing new. Sweden has always been a country depending on exports –– even hundreds of years ago. Vikings spoke Saxon, Russian and other languages they were depending on for their trade. A man like Axel Oxenstierna –– founder of the Swedish administration and diplomacy during the 17th century –– spoke Latin, German and French, and maybe some English and Polish as well.
My own great-grandfather was a farmer in northern Sweden who didn’t get much education. But he learned some German to be able to travel and buy new forestry equipment. Learning languages is a part of the Swedish heritage.
In Sweden today, most kids start learning English when they’re seven, eight or nine years old –– some even earlier, in preschool. According to the “Eurobarometer” from the EU about “Europeans and their languages”, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in Europe. Thirty-eight per cent of EU citizens state that they have sufficient skills in English to have a conversation. In 19 out of 29 countries polled, English is the most widely known language apart from the mother tongue, this being particularly the case in Sweden (89%), Malta (88%) and the Netherlands (87%). So Sweden has the number one English-speaking population in Europe.
Ninety-nine percent of Swedes also acknowledge the benefits of knowing several languages. This figure is high for the whole of EU as well, with 83% of EU citizens considering that knowing foreign languages is or could be useful to them personally, more than half (53%) appreciating language skills as very useful. Only 16% of respondents fail to recognise the benefits of multilingualism. Even in the countries with the lowest support, Portugal and Greece, three out of four citizens consider language skills to be useful.
If the topic is foreign languages other than English, however, Swedes do not excel. We were only number seven in Europe in terms of German skills and number 14 in terms of French skills. Not that impressive.
English language skills are in any case an advantage in a globalized world, where English is key to most international communication. Some Swedish authorities fight the widespread use of English in companies and universities. I think it is a fight in vain. Of course, as a native Swede you will never know another language as well as Swedish, but you need English.
Interestingly enough, a lot of foreigners want to learn Swedish. The Swedish Institute encourages education in Swedish all over the world, and about 15,000 students at 200 universities in 41 countries study Swedish. Why? The reasons differ: business, research, love.
And as always: knowing a language means knowing a people. Languages skills are a tool for trade, peace and understanding.
Olle Wästberg, Director General of the Swedish Institute