Most people agree that language skills and cultural awareness are key factors helping immigrants and new arrivals establish themselves in Sweden, or any other country.
For children—be they born to Swedish parents in Sweden or to immigrant parents in another country, schools often serve as the primary arena for learning a language, as well as the social and cultural cues that will help them understand and navigate their way in Swedish society.
But how schools and parents address the issue of adapting or supplementing schooling for children with a different mother tongue than Swedish is also seen by many to be a critical component in a child’s development, which has led to a polarising debate in both the political and educational arenas.
As far back as the late 1960s, Sweden introduced mother tongue language education, or modersmålundervisning, into the school system due to high demand from immigrants.
The national curriculum states that students with a mother tongue other than Swedish should be given the opportunity to develop a mastery of their native language, which often serves as a bridge between the language spoken at school and the language spoken at home.
Hemspråk, as it is more commonly known, is a supplemental course of instruction to further develop a child’s first or native language and is to be provided upon request at no cost by the municipality.
“It’s of course taken on many forms and changed over the years,” says Mats Wemmerholm, the Director of Education for the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket).
“But regardless it is very good to keep a student’s first language in tact and strong both for their self-esteem and better performance in school.”
Today almost one fifth of compulsory school students in Sweden have a foreign background, having been born abroad or born in Sweden to foreign-born parents, according to 2010 statistics from the education agency.
This amounts to more than 150 different languages or dialects reported to Swedish authorities within the country, of which 100 languages are taught through mother tongue studies.
The same report shows that of the 173,000 elementary level students enrolled in first language lessons, Arabic is the most popular instruction, reaching more than three times the number enrolled in second place Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.
In the beginning, modersmålwas a course that students attended either before school or during their regular school day, substituting for another class.
Nowadays however, the majority of the mother tongue education is preformed outside of regular school hours in the late afternoon as a supplemental class.
“Most locales offer about an hour of instruction a week but there are some that offer up to three hours,” says Wemmerholm.
In theory, hemspråk should consist of both language education and cultural lessons from the country of the mother tongue.
It is graded according to the normal point system and should follow the nationally established general course plan, meaning students are expected to ascertain certain levels of comprehension.
However, the mother tongue language program has been controversial ever since it was hatched.
Due to Sweden’s decentralised approach to education, there are no regulations regarding the awareness, the duration or the specific content of mother tongue instruction.
This creates a vast discrepancy in the quality of the teaching.
“Local authorities have a responsibility to adhere to a national framework but the specific organisation of it was left open so as not to put too much pressure on local organisers,” explains Wemmerholm.
“One of our big problems is that the quality of mother tongue education differs greatly – it’s not as good as it could be.”
He also says it’s a challenge for municipalities to find well-qualified teachers, to find pupils willing to be taught an extra class and to find parents willing to be motivators.
“Parents are the key issue. Schools can contribute to support what’s being done at home but without collaboration and interest from the parents, well then it just shouldn’t be asked for,” Wemmerholm states.
Not all municipalities are capable of providing mother tongue instruction in all requested languages, which means some children have to travel to other communities to attend class, another potential wrench in the logistics.
Those making the case against native language study programmes in Sweden rely on a spectrum of arguments, everything from its impact on a child’s ability to “develop good Swedish” to its enabling of sub-communities to persist and even the facilitation of xenophobia.
The most widely circulating debate among critics, including members of the teachers’ federation, questions the idea that “good skills in a native language promote school success.”
Opponents of the native language education programme believe instead that immigrant children would gain more by strengthening their Swedish skills in place of mother tongue development.
But Wemmerholm disagrees.
A recent study conducted by the National Agency for Education revealed that when comparing a group of students with similar foreign backgrounds, those who attended mother language instruction performed better in school than those who chose not to attend.
“I think it’s very interesting,” Wemmerholm says.
“If there is quality education, and a child attends with a positive attitude, then I can’t see any cons in being able to express oneself in multiple languages. Children make use of their first language to learn other languages.”
Defenders of mother tongue language instruction also argue that there is no substantiated evidence that learning several languages simultaneously disrupts a child’s general ability to learn, impedes their ability to learn Swedish or hinders their assimilation into Swedish society.
“If it’s good quality education, only good things will come from it,” Wemmerholm says.
While the controversy continues as to whether or not parents should elect to strengthen a child’s modersmål and to what extent a child’s education should be adapted to meet their multilingual challenges, Wemmerholm stands firm in his belief that quality mother tongue language instruction opens doors.
“Children naturally make use of their first language to learn other languages. Mother tongue education creates cultural identity, which builds self-esteem and opens one up to integration,” Wemmerholm concludes.