Sweden’s hemspråk: teaching kids their parents’ language

As Sweden continues to grapple with how best to integrate its ever-growing foreign born population, The Local's Karen Holst looks at one way in which Swedish schools address the needs of children with a mother tongue other than Swedish.

Sweden's <i>hemspråk</i>: teaching kids their parents' language

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.

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Explained: What Sweden’s new curriculum will mean for your children

Sweden's government today approved a new school curriculum which will come into force next July. Here's what parents need to know about the plans.

Explained: What Sweden's new curriculum will mean for your children
Sweden's Education Minister Anna Ekström announcing the new curriculum on Friday. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

What is Sweden's school curriculum? 

In the Swedish school system, what is taught at primary and lower secondary school, grundskola, is governed by 'course plans', kursplaner, and 'teaching plans', läroplaner, while what is taught at upper secondary schools is governed by 'subject plans', ämnesplaner.

Why was there a need to change the curriculum?  

The curriculum currently in place is little changed from that brought in under the previous centre-right Alliance government in 2011.

That curriculum has been criticised by teachers, students and their parents for having confusing and complicated criteria for grading and guides for teaching that can be hard to interpret.

Imprecise and confusing curriculums and lessons plans make teachers' jobs more difficult and reduce the possibility of pupils to understand what they're supposed to learn,” Sweden's education minister Anna Ekström said at a press conference announcing the changes. 

She also said that both parents and teachers had long complained that the previous curriculum demanded and unrealistic level of analysis from pupils of an early age. 

“I know that there are many parents who have been astonished when they have seen what demands are made on the ability to analyse at low ages for children,” she said.

At the press conference, Ekström complained that the existing curriculum also failed to make clear enough differences between what knowledge was required in subjects at different levels, leading to repetition and a lack of clarity. 

She said that the previous curriculum also led to what she called stoffsträngsel, or 'contents congestion' – that it included so many details and requirements that it was impossible for teachers to get through in the hours provided. 

Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

So what's been changed? 

The new curriculum, announced in a press release on Friday, is more concise, with a greater emphasis on factual knowledge and understanding, and less emphasis on pupils' ability to research and analyse themselves.

Back in 2011, some educationalists felt that near-universal access to the internet had made factual knowledge less important than the ability to research and assess information.

Ekström said the new curriculum brought a renewed emphasis on factual knowledge and understanding.   

That knowledge is a good in and of itself is put forward much more clearly than it was the former curriculum,” she said at a press conference announcing the changes. “There is a clear focus from the government that it should be knowledge and understanding which is the focus of Swedish schools.” 

She said that the new curriculum was also clearer and more concise. 

“We have tried to concentrate the contents, take out the unnecessary examples — that’s something teachers can and do provide themselves,” she said. 

The requirement for students to carry out their own analysis will increase with age, while the knowledge requirements have been made less detailed and extensive, making them easier for teachers to use. 

In addition, the content will now differ more clearly between different year groups and courses. 

Who is responsible for changing the curriculum? 

The curriculum has been written by the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), but the change in focus was demanded under the January agreement struck between the Social Democrat, Green, Centre and Liberal parties

This stated that “course and teaching plans should be revised to strengthen the emphasis on knowledge and factual knowledge, and to encourage diligence and ambition”. 

The decision to approve Skolverket's final proposal, which was submitted in December, was made by Sweden's two-party red-green coalition together with the Centre and Liberal parties. 

Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

What was the criticism last year about? 

When Skolverket submitted its first proposal last autumn it was sharply criticised for the decision to leave out ancient history, the bible, the psalms and the national anthem. 

There was also concern that the curriculum required pre-teens to do “advanced literary analysis”. 

Both of these criticisms have been met in the final curriculum agreed between the four parties, with ancient history and the bible back in and the level of required literary criticism scaled back. 

Requirements for grades clearer and less specific 

The grading system itself will not be changed under the proposals, but Skolverket hopes that the grading process will become more fair and accurate. Swedish grades are awarded from A-F, with A the highest grade and A-E all counted as 'pass' grades.
These grades are awarded at the end of each school term (only in the subjects the student was taught in that term, and during högstadiet only at the end of a course), starting with the autumn term of Grade 6. 
The agency plans to change so-called 'knowledge requirements' (kunskapskraven). These are the things which students are required to know in order to receive a certain grade, and Skolverket said the current system led to students getting very low grades just because certain details of the knowledge requirements weren't met.
For example, rather than requiring students to show how the “social, media, judicial, economic and political structures in society” are structured and how they function (as in the current syllabus for social studies), they will be required to show “knowledge of conditions and structures in society” and give examples of “connections within and between different social structures”.
So in the new proposals, knowledge requirements are “less extensive, contain fewer details and are formulated in a simpler way”, Skolverket said.
This is intended to ensure students receive grades that accurately reflect their understanding of a subject, and that teachers can focus less on having to teach specific details in order to reach a grade.
What happens now? 
Skolverket will now look at the amount of hours assigned to each subject and analyse how this needs to be changed to allow teachers to teach the new curriculum, with history, in particular, likely to require more hours than given to it at present. 
Rather than increase the total number of hours of tuition, hours are likely to be trimmed from other subjects to make way for topics like ancient history and the bible. 
Skolverket has been asked to provide the new teaching timetable, with the hours assigned to each subject by March. 
The new curriculum is then set to come into force at the start of next July, with pupils beginning to be taught under it the following August.