The notion that one must first of all acquire fluent Swedish to be able to work is a barrier to integration. Language development and work has to occur in tandem.
The government has touted the ambition to improve SFI classes (Swedish for Immigrants). This is a sound ambition. However, that both illiterate and university-educated immigrants sit together in the same class room and receive Swedish language training, can hardly be regarded as a good education.
Sure it is important to learn Swedish if one is considering building a future in Sweden. But is it important to learn Swedish first? That is to say, before the integration process can commence? Judging by the statements from most political parties in recent years, the answer is yes. Such a resounding yes, that any questioning of it would be regarded as nigh on provocative.
Sure, it can, purely intuitively, appear to be a successful model to suggest that integration is something which occurs gradually. First you need to learn the language, then look for a job, get a job, and then be considered an integrated citizen. The problem is that the model doesn’t work in reality. Those advocating it work on premises which are totally unrealistic, such as, for example, that you can learn a language in classroom, as an adult. You can’t.
The acquisition of a language works best through meetings and conversations with those who speak the foreign language as a mother tongue. This is something everybody knows… in reality.
How many people have learned French for several years in school and still can’t do much more than order a restaurant meal? It is however shown that a year as a student or an au pair in, for example a French family, works wonders for language abilities. Here we are talking about young people who already have an advantage when it comes to learning a foreign language. A 35-year-old is already faced with significant disadvantages.
Work is the best path to integration. Aside from the income and the boost to self-confidence, a job also provides the best possibility to learn the new language. Many people argue that there are professions where strong Swedish is necessary, and that is certainly the case. The example of the doctor is a commonly cited one in this context, but it is far from all immigrants who fit this professional category.
It has become accepted practice to require fluent Swedish regardless of professional affiliation, and to exclude people from the labour market when this can’t be proven. However, communication skills are not acquired through speech alone. It also requires the willingness to listen as well – listen to those who are trying to make themselves understood in broken Swedish.
In a report by Sveriges Radio’s Studio Ett programme in April, we were introduced to two Iraqi men – Ali and Taha – who both emigrated to Sweden in 2006. Taha had done exactly “as he was supposed to do”, i.e. pursued an SFI course and then applied for work, as well as move to a smaller town, but was still without a job five years later, despite the fact that he wanted to work.
Ali had however refused to attend SFI, refused to live on benefits, and insisted on living in Stockholm. It turned out that way as well. Ali never took benefits, has been working for several years, and runs his own convenience store in Östermalm.
The report presented a thought-provoking and touching portrait of two people who had chosen to follow two completely different routes towards establishing themselves in their adopted country. While it provides no simple solutions, and dictates no particular agenda, one thing is clear – SFI has not been the integration elixir for either of the men, and neither for their wives.
Taha’s Swedish would appear to be better than Ali’s at this point in time, but Ali’s prospects of improving his Swedish in the future are likely to be greater than Taha’s, as Ali has a job and comes into contact with Swedes on a daily basis, while Taha is stuck in a system where SFI courses are intertwined with short apprenticeships and what he describes as “ridiculous talking shop courses”, where they cut out pictures and make collages about Sweden.
The years pass and one can’t help but wonder how much better Taha’s Swedish and job prospects can become while stuck in permanent alienation?
A shift in attitudes towards immigrant language abilities can’t be achieved by legislation and directives alone. They are however required if integration is to occur, for real.
“Talk is silver, silence is golden” is a phrase uttered from time to time in our country, but it sounds a little dated and peculiar. The expression should instead be “talk is silver, to listen is golden”. Then perhaps a mentality may develop where work and language acquisition occurred simultaneously.
This article was originally published in Swedish on the Newsmill opinion website. English translation by The Local