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IMMIGRATION

Immigrant language-learning bonus flops

The government’s offer of performance-based bonuses to immigrants who learn Swedish in under a year has failed to produce results, according to a new report.

Immigrant language-learning bonus flops
A 2003 file photo from an SFI class

Bonuses of up to 12,000 kronor ($1,900) seem not to have been incentive enough for students in Swedish for Immigrants (Svenska för Invandrare – SFI) courses, as less than a fifth of the government’s money has been spent, Sveriges Television (SVT) reports.

“I had hoped that more would have received the bonus to allow integration,” said integration minister Erik Ullenhag to The Local.

The concept of rewarding quicker completion of language studies has benefited approximately 2,000 students since its introduction last year.

However, only 18.5 million of an allocated 100 million kronor has been spent.

The reform was put in place to encourage a more efficient way of learning Swedish and to make integration into Swedish society easier, though critics have long expressed doubts as to whether or not motivation is the problem.

“The only thing students want is to get a job and start a life here,” SFI instructor Annika Wall told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper last May.

“As I see things, this doesn’t solve any problems. Those who have difficulties and struggle for years aren’t going to be helped by the smartest students getting money.”

For some students, the prospect of a bonus upon speedy completion of SFI classes did indeed serve as a motivating factor.

“It was my sole motivation in finishing the course in under a year,” Australian Oliver Gee told The Local.

“I was in a position where I could benefit from finishing faster, and I knew I could do it, so I didn’t see why I wouldn’t take advantage of that.”

He added, however, that the bonus failed to motivate many of his fellow classmates.

“There were some people in my classes that knew they wouldn’t get the bonus and were not as efficient in learning the language so they disregarded the money and decided to take their time,” said Gee.

Though the bonus has been in place nationwide for a year, Ullenhag acknowledged that the effort is insufficient, saying it would be improved in the future.

“It is quite a new reform and we will evaluate it soon,” he said.

He added that the bonuses were only part of a larger effort to improve SFI, which has long been viewed as a roadblock to immigrants’ successful integration into Swedish society.

“We are also looking at incorporating a focus on better preparing immigrants for potential jobs when studying,” said Ullenhag.

He emphasised, however, that, in the eyes of the government, Swedish language education remains vital in immigrants’ efforts to successfully establish themselves in Sweden.

“We are trying to put out a very clear message from society that one of the most important ways to integrate into the Swedish community is to learn the language,” he said.

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IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.
 

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
 
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
 
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.” 

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