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Swedes and English: when things go wrong

Swedes are generally thought of as speaking English fairly well, but for some, the pressure to perform can be too much, proving that not everyone can defend the flattering reputation Swedes have of being bilingual masters.

Swedes and English: when things go wrong

Below, The Local has compiled a number of YouTube clips to visualize things that can go terribly wrong in the meshing of the two very different languages.

This Swedish gentleman is trying his best to explain his political convictions in English. One wonders whether it’s merely the language, or the views themselves that are muddled.

This next clip, from 2010, is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a language foul-up due to a small blunder by Swede Carl-Henric Svanberg, chair of energy giant BP, as he tried in vain to give voice to his company’s compassionate side following a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

For many Swedes, being British is strongly associated with being polite. At least it was when English was first introduced in Swedish schools in the 1940s, and it’s easy to see that conception sticking after clips like this.

One might think that an accomplished news anchor with Sveriges Television (SVT) would have no trouble using English when interviewing people outside of Sweden. But as anchor Rikard Palm demonstrates, even people who speak out loud for a living can get tripped up by tricky words.

The clip is from SVT talk show Robins during which Palm is talking about a call he made to hotel in Tokyo to get news about a recent earthquake because the Swedish embassy wouldn’t pick up.

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Reader’s view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?

A reader of The Local shares her story of trying to enter the Swedish job market after completing her doctoral studies.

Reader's view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?
File photo of two women, not related to the article, having a conversation. Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels

Under the Swedish public eye, those put into the category of “undesirable” or “wrong-typed” migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees, and unskilled workers from poorer countries in the global South have often become the target of heated debates on governmental spending, neoliberalised administration, and moral public sentiments.

Yet, another group of migrants, those seen as a more “right” type of migrants that Sweden wants to attract – the high-skilled international researchers – remains invisible and overlooked while this group continues facing everyday exclusionary barriers and bureaucratic administrative obstacles.

In addition to the Swedish linguistic barrier that excludes foreign academics in their everyday workplace at Swedish universities, it appears as though the whole Swedish administrative system is not welcoming any foreigner, including high-skilled foreign academics, despite the government's avowed promises of hospitality.

My recent experience could be seen as an example of this bureaucratic and xenophobic logic of the New Public Management in Sweden – in which I believe that many other international researchers could have shared a similar experience.

My employment contract as a doctoral candidate at a Swedish university ended in June 2020. I was told by my union that it was imperative to register my unemployment at the Swedish Employment Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, which I did. Yet, the whole registration process has alienated me, a non-Swedish speaker, because all the instructions were written in Swedish only.

I navigated by using Google Translate from Swedish to English, though I was not certain whether the translation was accurate. Towards the end of the online registration process at Arbetsförmedlingen, I was asked to book a mandatory interview by phone with Arbetsförmedlingen, which I complied with.

Yet, my first meeting with Arbetsförmedlingen turned out to be a failure, which irritated both me and the Arbetsförmedlingen officers.

The phone meeting abruptly ended just after a few minutes instead of a 30-minute interview as proposed. The first officer I met on phone only spoke Swedish. When I told him that I could not speak Swedish, he passed the phone to another officer who spoke English but demanded that I must speak Swedish to him. It was obvious that he could speak English but he refused to continue speaking English to me, putting me at a disadvantage.

He asked me (in English): “How long have you been living in Sweden?” I tried to explain to him that I was very keen on learning Swedish but I had not had any sufficient time and resources due to the nature of my over-stressful PhD work, which was conducted entirely in English. But the Arbetsförmedlingen officer did not seem to understand or did not want to understand, and he blamed me personally:

“It's your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he said.

I proposed that we could hold our conversation in English since he was capable of speaking English. To my surprise, he said (in English), “No, I don't understand your English. I don't speak English. You must speak Swedish. Because you don't speak Swedish, we need an authorised translator of your mother tongue.”

Then he insisted (in English) that he would book another meeting with an authorised translator of my mother tongue. I was required to speak either Swedish or my mother tongue despite the fact that my mother tongue has not been a part of my work life, daily life, and family life for over ten years – since I have been living in English-speaking countries, working in Sweden, and am married to an English-speaking partner.

This bureaucracy, this inflexibility, and insufficiency of public administration, together with its hostility against non-Swedish speakers, shocks me. In a country like Sweden where English is widely spoken, why is it so difficult to accept English as a second working language?

Seen from the cost-and-effect calculation, it is obvious that it would be more costly for the government to hire authorised translators for some far-away mother tongue languages of those who already live in English-speaking countries, obtain a Swedish PhD degree, and speak English.

If language is simply a means of communication between the government and its citizens, could it be wiser to accept English as a second official means of communication and administration so that administrative tasks could run smoothly? In terms of administrative efficiency, could it be more reasonable to accept English when the country at the current moment cannot even provide enough resources for Swedish learning?

At my workplace, for instance, there are also very limited resources and incentives for international researchers to learn Swedish (for instance, we do not get employment prolongation to learn Swedish while all the tasks carried out in English already occupy more than our full-time working hours).

Is the systematic demand on Swedish speaking while not providing enough support and resources an administrative strategy to drive out high-skilled foreigners who do not speak Swedish for some reason?

The conservative, neoliberal, nationalist and xenophobic mindset “In Sweden, we speak Swedish” and threatening proposals from opposition politicians to cut funding and restrict the rights to interpreters do not solve the Swedish problems at their root. The only thing they succeed in is creating a public fear of attack from foreigners and foreign languages, including English.

This reader's story was written by a former PhD researcher in Uppsala currently a permanent resident of Sweden, whose identity is known to The Local but who wished to remain anonymous. Do you have a story you would like to share with The Local about the highs and lows of life in Sweden? Email [email protected]
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