Almedalen reflections: more English, please

With the 2012 installment of Almedalen having come and gone, correspondent and commentator David Linden reflects on what makes the event so Swedish and why having more in English might not be such a bad thing.

Trying to summarize an event as diverse as Almedalen isn’t easy.

One thing that’s striking, however, is how very truly Swedish it is.

There were very few seminars in English; in fact, the most international event was an advertisement for a film about Olof Palme with unseen footage of him being interviewed by legendary British journalist David Frost.

In the press room there was only one English speaking journalist from outside of Sweden to be found.

It turned out she was from the Spanish broadsheet El Pais.

She had not understood that you had to bring your own laptop and that’s understandable: all the instructions leading up to the event were in Swedish.

This is a stark contrast to the how press is managed for the Nobel Prize week in Stockholm, for example, where extensive efforts are made to cater to the foreign and English-language media.

But the El Pais journalist was not the only representative at Almedalen for international press. Reuters had two correspondents who attended Fredrik Reinfeldt’s speech in order to interview finance minister Anders Borg and Peter Norman who is minister for financial markets.

After they had their interviews they left, and they said that they would not have visited Visby were it not for the chance to conduct their interviews.

However, there were two more internationally oriented seminars worth noticing at Almedalen this year: one about US-Swedish trade relations and one organized by Linköping University on how to attract skilled foreigners to Sweden.

Both were important, but less well attended than, for example, a seminar about tackling youth crime in Södertälje.

This contrast in popularity serves as a telling example of the “Swedishness” of Almedalen.

The US-Swedish trade seminar focused on the upcoming US presidential election. Unfortunately, however, it was sorely lacking in analysis and instead felt more like a crash course about the basics of the United States and its political system.

Despite having a panel that included representatives of Volvo, Saab and the Swedish Chamber of Commerce, the audience heard more about how the US consists of several states and that each one has its own legislature, rather than nuanced viewpoints hinted at by the seminar’s title.

The moderator, Folke Rydén, a former Washington correspondent for Sveriges Television (SVT), did his best to analyze the election and what effect the results could have on Sweden.

Sadly the rest of the panel did not.

The Linköping University seminar was better, however, focusing on what needs to be done to ensure more Swedish universities can compete for students and talent with top universities in other countries.

Not surprisingly, one of the major topics of discussion was the importance of the ability to work in English.

We Swedes tend to be good at English but we do not master the language.

As a result, many English-speaking expats can live in a major Swedish city and be able to conduct their daily life without needing to master Swedish.

But Sweden is still sorely lacking in the wide availability of important services like banking that can be conducted in English, for example.

The lesson from the seminar was that Sweden is a globalized nation but we are still very much a nation state.

Hopefully, more time will be spent addressing this and similar issues at Almedalen in the future.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King’s College London who is serving as the acting political editor for Länstidningen in Södertälje for the summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @davidlinden1.

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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]