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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