Usually I’m the one critical of those who complain. That’s why I need to initially beg your pardon for this therapeutically cathartic article.
What is the big deal about learning Swedish before someone will hire you? Do I really need to speak Swedish to clean your toilet or shovel snow from your steps?
You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard someone say I need to speak Swedish because, “our clients only speak Swedish,” or, “there are safety issues you need to understand.”
I moved to Stockholm six months ago, and being a new immigrant I knew I would be starting from scratch. Hence the jobs I’ve been applying for are your typical manual labour: cleaning, dish washing, janitor-type work.
I calculated that since Stockholm is the capital of Scandinavia, and because every Swede I’ve ever met speaks better English than I do (and I’m from the US) that I could probably find a basic entry-level job and be able to get by with beginner Swedish vocabulary.
Not so. I was even passed over three times to dress and wave at people as a Christmas elf!
I’ll admit my CV probably isn’t in perfect Swedish or as articulate as I would like it to be. I only have a BA and it’s in the humanities field. But I’m a young man in my late 20s in good shape; can I at least do some labour jobs?
One of the best ways to learn a language is total immersion – exactly what I would get working here.
I’m waiting for my personal number to come in the mail (yes, it’s also taken six months to get this far, but that’s a different story), and unfortunately I’m not independently wealthy enough to continue with Swedish classes before hopefully finding a job.
Is it because Swedes are afraid their language will become a minority in their own country? That was my initial thought.
I read about the Million Homes (Miljonprogrammet) project Sweden started in the 1960s, and I can understand if Swedes aren’t accustomed to immigrants, at least compared with what I’m used to coming from the United States.
And I can see how these fears would be reinforced because from what I see Swedish is already a minority language in some of the districts around Stockholm.
Which brings up the second reason why Swedes might be so persistent in a Swedish-only policy: in the long-term people can integrate into Swedish society better if they speak Swedish.
I’ll concede I have to agree with that. And as I understand it, people can even receive a stipend while they attend government-sponsored Swedish courses.
Good, people in the Swedish government are thinking in the long-term.
This doesn’t help me though because I’m only here for a year, and I can imagine there are lots of other people who would also like to be working instead of waiting for their personal number and then going to classes for who knows how long before they can start searching for a job.
Especially with English-speakers. Our languages are already almost mutually intelligible.
Are there really so many Swedes that can’t give basic commands in English? “Wash this; put the trash here.”
I was once turned down for a job as a dishwasher because the boss was trying to encourage the three other Spanish dishwashers in the restaurant to speak more Swedish.
“That’s fine,” I said, I can also speak Spanish.
No, they wanted to encourage Swedish. It’s not even a major European language. I know Americans have a bad reputation for expecting everyone to speak English, but that’s not me. I can get by in several other major languages, but sorry, not Swedish.
At least I’m not living in Finland.
So for all the Swedish people who happen to read this, my message for you is this: it’s okay to hire someone who speaks English. You may even have a pleasant cultural exchange with someone from a different country.
Joe Beaumier came to Sweden to be with his partner while she studied. He is interested in immigration and history and enjoys living in new places.