Swede of the Week

The woman who wants Sweden’s bureaucracy to clean up its language

The woman who wants Sweden's bureaucracy to clean up its language
The Local catches up with Helena Englund Hjalmarsson, a language consultant and champion of the "plain language" movement, who shamed a government agency over its "incomprehensible" Swedish, making her our pick for Swede of the Week.

Englund Hjalmarsson found herself in the news this week after she reported the Swedish Patent and Registration Office (Patent- och registreringsverket, PRV) to the Parliamentary Ombudsmen (Justitieombudsmannen – JO) for sending her a letter that was clear as mud.

PRV’s linguistic butchering left was an affront to the 56-year-old Englund Hjalmarsson, who has worked as a trained language consultant for three decades.

“It’s our job to help public authorities make their texts understandable,” she tells The Local.

“That’s why we were so upset when we asked a public authority for a service and they came back with a letter that was impossible to understand.”

SEE ALSO: Swedes’ ten most common mistakes when speaking English

Despite the dust up over the letter from PRV, which came in response to an application to register the word Grammatikdagen (“Grammar Day”), Englund Hjalmarsson says that Sweden is considered a role model internationally when it comes to keeping bureaucratic gibberish to a minimum.

“Sweden is actually quite far along in terms of the infrastructure in place to help protect against authorities using language that is impossible to understand,” she explains, adding that she and her colleagues are often met with envious “oohs and aahs” from counterparts from other countries active in the “plain language” movement.

Englund Hjalmarsson cited Sweden’s 2009 language law, the existence of university-level programmes in language consulting, as well as the existence of an “official language cultivation body” – the Language Council of Sweden (Språkrådet).

“There are even five full-time language experts employed at the government offices whose task it is to review all new legislation,” she adds.

When asked which Swedish public agency was the best at avoiding “incomprehensible Swedish”, Englund Hjalmarsson is hesitant to single out any specific government body for praise or ridicule, although she admits that PRV was not among the best.

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“I think it’s important to differentiate between the agencies that have a lot of contact with citizens and those who communicate mostly with the government and other public authorities,” she says diplomatically.

“It’s also important to point out that, no matter how much work an agency does to avoid incomprehensible language, there will always be at least one poorly-written letter or some case officer who lets something pass that’s hard to understand.”

For non-Swedes struggling to learn the Swedish language and often feeling timid in the face of difficult communiqués from Swedish government agencies, Englund Hjalmarsson offers some hopeful advice.

“Don’t give up until you get information that you can understand. You should never accept information from a public authority in Sweden that you don’t understand,” she says.

SEE ALSO: 10 Swedish words you won’t find in English

“Sure, it may be because your Swedish isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be, but it could also simply be that the agency has put something out there that’s simply too convoluted.”

She theorizes that part of the challenge facing non-Swedes in their struggle to get Sweden’s weighty bureaucracy to work for them may stem from a difference in communications culture.

“At the end of the day, it’s the authority’s responsibly to make sure their communications are understood, not the individual,” she says.

“The Swedish approach is that the sender always has the responsibility for making sure they are understood.”

SEE ALSO: A list of The Local’s past Swedes of the Week

Editor’s Note: The Local’s Swede of the Week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

David Landes

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