Reader voices: Should foreigners in Sweden have the right to interpreters?

Sweden's main opposition party has proposed introducing a limit on state-subsidized interpreters, meaning permanent residents would no longer have the right to the service. But how effective is the interpreting service in its current form, and what do internationals in Sweden think of the proposal?

Reader voices: Should foreigners in Sweden have the right to interpreters?
An interview at the Swedish Migration Agency, one of the locations where interpreters are offered. Photo: Marcus Ericsson / TT

Swedish state authorities, healthcare providers and other public bodies are currently legally obliged to hire a qualified interpreter when needed, to ensure non-native Swedish speakers can access the services they are entitled to. 

READ ALSO: Swedish opposition leader calls for limited right to interpreters

'Just a formality'

When The Local asked our readers about their own experiences and opinions on the interpreter guarantee, several said they had used interpreters and benefited from them. One resident who speaks four languages but not Swedish said the interpreter at the Swedish Public Employment Agency “provided me more help than the agent herself.”

However, other respondents said that when they had requested an interpreter, it had not been possible to find one who spoke their language.

“My wife has used interpreters three times but been denied ,or rather told there is none for her languag,e the majority of times,” said David Stenström. This led to him acting as the interpreter on two occasions, but he noted he did not know the specific medical terms.

“If the interpreter guarantee really worked she might have felt some form of autonomy and independence. But now she always has to rely on me for clarification which in some cases is not optimal,” he noted.

Sweden faces another summer of hospital bed shortages: here are the worst-hit regions
Photo: Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

And other internationals in Sweden had found that having an interpreter was unnecessary given their own English skills and those of the people they were dealing with. One reader said of his own experience: “I didn’t need it really but it was a required formality.”

In particular, this appeared to be an issue facing non-native English speakers who nevertheless spoke English to a high level, since native English speakers reported that they had been able to receive service in English at the doctor's office, hospital, and at government agencies.

“I had to visit the doctor and even though I explained that I don't need an interpreter if the doctor speaks English, they insisted to have one and I had to wait two more weeks for my appointment for that,” said native Greek speaker Evangelia Gogou, who also speaks English and French. “At the end the interpreter was on an open speaker phone and we ended up all three of us speaking very good English.”


'Even Swedes can't understand some terminology'

Gogou was one of several respondents who were comfortable in Swedish and/or English but was strongly in favour of having interpreters available for non-Swedish speakers. Even with advanced Swedish skills, an interpreter can be crucial in assisting with technical terminology, especially when it comes to legal issues and bureaucracy.

“I’ve met a lot of Swedes who can’t even understand some of the documents I’ve been faced with from insurance companies, the Public Employment Agency, the Swedish Companies Registration Office and so on, so how is a non-native speaker able to understand in just a few years?” asked Melanie Aronson.

A Swedish courtroom. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

Beth Dacey, a fluent Swedish speaker who works as a translator, says she would still be “lost” if she were suddenly a defendant in a legal case due to the terminology and unfamiliar legal system, and added that newer arrivals were particularly vulnerable since their personal networks would be based overseas. 

It was a view shared by Thomas Overfield, who said: “Restricting those who have a right to government services/process by taking away the right to understand what they are facing is reprehensible. The grey areas of the law and government are hard for new speakers of a language to understand or intuit subtle meaning.”

'Anxiety can be a deterrent to healthcare'

English speaker J Wyatt said that despite studying Swedish at SFI, he still needed assistance when he received medical help. “Having been hospitalized twice recently my quite reasonable Swedish was in no way adequate enough to understand the consequences of my illness and the decisions on treatment I had to make,” he said.

And Lena Farhan, who spoke six languages including Swedish, said her experiences as a medical student had highlighted the importance of accessibility.

“I know that often patients don't like going to healthcare appointments. If the anxiety of a language barrier acts as an extra deterrent, then I would rather they came with an interpreter,” she said. “This could be even more problematic with 'non-urgent' appointments like cervical smears, which already get a poor turnout among the native population. Health always comes first.”

But she added: “As a patient, you only need to know layman's terms, and my job is to relay any information as simply as possible to you so that you will understand it, without complicated medical jargon.”

Reader Pontus Hagland pointed out that the availability of interpreters wasn't just a way to assist new arrivals in the country, but also ensured that correct processes could be followed and potentially costly or dangerous mistakes avoided. 

“The interpreters are not just there for the client but to make it easier for the agent” he said. He added: “Sweden never was [only] about Swedish. We've always had minority languages.”


Service in Swenglish

Many people pointed to the high status of the English language in Sweden, given that many Swedes speak it to a high level and information from authorities is often available in English. 

“I haven't used interpreters per se, but have received service in English at several places, which has always been a good experience,” said native English speaker Jack Barrington. 

Many others had had the same experience, using mainly English or 'Swenglish' when communicating with doctors and lawyers. While this meant that English speakers were often able to get by in their native language, it could put immigrants from non-English speaking countries at a disadvantage, for example if they spoke both English and Swedish to only a conversational level.

A common thread among the responses was an understanding that learning Swedish was a big part of integration, but recognition that the time this took would vary depending on individual circumstances, previous learning experiences, and the quality of Swedish language teaching. 

A health centre in Sweden. Photo: Kristin Lidell/

'A matter of integration'

Several readers supported the Moderate Party's idea of removing the right to interpreters from those who attain permanent residence. Permanent residence is available for most immigrants after five years with a residence permit if they supported themselves during that time, but EU citizens moving to Sweden to live with a Swedish family member can apply for permanent residence immediately.

“If residents are permanent, they should speak the local language. It´s a matter of integration. They should not have benefits over native Swedes,” said Gustavo Oliviera, who speaks Swedish as well as English and Portuguese.

Others suggested even stricter time limits, with Priscilla Silva saying interpreters should only be available for an immigrant's first two years in Sweden, after which they should bear the cost, and Caleb White saying the right to interpreters should be taken away after completion of SFI, the free language course available to most foreigners which provides basic Swedish knowledge.


'Look at the bigger picture'

Readers also raised the point that Sweden is currently suffering a worker shortage and many companies are actively recruiting from overseas, often stressing to applicants that knowledge of English is sufficient to get by in Swedish society.

“A lot of people coming to Sweden are being 'imported' due to lack of skilled workers in the country. If learning Swedish is a requisite to get your permanent residency, this should be totally announced before relocating to the country,” reader Joel stated. 

And Melanie Aronson pointed out that people who move to Sweden for work or other reasons might be contributing significantly to Sweden, but still need assistance in their native language when dealing with state authorities.

“Some of us had a choice to spend years learning perfect Swedish full-time, or to build companies or continue careers that benefited the state by providing more jobs and bringing new businesses and innovations to the country,” she said. “Why is being a good permanent resident just about your language skills? Can’t we look at the bigger picture and provide people basic rights to understand their healthcare, their taxes, their legal situations etc. whatever path they’ve taken.”

Thank you to everyone who responded to our survey. Although we weren't able to include all your comments, they all contributed to the article and helped us understand this issue better. 


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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.