The Swedish government on October 29th launched an inquiry with the aim of introducing new legislation that would make it compulsory for would-be citizens to pass a language and civics test. Here's what The Local's readers told us in July when we wrote about potential plans to do so:
When we surveyed a group of readers, there was a fairly even split, although slightly more were in favour of introducing a language test for both citizenship and permanent residence than were against.
Currently, and unlike many of its European neighbours, Sweden has no language or civics tests for people applying for citizenship. Instead, citizens need to have met criteria including living in Sweden legally for a certain length of time (which is reduced for those in a relationship with a Swedish citizen), and having “conducted oneself well in Sweden”, which means that a criminal record or unpaid debts can affect applications.
The majority of the readers who responded to our survey felt that a language test would be a good step, with many highlighting the individual responsibility to adapt to Swedish society.
“If one decides to move to a new country, one has the civil obligation to integrate to their new society and that includes learning the local language,” said Priscilla Silva, a Spanish- and English-speaker currently learning Swedish. “This is a process that will take several months or even years, but it’s not impossible if one really puts effort into it.”
If people intend to live in Sweden permanently without speaking the language, “parallel societies will always exist, hence breaking the cohesion of the Swedish society”, Gustavo Oliviera said.
Meanwhile, several respondents said they approved of making Swedish language skills a requirement for citizenship, but not for permanent residence.
Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se
“Language skills [for permanent residents] should not be made compulsory as a highly skilled person with a job is contributing a lot and might not have much time to focus on language,” said Ahmed Hafeez. He also suggested that companies which hire international workers could be obligated to offer Swedish courses at work for their foreign employees.
Another issue raised by readers was that many foreigners have their temporary permit extensions rejected, meaning it can be hard to plan for a long-term future in Sweden before receiving permanent residence.
“Honestly, why should I invest my time and effort to learn a small language when there is no guarantee that I can stay permanently in Sweden?” one reader asked.
Long distance learning and improvements to SFI
Given that most people agree the language is a key component of integration, how could Sweden better encourage and assist immigrants in language-learning?
Some said the country did enough already, by offering free Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) classes to new arrivals, as well as language cafes hosted in many libraries and community centres and tech solutions such as the partly state-subsidized app SVT Språkplay.
But many called for improvements to the system, with repeated criticisms of varied standards of teaching in SFI (something that teachers themselves have also called attention to), long waiting lists (of around six months in some cities) to join a course and sometimes inconvenient times or locations.
“Most learning facilities are not available for coordination number holders, and because of this international people have to wait for two to three years to fulfil the requirement to take a language class,” said Kamran Haider.
According to Swedish law anyone who has the right to reside in Sweden is entitled to sign up for SFI. However, many official SFI websites incorrectly state a personal number is always required, something that many of The Local's readers had been told too. When we put this to the test in our personal number investigation in 2018, we received different answers from different municipalities about the requirements for SFI, so more clarity is evidently needed.
Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
Other respondents suggested that added flexibility, such as introducing online or distance courses, would lead to an increased uptake and would make the classes more accessible to groups such as new parents or people on irregular work schedules.
“Improve SFI, or create classes for parents in the schools that their kids go to. This would solve problems like time management and help local people get to know each other,” said Evangelia Gogou. “Improve the online platforms too.”
And for some foreign citizens, the main difficulty in learning Swedish is a cultural question rather than just a practical one.
In answer to the question of how Sweden could best encourage newcomers to learn the language, Andrew Pell responded: “More interest on the part of members of the community in mixing with new residents.”
But others argued that Sweden should accept that not all foreigners need to learn the native language, and said the country should instead work on the status of English as a second language.
“I think English should be accepted as a formal second language (which it already is in practice),” said Mark Smit, who speaks five languages.
“Sweden is a modern country and I think it should slowly move further in the direction of accepting English as an education and business language. English already is the world language, already is used by banks and government services like Skatteverket. Learning English is more useful for people’s futures and freedoms than learning Swedish.”
This view was shared by Suzanne Samuels, who pointed out: “Nearly 90 percent of the population speaks English, many university courses are taught in English, and companies need to work in English to attract international talent and compete on the world stage. So why not make English a second official language here?”
And another international resident, Mia Nguyen, shared her perspective from her experiences living in Asia: “In Vietnam, English is now being invested at the governmental level to become a bilateral official language. Vietnamese children at the age of one or two years old are nowadays already learning English. And in Singapore, English has become an official language although most of Singaporean citizens are non-native English speakers. But it seems Sweden is going the opposite way; a conservative and backward trend.”
Overall, most of the respondents cautioned against a one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to citizenship requirements. Several readers said that if changes were made to how citizenship is granted, it would be best to weigh different factors on a case-by-case basis, taking into account whether the individual had personal relationships or a job in Sweden.
“Is it good if everybody living in Sweden can speak and understand Swedish to some degree? Yes. But there is a huge number of aspects to a person's contribution to a country – financially, socially, culturally – of which language is only one. Using language skills as the main yardstick for an immigrant's societal contribution has no real positive effect, and risks ignoring everything else people from abroad bring to life in Sweden,” said Jack Barrington.
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.