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Reader’s view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?

A reader of The Local shares her story of trying to enter the Swedish job market after completing her doctoral studies.

Reader's view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?
File photo of two women, not related to the article, having a conversation. Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels

Under the Swedish public eye, those put into the category of “undesirable” or “wrong-typed” migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees, and unskilled workers from poorer countries in the global South have often become the target of heated debates on governmental spending, neoliberalised administration, and moral public sentiments.

Yet, another group of migrants, those seen as a more “right” type of migrants that Sweden wants to attract – the high-skilled international researchers – remains invisible and overlooked while this group continues facing everyday exclusionary barriers and bureaucratic administrative obstacles.

In addition to the Swedish linguistic barrier that excludes foreign academics in their everyday workplace at Swedish universities, it appears as though the whole Swedish administrative system is not welcoming any foreigner, including high-skilled foreign academics, despite the government's avowed promises of hospitality.

My recent experience could be seen as an example of this bureaucratic and xenophobic logic of the New Public Management in Sweden – in which I believe that many other international researchers could have shared a similar experience.

My employment contract as a doctoral candidate at a Swedish university ended in June 2020. I was told by my union that it was imperative to register my unemployment at the Swedish Employment Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, which I did. Yet, the whole registration process has alienated me, a non-Swedish speaker, because all the instructions were written in Swedish only.

I navigated by using Google Translate from Swedish to English, though I was not certain whether the translation was accurate. Towards the end of the online registration process at Arbetsförmedlingen, I was asked to book a mandatory interview by phone with Arbetsförmedlingen, which I complied with.

Yet, my first meeting with Arbetsförmedlingen turned out to be a failure, which irritated both me and the Arbetsförmedlingen officers.

The phone meeting abruptly ended just after a few minutes instead of a 30-minute interview as proposed. The first officer I met on phone only spoke Swedish. When I told him that I could not speak Swedish, he passed the phone to another officer who spoke English but demanded that I must speak Swedish to him. It was obvious that he could speak English but he refused to continue speaking English to me, putting me at a disadvantage.

He asked me (in English): “How long have you been living in Sweden?” I tried to explain to him that I was very keen on learning Swedish but I had not had any sufficient time and resources due to the nature of my over-stressful PhD work, which was conducted entirely in English. But the Arbetsförmedlingen officer did not seem to understand or did not want to understand, and he blamed me personally:

“It's your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he said.

I proposed that we could hold our conversation in English since he was capable of speaking English. To my surprise, he said (in English), “No, I don't understand your English. I don't speak English. You must speak Swedish. Because you don't speak Swedish, we need an authorised translator of your mother tongue.”

Then he insisted (in English) that he would book another meeting with an authorised translator of my mother tongue. I was required to speak either Swedish or my mother tongue despite the fact that my mother tongue has not been a part of my work life, daily life, and family life for over ten years – since I have been living in English-speaking countries, working in Sweden, and am married to an English-speaking partner.

This bureaucracy, this inflexibility, and insufficiency of public administration, together with its hostility against non-Swedish speakers, shocks me. In a country like Sweden where English is widely spoken, why is it so difficult to accept English as a second working language?

Seen from the cost-and-effect calculation, it is obvious that it would be more costly for the government to hire authorised translators for some far-away mother tongue languages of those who already live in English-speaking countries, obtain a Swedish PhD degree, and speak English.

If language is simply a means of communication between the government and its citizens, could it be wiser to accept English as a second official means of communication and administration so that administrative tasks could run smoothly? In terms of administrative efficiency, could it be more reasonable to accept English when the country at the current moment cannot even provide enough resources for Swedish learning?

At my workplace, for instance, there are also very limited resources and incentives for international researchers to learn Swedish (for instance, we do not get employment prolongation to learn Swedish while all the tasks carried out in English already occupy more than our full-time working hours).

Is the systematic demand on Swedish speaking while not providing enough support and resources an administrative strategy to drive out high-skilled foreigners who do not speak Swedish for some reason?

The conservative, neoliberal, nationalist and xenophobic mindset “In Sweden, we speak Swedish” and threatening proposals from opposition politicians to cut funding and restrict the rights to interpreters do not solve the Swedish problems at their root. The only thing they succeed in is creating a public fear of attack from foreigners and foreign languages, including English.

This reader's story was written by a former PhD researcher in Uppsala currently a permanent resident of Sweden, whose identity is known to The Local but who wished to remain anonymous. Do you have a story you would like to share with The Local about the highs and lows of life in Sweden? Email [email protected]

Member comments

  1. I can relate to this very much. Came here as a researcher and communicated only in English up until my contract ended. When I registered at arbetsförmedlingen I also had to do everything in Swedish. Being a German native helped a lot in quickly picking up the language but it usually takes years and hence is super difficult for foreign academics who suddenly have to learn it after they didn’t have to or simply couldn’t from the beginning.

  2. Hey,
    Comme on,with all due respect: planning to study/stay in a foreign country (here Sweden) and not reserving time to attend SFI or any classes for Swedish before coming to a country. There are plenty of online programmes.

    It is all a give and a take, but it starts with a give… and not with take.

    Didn’t you have social contacts or any contact with Swedish poeple during your stay?

    It is a matter of respect and politeness towards the hostcountry to show some effort and not trying to find excuses.

    I am German and I had contact with quite a number of officials and had good experiences. And certainly, my Swedish is far from being perfect.

    During my career as HR officer for international companies, we had a number of expatriates from all countries, but all had to attend before or during employment language courses.
    Sorry, this has nothing to do with Xenophobia, but more with disrespect towards a hostcountry.

  3. I totally agree with “ It is a matter of respect and politeness towards the hostcountry to show some effort” to learn the language. I would like to ask the anonymous author of the article if his/her home country would provide the level of resources he or she is demanding from Sweden to foreigners?

  4. Usually, I do not leave comments but the comments from Tanja and Carolina have made me irritated. In general, I think that people should learn the country’s language if they see it as their home country in the long run and want to understand the culture and the system, in the end it is easier to survive. I speak fluent Swedish and I have been leaving in Sweden for very long time. But people are different, and not all foreigners intend to stay in Sweden forever. It is pretty big time investment to learn a foreign language (especially a language that you cannot speak somewhere else) if you do not intend to use it in the future. It has nothing to do with respect and politeness towards Sweden. And the author does not demand any resources from Sweden (that Carolina mentioned). She got her PhD salary and paid the income tax to the state, she also paid A-kassa fees. She has the right to be registered in Arbetsförmedlingen and to get A-kassa exactly as other people in Sweden. She does not require any special treatment to her as a foreigner. But against her will she gets this special treatment because the officer in Arbetsförmedlingen that obviously speaks English wants to mess with her. There is no law in Sweden (at least for today) that says that a foreigner has an obligation to learn Swedish. I am not discussing now whether the absence of such law is right or wrong. The fact is that it does not exist. That means that when the officer working in the authority says “It’s your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he makes the professional misconduct (so called tjänstefel in Swedish). He has the right to involve an authorized translator but he absolutely does not have any right to express his personal opinions about her language responsibilities as she does not have this responsibility from the legal point of view. There is no reason to explain to any authority why you could not learn Swedish. My advice to the author is to escalate this case to the officer’s manager first and then to make so-called JO-anmälan (and my advice for the future – record all these conversations, it is a useful thing, otherwise it is hard to prove it). Next time this guy will think twice before he starts to exercise his power (which he does not have). As they say in Swedish: rätt ska vara rätt :)))

  5. Dear Alexandra,
    You maybe right in some aspects, but “a permanent resident” is the key word in this story and not a “visitor or guest”

  6. Tanja, then it should be stated in the law that a permanent resident must speak Swedish before an authority requires it from someone. There is a hot debate about it the parliament and steps towards it. But as long as the law is not implemented, the authorities (and not only authorities) do not have any right to say that it is the responsibility to learn Swedish.

  7. Alexandra,
    I agree in tgis instance.
    My main point was the geberal attitude towards a hostcountry (due to my experiences from Germany)
    Thank you for this interesting debate.

  8. Regardless of how rude this particular officer has been to this particular person, requiring that English becomes an official second language goes much further than “he can obviously speak English”. Speaking English fluently for everyday conversation is very different from speaking English fluently with the administrative vocabulary required when dealing with administrative purposes. I speak English fluently and English is now my everyday language, but I have a hard time dealing with many administrative specific vocabularies in English-speaking countries without the help of a dictionary. Requiring that English becomes a second language means that these people working in administration (and all others working in governmental institutions) will need to be trained for it. From the word of the author, the first officer obviously did not speak English. He would probably lose his job. And are you 100% sure you could deal with this type of vocabulary yourself? Have a look at tax returns and administrative documents from English-speaking countries first, just to be sure. Good for you if you are. But many others (me including) might not be.

    In addition, it’s not as if there was no solution other than learning Swedish. Obviously it is possible to get a translator which, if I understood well, would not even have to be paid by the author. Yes, it’s an inconvenience for the author, but let’s be honest: a minor one.

    Once again, this does not excuse the rudeness of the officer. However, I have visited and had interaction with several European non-nordic countries. And Sweden is by far the easiest to navigate in without speaking the language. And once again, let’s acknowledge the fact that requiring a whole new official language from the country goes far far beyond “he is speaking English to me, almost everyone can speak English”.

  9. Thanks Alexandra for your understanding, which I really appreciate. I’m the author of the article. As I’ve mentioned in my article, it is not always easy for non-Swedish researchers to devote their time and energy to learn the Swedish language (e.g. my employment contract is time-limited whereas the demand to meet all the academic deadlines are very tough; we don’t have any work prolongation if spending time to learn the language, etc). This linguistic issue has also been raised by SULF Before I signed the employment contract, there was no requirement that I had to master the Swedish language within my PhD period, and the academic committees who recruited me ensured that they would provide an English environment. They do understand that learning Swedish takes time and that I’m here for a PhD research. Honestly, if I came here not for doing my PhD, I would have no choice except spending a couple of years learning Swedish on my own cost.

  10. Dear Tanja,
    Yes, I’ve got a permanent residence permit due to a five-year employment at a Swedish university. I came here to work, paid taxes, contributed my knowledge and research to the Swedish academia. If you like to talk in an economic logic of giving and taking, this is already a win-win game. I have given my labor, my time, my knowledge, my skills to contribute to Sweden, to enrich the Swedish research community. Isn’t that giving enough? I have no debt to pay back to Sweden because this country has already benefited from high-skilled workers like me. So, why using the discourse of the “host” country and the “guest” here while at the same you contradict yourself by stating the fact that I’m a permanent resident? As I realize that you come from Germany, so let me tell you: My permanent residence permit is not a lifetime permit to stay here because it can be taken back from me if I move away from Sweden for more than 2 years. Also, having a permanent residence permits doesn’t mean that I’m giving a commitment to spend all my life in Sweden. Yes, I’m currently looking for a postdoc in Sweden, but I’m also ready to leave the country for good if I find another academic post elsewhere.

  11. Tanja,

    Please consider the difference between acceptance of a German vs. acceptance of an American.
    I had a German coworker who was treated far more kindly than I and received all the education we both needed – and she received it in English. I was excluded from the same education.
    I no longer work there – my choice.
    I sincerely hope my experience is rare.
    Respectfully –

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For members


OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.


Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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